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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.
If Texas knows anything, it’s how to sell its own bullshit. Effective marketing has rendered Texas the embodiment of rugged independence. The land where cowboys tamed the west and oil built a new economy — even though, in reality, most cowboys were Mexican or black ranchers more interested in selling cattle than fighting Native Americans and the oil boom mostly enriched ruthless industrialists while pillaging small landowners and the environment.
Look beyond marketing and it’s clear that Texas’ singularity needs no hype. Based on environment alone, there is nowhere else on the planet like it: dusty frontiers, rich farming valleys, scenic wetlands and woods, and sprawling urban centers all within one cozy 14-hour drive. This amalgamation extends to the state’s musical flavors. Austin is where under-the-radar rock becomes mainstream within a week. Houston transformed southern rap into a boomin’ chopped-and-screwed force. The Rio Grande Valley invented the conjunto sound, which begat Tejano music. And, of course, country-western, honky-tonk and Texas blues litter cities and rural areas all over the state.
San Antonio, on the other hand, exists mostly as a bystander to pop music history. Robert Johnson, king of the Delta blues, recorded half of his entire output at the downtown Gunter Hotel, but all that commemorates his considerable legacy is a three-foot-long display in its lobby. This is where country music progenitor Jimmie Rodgers hosted a weekly radio show, of which no copies exist. Randy’s Ballroom is the only venue in the world that’s hosted the Sex Pistols, U2, the Beastie Boys, Selena and Slipknot, but today mostly operates as a bingo hall. San Antonio is also the longtime home of the Tejano Music Awards, which has evolved into a yearly canonization of Lake Jackson’s Selena. This is a city that once enjoyed the title of “Heavy Metal Capital of the World,” yet hasn’t produced any new major label signees in over a decade.
That’s not to say that San Antonio lacks a distinctive culture. Young San Antonians strive to live life at its most puro — Spanish for “pure,” but colloquially meaning “authentic.” This extends to many minor, but important, signifiers: wearing the freshest Spurs gear during playoff season, sharing Instagram posts of outrageous food and behavior during the annual Fiesta festival, finding innovative ways to consume Hot Cheetos and Big Red soda, fighting to the death (online) when any city north of the 210 area code dares proclaim breakfast taco superiority.
San Antonio’s largely young and Latinx puro populace is representative of the changing face of Texas in general, with Hispanics set to become the state majority by 2022. But this fast-growing segment is forcibly inheriting the debts from decades of political neglect. Public education and social services survive on the thinnest margins, subjected to decades of state legislative budget cuts. San Antonio’s local economy remains vibrant, tracking statewide unemployment rates running below the national average, but housing is at a shortfall as prices continue to outpace incomes. Yet with Houston and Dallas long subsumed by urban sprawl, and Austin’s middle class being priced out by out-of-town technocrats, San Antonio still has the unfortunate distinction of being the most economically segregated city in the U.S. — the legacy of racist post-war housing policies — with its west side the most segregated area of all.
Within this statistical curiosity, you’ll find Janie’s Record Shop, situated in the middle of one of San Antonio’s busiest streets. We’re talking the type of road where cars whizz by at 70 miles an hour and median turning lanes are useless, so even getting to Janie’s is its own special adventure. Surrounding the store are ubiquitous west side small businesses — Tex-Mex restaurants, tire and auto repair shops, pawn shops and payday lenders and, of course, Catholic churches.
Walking into Janie’s Record Shop, you don’t so much absorb the atmosphere as the atmosphere absorbs you. Your senses are completely overwhelmed — whether by the dust emanating from the thousands of 45s in the center of the shop, or the sight of hundreds of posters and autographed pictures lining the wall, or the smell of popcorn radiating from the back of the shop, or the crude boom of the 50-year-old jukebox spinning soul and Tejano classics.
Janie’s mission is to bring together the popular sounds of south central Texas. The bins closest to the front door house classic country. Not a “Who’s Who” of first-name legends like Merle, Willie, Dolly, oh no. Janie’s audience wants the hits — Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty, Barbara Mandrell, regional star Johnny Rodriguez. From there, you’ll find modest rows filled with ranchera icons, cumbia and Tejano superstars, American rock and soul FM mainstays. It’s a living monument to an alternate Billboard sales universe where Vicente Fernandez and the Beach Boys never stopped topping the charts. Janie’s Record Shop exists not as a tastemaker, but as the curator of the favorite sounds of its neighborhood.
Its 91-year-old owner, Janie Esparza, has owned the shop since 1985. Her children now manage the shop’s operations and robust online sales, but Janie continues to serve behind the register, smiling and engaging with customers new and old. Photos of her with stars like Norteño crooner Ramon Ayala and Tejano queen Patsy Torres share space with headshots from dozens of would-be Tejano rising stars that have made the pilgrimage to honor Janie since the mid-’90s. Closest to the register, however, are plaques from local journalists, community artists, nonprofits and regional music associations — those who know what this store really means to this area.
Janie’s Record Shop serves a resilient community made up of hard-working, God-fearing people, mainly first- or second-generation immigrants. Many older residents embrace the promise and opportunity of America while idealizing their ancestral homeland. Their children and grandchildren, by contrast, are for the most part proud of their heritage, but otherwise unabashedly American. Los Tigres del Norte’s “La Jaula de Oro” distilled this generational conflict over 30 years ago, which plays out every week at Janie’s.
Over the years, Janie and her staff have tried new techniques to foster love of its old inventory for a younger generation. On any given weekend, you’ll see kids fumbling with the old jukebox and eating popcorn, teenagers learning how to play an instrument, or college students spinning forgotten Chicano soul cuts. Old heads share stories about defunct local record labels like Dina, Key-Loc’ and Real Records while perusing 45s. A few younger patrons pop in trying to connect the dots from Sunny and the Sunliners and Selena to Cuco and Cardi B. Janie’s family knows that its core audience is aging, but the shop has to adapt because it feels a duty to the next generation of the neighborhood.
Ultimately, it’s this reverence for community that’s emblematic of San Antonio as a whole: always striving to move forward while honoring the past. You can see it in the buildings downtown — mostly eschewing modern design for historical preservation. You can see it in the arguments about 20-year-old Spurs games in barbershops and taquerias. And you can see it in the city’s blend of Mexican traditions and modern American flamboyance — the distillation of puro. San Antonio is often referred to as a small town with big city problems, usually a backhanded compliment inferring that its culture lacks the cosmopolitan feel of Austin, Dallas and Houston. Maybe there’s some truth to that — then again, it might just be more Texas bullshit.
Andrew Casillas is an attorney born and raised in San Antonio. A former contributor for Club Fonograma and Stylus Magazine, today you can find him writing about Latin music for Rolling Stone and on Twitter @PincheAndrew. Go Spurs Go.