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.
Growing up in Anacortes, Washington, there was always a feeling of isolation. The whole town is secluded on an island in the far northwest coast of Washington state. Everything felt surrounded by pine trees, and there was always some nature getaway nearby—some forest or beach to get lost in, places where you wouldn’t run into anyone else. There’s an element of social isolation, too, with a population of only 17,000, Anacortes has always been a popular town for retirement, meaning there weren’t many events or much catered to anyone below 30. The high school was small enough for everyone to know each other, but not small enough for people to know each other that well. There’s a handful of small local stores, an unusual amount of antique shops, a few restaurants, but any time you needed things like clothes or shoes, it meant a trip off the island to a bigger town. Impressively, though, you never needed to leave the island to pick up a new vinyl copy of that obscure album you’d been trying to get everyone to listen to.
Despite the quiet seclusion and retirement focus of the town, The Business has thrived as a record store in Anacortes for nearly 40 years. Originally opened in 1978, The Business was first a store for whatever odd things people couldn’t get elsewhere on the island, from photo development to bird seed. Bret Lunsford of Beat Happening was employed there, and began selling leftover tour merch, and once he took over the store himself, it became a record store. Since then, The Business has had a few different owners and hopped locations around the island, but it’s always been an independent beacon and devoted to the local area.
The store itself is small and in a modest spot downtown. Inside, you’ll find the small amount of space used as much as possible. Shelving is packed with carefully sorted vinyl records, as well as tapes, CDs, prints and other merch. Once you start cutting into the selection though is when you’ll first see what makes this store special. Within the shelves is an impressive catalog of independent artists and local musicians throughout a broad scope of genres. As a helpful guide, you’ll find stickers on records, with hand-made notes of similar artists to help you find someone new you’ve never heard of before. On top of that, the store’s owners are always there giving recommendations, pointing eager ears in the direction of exciting unheard of music. This is exactly what makes The Business stand out so much: the commitment to being a home base for the local and independent music scene.
It’s an unlikely and surprising anomaly, but Anacortes has managed to have a long and rich underground music scene. It’s easy to overlook; many of the people who live in Anacortes aren’t even aware of the independent music culture that surrounds them. Even I never knew about it almost the entire time I grew up in Anacortes. While it’s easy to characterize the sound of the town as a mixture of folk and indie rock, each artist finds their own way to experiment and shape their own sound. In a remote and solitary island like Anacortes, people’s unique sound and characteristics tend to shine. The most well-known artists from Anacortes are Phil Elverum of the Microphones and Mount Eerie, Karl Blau, and Bret Lunsford of Beat Happening (all three of whom, coincidentally, have at some point worked for The Business). But there’s no shortage of local artists. There’s always someone new starting up that everyone else is eager to help out. The secluded nature of the town means the artists stick together, forming a tangled web of collaborations, bands and side projects. Also, it means the supportive actions of a place like The Business make so much more of an impact and ripple out so much further.
In a small retirement town like Anacortes, just having a physical space like The Business for independent music goes a long way. Walking into the store was always a relief for me; the space acts as a stronghold or a refuge for everyone who’s a bit different. It’s a space to get away from the feeling of loneliness you can get, a home for those people. It might seem subtle, but it’s an impact that makes everyone feel involved and connected. The store, and the events it hosts, acts somewhat as a portal to the local underground scene that you may otherwise forget exists. It's a reminder that there’s a sprawling web of artists and musicians around the small isolated town, a web that extends out beyond the island, influencing others around the country. It’s not uncommon for impassioned music fans to make a pilgrimage to Anacortes, just for the music scene, and to stop by the little record store that a good chunk of the town’s population never thinks twice about.
Regularly, the shelves full of records are rolled off to the side to make space for live shows. On top of the live shows hosted inside the store and outside on the street, The Business also hosts an annual music festival, called “The Business Presents.” While you do get your indie darlings playing, such as Mount Eerie or Simon Scott of Slowdive, the most important part is the unknown artists getting a chance to make their music heard. The clumsy and fresh out of high school bands, or artists just figuring out how to tour. I have fond memories of my cousin's terrible band belting out to a proud audience of six inside the store. Giving a voice to those people, letting anyone be a part of the local music scene is really what independence and “sticking it to the man” is all about.
With as much as The Business has done to help such a seemingly impossible music scene flourish, what to me will always be the most important part is why. Growing up in the town, spending time flipping through endless exciting new sounds, it’s obvious to me that all the work and effort put into the store wasn’t done for profit, but done entirely out of passion and care for not just the local community of artists, but for the sake of art and expression itself.
Up next, we travel to a record store in Colorado.
Jack Garrett is a writer, musician, and artist from Seattle. He is perpetually worried about someone asking what kind of music he likes.