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.
Fargo-Moorhead wasn’t known for much in the mid-2000s. Aside from the movie (most of which doesn’t even take place in the city) and its inhumane climate (consistently topping “worst weather cities in America” lists), it was an otherwise unremarkable college town characterized by harsh winters and suffocating suburban sprawl. Uncoincidentally, the metro also boasts one of the nation’s highest binge drinking rates; like much of the upper Midwest, drowning restlessness with alcohol is a celebrated cultural norm. Make your own fun, or drink. Those are your options.
For youth from rural North Dakota and western Minnesota, though, the area is a creative hotspot. Its three four-year universities absorb artists and musicians from the surrounding area, fueling a small but vibrant creative community. Situated at the intersection of two interstates, four hours west of Minneapolis (and not much else), it’s also an ideal stop for touring bands. While no one would have mistaken it as a truly urbane destination, there was enough happening to attract bored kids looking for something better — without moving too far away.
Still, it was hard to avoid the sense that there were yet more and better opportunities elsewhere.
As a result, it has struggled to shake its reputation as somewhere to get your degree, and then either move or stay and slowly kill yourself on a barstool. That made sustaining underground rock and hip-hop scenes an uphill battle; bands would break up, turnouts for local shows were hit or miss, and consistently drawing meaningful touring acts was tough. Local skateboard shop DSK8 summed it up best with decks that said, “I Kinda Love Fargo, But I’m Moving Next Year.”
The potential for a more interesting future was always there, though. Several factors play into what cities can do to cultivate creative communities, but part of the equation rests on individuals building the things they want where they already live, instead of leaving for the Big City elsewhere. Orange Records founder Matt Oland, who moved to Fargo from Lidgerwood, North Dakota — population: 628 — fits that description. In 2007, with zero business or management experience, he opened what would become a staple in the community, and the best record store in the state.
“There was no one in town selling vinyl really anymore, other than antique shops, and Hot Topic had one little end cap for new vinyl,” Oland said, pricing used vinyl behind the counter while Meat Wave’s Delusion Moon blasted throughout the store. “That was my reason for thinking it might work to start a store that focused on records more than CDs.”
At the time, the vinyl record market was on the cusp of blowing up. In fact, the following year, they reached their highest sales levels since 1991, capitalizing on retro appeal and declining demand for CDs. While Fargo-Moorhead had several music stores, none emphasized vinyl. To make matters worse, Cheapo Discs, a regional chain, closed its Moorhead location. Another store, Discontent, scaled back its music selection to focus on clothing. Both cited slumping CD sales as the reason.
While those turns reflected national trends, they may have also reinforced the self-conscious notion that Fargo-Moorhead wasn’t big enough to support multiple music stores (as a case in point, Cheapo Discs’ Minneapolis location is still open today). With the decline of local options and the rise of vinyl’s popularity, however, Oland saw an opportunity to give the city something it was missing. On June 1, 2007, he signed the lease on the second space he was shown: a prime location on the corner of a busy downtown intersection. By July 23, he was open for business.
However, the space was available because downtown Fargo was struggling to keep its storefronts occupied. The area directly across the street was a closed-down diner and drive-in movie theater — an eyesore that reinforced the idea that nothing cool could last here. For Oland, it was perfect, located near a coffee shop that hosted all-ages shows called the Red Raven. That coffee shop’s space would later turn into a dedicated DIY venue called The New Direction, which ended an impressive six-year run in 2016 due to rising rent.
“It sucks now that The New Direction is gone,” Oland said. “That was one of the cooler things about being right here. Any time there were shows, kids would always come over and buy records between bands.”
Oland named the store after his volunteer radio show on local KRFF 95.9. The general appearance and layout inside Orange Records has changed little since then. New and used vinyl line bright orange walls along the left and right of a single narrow space, while areas near the front are reserved for local releases, books, posters and DVDs. Its high windows are covered in flyers for local shows and promotional posters for recently released records. All typical stuff for a record store.
In the early days, Oland put in 60- to 65-hour weeks while learning every aspect of running the store. He invested little in advertising, relying on handbills passed out at local businesses and a limited amount of local press coverage to promote the store. It may not have been the easiest approach, but it worked. In a short period of time, he built a steady clientele, and hired his first employee around a year and a half later (today, he has two clerks helping him run the business).
