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.
When I tell people I live in Charleston they usually light up with excitement about how much they love the beach and the low country charm of South Carolina. However, when I correct them that it’s actually Charleston, West Virginia, their enthusiasm converts to confusion, and often pity. Why would a young person want to attend graduate school in such a place — certainly it’s a prison sentence of sorts to live there. Surely West Virginia is filled with barefoot, edentulous, incestual, possibly meth-addicted hillbillies who are bound for destitution without the saving grace of coal mining and moonshine running, right? I mean, we’ve all heard the stereotypes and seen the television documentaries about the Hatfields & McCoys, so why would reality be any different? As far-fetched or hyperbolic as these responses may seem, they’re all genuine, actual inquiries I’ve unfortunately had to address in such conversations. So in case you haven’t heard yet, or actually experienced the splendor of the Mountain Mama for yourself, I’m here to inform and convince you that us West Virginians are doing more than OK, we’re thriving.
Now, if you’re willing to challenge yourself with a quick exercise, allow for a reset for what you should expect when crossing the state lines of the “wild and wonderful” state. Enter lush green rolling mountains and gushing white water rapids that inspired John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” — the official state song. Nestled among these hills and hollers is a populous consisting of a mix of professionals and blue collar workers like you’d find in many parts of rural America. A place with an unparalleled sense of statehood, where the secondary religion is Mountaineer football, a hard day’s labor still means something, and it’s so secure in its identity that it’s equally, if not more, proud than the other 49.
However, just like any other community, West Virginia, and Charleston, have their own problems. It’s an aging population with a dwindling number of young people, the downfall of the coal industry has left a void for employment, and the lack of known culture leaves outdoor recreation as the main source of tourism. So where is the solution to all of this? As with many great problems in life, the answer lies within. More specifically the answer lies within the walls of Elk City Records in Charleston, West Virginia, and everything that the store and its owner Phil Melick stand for.
As my aforementioned conversations alluded to, West Virginia doesn’t always seem to have the best of reputations, and Elk City, a small neighborhood within Charleston, was previously no different. A side of town once considered unsafe, unsavory, and riddled with empty storefronts, it was the kind of place you’d double check your car door is locked while driving through on the way to your elsewhere destination. Yet this is no longer the case after a couple years of grassroots efforts. Vacant historic buildings are steadily filling with restaurants, cutesy boutiques, trendy coffee shops, barber shops, and one Elk City Records, bringing much needed culture and economic growth to the area. Most of these businesses are locally owned, exhibiting steadfast West Virginians pulling themselves up by their own boot straps and creating opportunity where outsiders refused to look.
Elk City Records is no exception to this rule. It was opened by Melick in 2017 as the realization of a lifelong dream to own a record store combined with the desire to contribute to the revitalization efforts in a town that means so much to him. Walk into the doors of the 100-year-old building and you’ll immediately be greeted by Phil himself, and sometimes his resident canine greeting committee, in the fashion of true Appalachian hospitality. Take a few more steps in and you’ll likely be struck by the simple elegance of the structure itself: beautifully preserved exposed brick walls decorated sparsely, yet so thoughtfully as to allow the records themselves to shine. It’s far from your typical used record store polluted with cheap posters and dusty rock t-shirts, almost paralleling an art gallery with track lighting strategically strung above the record bins, and minimal distraction besides the rich warmth of Phil’s favorite jazz records spinning. The bins are filled with carefully curated collections ranging from the traditional bluegrass, folk, and country you’d expect of the region to the staples of rock, blues, pop, classical, and everything else under the sun, including an impressive selection of 78s.
And that regional sense of pride and industriousness we discussed earlier? Look no further than every single record on his shelves. Each has been meticulously cleaned by hand, cataloged, and preserved in plastic sleeves separating the album sleeve and the record itself as to minimize ring wear for even the most particular of collectors. Beyond the great condition of product that Phil offers is the kind of guarantee you likely won’t find elsewhere: He guarantees every single album that he sells. If there’s a skip or defect in any record you purchase from him, he’ll replace it without hesitation — a problem I have never encountered nor known anyone to, given his high threshold for quality.
Despite the high-end presentation and collector-quality preservation of Elk City Records, don’t anticipate for a second a stuffy or pretentious experience. It’s a true community hub with music enthusiasts young and old, newbies to the vinyl scene and hardcore hobbyists, and people from near and far all coming together and communing over their love for vinyl. If you time it right, you might even be fortunate enough to be in the shop on a day when Phil hosts a local band, helping to provide budding artists more exposure – the only time you will find anything besides a record filling the space with melodious tunes. He has truly developed a sense of culture within a town and group of people that are deeply starving for such, and it receives the ultimate buzzworthy local approval, widely labeled as “something you’d expect in a big city.”
Where can you browse Elk City Records’ selection online, you may wonder? Well, Phil refuses to sell online because he so strongly values the experience that is a record store, and would love to see his neighbors businesses equally patronized. So it sounds like you’ll have to broaden your horizons, kill stereotypes for yourself, and experience the world in your own backyard. Give Phil the opportunity to shine some light on an often overlooked record, much like he has done with this unnecessarily overlooked state.
Jeremy Hess is a medical professional living in Charleston, WV. In his spare time he enjoys hiking, golfing, and making his friends roll their eyes with his terrible puns. His favorite artists to enjoy on vinyl include: Tame Impala, The Lumineers, Waylon Jennings, and Catfish and the Bottlemen, to name a few.