The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
Crossing under the archway into the Federal Hill neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, transports you across the globe. Bakeries, pizzerias and pasta shops are bustling with shoppers procuring treats. Diners in an outdoor plaza let the sounds of live crooners with their 17-piece big bands waft over them while they eat. The center of the street has its white line sandwiched between a strip of red and green, a not-so-subtle nod to the Italian heritage. This neighborhood is a culinary and cultural destination for folks from all over New England. People flock here to sample the delicacies and experience a little taste of the old world. Federal Hill, along with the world-renowned restaurants, is becoming a mecca for artists and young professionals as well. Coffee shops, vegan restaurants and a revitalized concert venue have popped up. It has become the face for the city of Providence, the capital city of the smallest state in the union. This neighborhood, though, has another claim to fame: It was the home base for the New England Mafia.
In 1956, Raymond Patriarca took control of the New England crime family and ran his brutal operation from the aforementioned avenue. For decades, the Coin-O-Matic, a storefront that housed cigarette machines and arcade games, was the headquarters for all operations of organized crime in New England (including the Boston syndicate and Whitey Bulger). Bank robberies, international drug trafficking and murders could all be traced back to Federal Hill and Patriarca. Due to greased pockets and his many connections, Patriarca had law enforcement in his back pocket and was able to run his operation relatively unencumbered. This continued until his death in 1984.
Through mafia management changes and a series of police and FBI crackdowns, the organized crime stronghold that held the city in its grasp seems to have loosened. Mayor Buddy Cianci (who had his own ties to illegal activity) made it his mission to revitalize the community in the '90s. He spent Providence's budget, and then some, to transform it into an artist-friendly city. He installed art installations, opened parks and offered income and sales tax breaks to attract artists, tourism and businesses to the city. This, coupled with the desire of the residents to distance themselves from their crime-ridden history, has brought about a great metamorphosis in Providence.
In the center of the now-transformed Federal Hill sits the best record store in Rhode Island. Analog Underground has been a fixture in the Providence art scene since 2011, when Dave Lifrieri opened its doors. A great record shop does more than sell vinyl. It needs to be a place where folks can congregate, build community and share ideas. That is exactly what Analog Underground facilitates for the fraternity of artists that pass through its doors. There is something about this shop that promotes conversation. Complete strangers bond over vinyl selections, find common interests and sometimes collaborate on a project or become sounding boards for artistic ventures.
Lifrieri has curated this atmosphere by taking a bird’s eye view of his record store and its context within the community. He sees the bigger picture and has worked to help transform Providence into the welcoming artistic collaborative that it is. Outside of the four walls of the shop, Lifrieri is an active participant in the city’s reconstruction. He has worked with the city directly on a few projects as DJ Analog Underground. By becoming a regular feature around town, he has asserted himself as a proponent of positive advancement and thereby has passively promoted Analog Underground as a center of that change.
Burnside Park, which is situated in the center of downtown, historically doesn’t have a great reputation. Its rebranding has been a focus of the current administration, lead by Mayor Jorge Elorza. Food trucks are now a fixture, a state-of-the-art playground was recently constructed and outdoor events are being scheduled regularly. Concerts highlighting local bands are presented weekly throughout the warmer months of the year. An opening act for all these bands has been DJ Analog Underground. Lifrieri is there, week after week, warming up the crowd and piquing interest in everyone passing by. He is a familiar face to the series and brings continuity to the revitalization project. His sonic vibrations have also been a part of block parties and other concerts throughout Providence.
Inside the shop, the depth and variety of vinyl set Analog Underground apart from other stores. LPs from all over the world are represented. Deep cuts and everyday favorites are always in stock and the knowledge of staff and other shoppers is a huge draw. It is also a great place to discuss turntables, receivers and speakers. The full vinyl experience is considered. There is a deep appreciation for music and its delivery that can be felt as soon as you enter through the front door.
From the store itself, to what it means for the city of Providence at large, Analog Underground is at the forefront of a creative revolution. Though it is a small shop located in the smallest state, Analog Underground has created a huge cultural impact. It has been at the center of the transformation of a city.
Up next, we travel to Illinois.