“If I could start over, or open the store right now knowing how to do everything, it would have went way smoother the first few years, for sure [laughs],” Oland said. “Just knowing what to order, and how to price out used records. That’s a learning curve.”
Today, the store serves a diverse customer base, from young punks to middle-aged parents. Browse through the store’s racks, and you’ll find a broad cross-section of classics and new releases, with an emphasis on independent labels. Sales between CDs and vinyl are around even, with more people looking for CDs since big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Best Buy have reduced inventory. Oland says metal, pop-punk indie rock and hip-hop (particularly releases on Minneapolis-based Rhymesayers) are now his top-selling genres.
The store also often draws vinyl shoppers passing through the city. That includes showgoers coming in from out of town to see concerts, and it’s a popular spot for touring musicians, too. Slug from Atmosphere, Laura Jane Grace and James Bowman from Against Me! and “a couple of the guys from Wilco” are among some of the store’s recent visitors, stopping into the store before playing downtown venues like The Sanctuary and The Aquarium. Twin Cities-based rapper P.O.S. even did a photoshoot in the store before a show.
“Usually I don’t bother people. I just let them shop,” Oland said. “But I got Slug from Atmosphere and Brian [Venable] from Lucero to do Radio Free Fargo liners while they were in here. So, after they pay for their stuff, I ask, ‘Hey, will you do a liner for our station quick?’ [laughs].”
Back when Orange Records first opened, there was some speculation that vinyl’s impending boom would have to bust. For what it’s worth, Wikipedia has pinpointed 2007 (the year the store opened) as a sort of turning point for vinyl’s ongoing resurgence (if “resurgence” is even the best word to use anymore — the format doesn’t appear to be going anywhere). Seeing the store’s ongoing success today makes that sound silly in retrospect, both in the sense that vinyl wouldn’t stick around, or that Fargo-Moorhead wouldn’t support it.
If anything, the opposite has been proven true, and Oland’s mission to open a new record store has been more than validated. More record stores, like Vinyl Giant, have opened, while the long-running Mother’s Music now stocks more vinyl. The Fargo Record Fair now packs crowds into an airplane museum hangar on the city’s northside every year, attracting hundreds of attendees. Demand has gotten hot enough that prices on used vinyl have gone up, making it a challenge to find classic vinyl, and keep it in stock.
“The good stuff usually sells within a week,” Oland said.
The area around Orange Records is unrecognizable from when the store first opened, and the city’s past inferiority complex has been (at least somewhat) replaced with a sense of confidence. The side of the street across from its front door is now lined with tech startups, hip restaurants and luxury apartments. The former location of the Red Raven and The New Direction is now an escape room (one of several to pop up in the city — when there’s something here people want, local entrepreneurs triple down on meeting demand). The store’s neighbors include a pet salon, tattoo parlor, vintage clothing store and a skate shop with a half-pipe in its basement.
It’s not exactly what most outsiders might expect from Fargo. Hell, it’s not what anyone who hasn’t been in town for a decade might expect, either. The forces of urban infill and gentrification have brought mixed blessings, transforming the streets around Oland’s store and pricing out some of the city’s creative class in the process. At the same time, it has also brought in more amenities that make Fargo appealing to young professionals — who also happen to buy records and go to shows. While urban development has been a double-edged sword for the city (the closure of the New Direction stands out as one prominent victim of gentrification that has hurt the local music scene), the number of high-profile touring acts playing downtown venues overall has increased, and so has the amount of local talent filling opening slots on those bills.
“I think it’s gotten a lot better,” Oland said. “I don’t know if that’s my perception or not, but I feel like there are a lot more bands than there were 10 years ago.”
Surrounded by change, Orange Records has mostly stayed the same. Oland’s commitment to stocking records people want, whether that means rap or classic rock, hasn’t wavered. Nor does his location appear in jeopardy of moving or shutting down. While downtown Fargo has gone from lacking personality to looking something like an actual city surrounding the store, Oland is humble about whatever contributions Orange Records has made to Fargo’s creative culture, and the community as a whole.
“I just feel lucky that it’s worked out and it’s still open,” Oland said. “I’m glad to get to come to work at a job that doesn’t suck.”
Up next, we travel to a record store in South Dakota.
Ben Sailer is a writer based in Fargo, ND. He survives on the frozen plains with a steady diet of beer and music.
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