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.
Ask anyone who isn’t from Iowa one thing they know about it and they will likely mention potatoes (that’s Idaho), Slipknot, Ashton Kutcher, corn, or the 1989 American fantasy-drama sports film filmed there, Field of Dreams. If you have not seen Field Of Dreams, all you need to know is that Kevin Costner builds a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa cornfield in order to escape from financial ruin, inspiring the popular and irrevocably associated misquote: “If you build it, they will come.”
The phrase has since been etched into entrepreneurship fields and is now a clichéd mantra for start-ups. The idea, based on the law of attraction, is simple: people cannot possibly go to something that is not there—so go out and build something you love that other people will also love and enjoy—and your life, alongside your business, will flourish.
I grew up in fields not unlike the ones in Field of Dreams. I embody every Iowa cliché you can think of. I was raised on a farm in Waterville, IA, with a few hundred acres of corn and soybeans and gravel roads separating me from my next-door neighbors. Waterville is a micro village, hosting a population with a whopping 141 people (I am related to most of those 141 people.) For any education above 6th grade, you had to get a ride into “town.” The school bus had to drive me over 15 miles to attend the middle school and high school in Waukon, a much bigger town consisting of 3,733 people. Each morning the daily bus commute took over an hour—navigating dirt roads in the fall, gripping rocky ice paths in the winter. The long daily rides mimicked the utter loneliness of living in the most desolate area of flyover country. I was the first kid picked up in the morning and the last one to be dropped off at night. I had a lot of time to sit by myself in the backseat and read Robert Cormier books, and most importantly, to listen to music.
I became obsessed with music at a young age, and wanted as much as I could possibly hear. I scavenged to build my music collection. I ripped my older siblings CDs into my library. I had a friend whose parents’ enormous CD collection included every classic rock and pop record from every decade dating back to the 1960s; I borrowed and ripped all of those. By the time I really got into deep discographies of my favorite artists-- Nirvana, Notorious B.I.G., Oasis, and Brand New-- I was introduced to torrents and was then able to download any and every album I wanted. Always the contrarian, I owned a Zune 120 GB instead of an iPod. I needed every bit of that 30,000-song storage to hold my entire collection of songs. I had the music, but never had anyone outside a small group of friends to talk to about it. That was always the best part about music discovery to me, enjoying it with others. My best friend had an old blue Dodge Caravan that we all drove around on gravel roads after school let out. My friends let me control the music because they knew I had everything on my Zune. We screamed Ramones lyrics at the top of our lungs until our voices cracked. I was scared about what would happen after we all graduated from high school and separated. All but one of my friends went off together to attend Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, the other stayed back in Waukon. I left that sparse Iowa town after graduating and packed into a 19’x9 single dorm room for my first year at the University of Iowa in Iowa City without a single friend.
I decided to explore my new city. Of course, I hit up Pancheros to get a burrito. I didn’t have a fake ID so I didn’t dare test the bar scene; that was being heavily patrolled at a time when the school had just been named a top party school by the Princeton national rankings. I checked out the city public library, and from there I noticed there was a record store near campus. I’d never been to a record store. Like other small town kids in Iowa who moved to Iowa City to attend the University of Iowa, I didn’t really know what it meant to be a part of a music scene beyond just myself. It was called Record Collector.
I walked in still wearing my college orientation T-shirt with the matching drawstring backpack they gave out to the entire incoming freshman class. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb, with a gigantic arrow pointing at my forehead saying, “this kid’s NEW here!” I entered the store unsure whether I had traveled back in time, or if I had stumbled onto the set of a High Fidelity remake. There were CDs on the right as you walked in, both modern albums and older ones. Dozens of people were in there sifting through piles of albums, many still attaining their attic aroma. Couldn’t they just download all this stuff online, I thought to myself. I saw one of my favorite albums that year, Destroyer’s Kaputt, in vinyl form and had a revelation: they still actually make these things. I looked at the register with four people in line. Even crazier? People are buying these things.
Record Collector is an understated marvel from the outside, especially at night when the store’s bright neon sign lights up the sidewalk and the local concert posters on its window. The store’s feel inside and out is many ways is a microcosm of the city of Iowa City itself: a community of open-minded people looking for something different, looking for something more.
I came into the store wanting to see what was inside, and I left it with a used copy of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks with no turntable to play it on.
A man in an old greying t-shirt and glasses checked me out that day. Must have been in his 50s. He did not say anything about my purchase, but I remember trying to impress him by telling him I loved the Doors’ song that was playing on the store speakers. He had a reserved, introverted presence about him, but the way he composed himself, the way he talked about music with customers as I was flipping through used vinyl, was as though he had heard every album that had ever been recorded, including everything just released this month. I would very soon come to know thereafter that this man’s name was Kirk Walther, and he was the backbone of the Iowa City music scene.
In 1982, seven years before Field of Dreams and its business quotable graced the silver screen, Kirk Walther sold records from the back of a coworker’s comic book store in Iowa City, Iowa. Barfunkles was the name of the store, but it also had a separate sign outside that simply read, “record collector,” to let passersby know that in addition to comics, the store was also a friendly spot to buy and sell records.
From the tiny section of the comic book store, Walther moved into his own location and relocated multiple locations before settling onto 116 S. Linn St where it currently resides now as Record Collector.
Visiting bands played shows in town; Kirk stocked their records, he advertised the concerts on his store windows, attended their shows. In a digital age, the Record Collector was a place that music nerds could come together in person. The internet existed, but this was truly the place I had to check out to make sure I wasn’t missing out on anything, because Kirk always had the good stuff. He inspired people to buy music, play music, and love music.
Kirk did this, relatively unheralded, for 35 years, till he died earlier last year on a Sunday. When he started in the early ‘80s, there were plenty stores that sold music: Music Land, Sam Goody, Vibes, Real Records; among the many others in a crowded market. Record Collector outlasted them all and stands today as the only record store in Iowa City.
He may be gone but his influence reverberates through the sticky floors at a Tuesday night show at Gabe’s. His impact lives on in the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival that takes place in Iowa City every spring. The atmosphere in the college town I came to love and know, where I felt like I could talk and write about music so passionately to this day, was because of him. I brought friends to Record Collector. I waited in line with two dozen people on Record Store Day to get a re-released Joy Division EP. After going inside and shuffling through LPs next to someone you didn’t even know, there was always an unspoken bond between music lovers. When you left the store, whether you bought something or not, it was cathartic. It cannot be overstated the power of something physical, whether it’s the presence of a record store in your town or the ability to tangibly feel an album you’ve loved for years. Kirk made that experience possible for so many people.
Kirk Walther’s perseverance, his gall to stand tall amongst new invention: cassettes, CDs, peer-to-peer file sharing, streaming—Record Collector survived miraculously in a way you only see in movies. Iowa City’s musical David against a corporate Goliath. He built a record store and a music scene, and people came.
He worked the Monday before cancer took his life the following Sunday. His focused, entrepreneurial spirit might have kept him from doing so, but I hope that for a minute, even just a moment, he looked at everything he built and thought about all the good he inspired in the name of music and community—hopefully while Electric Ladyland played the background.
Up next, we travel to the best record store in Minnesota.
Keith Evanson is pitching on the block like Nolan Ryan as an Iowa-based freelancer. He's ranting and raving on Twitter.