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.
In 2000, The Record Exchange was a pit stop for the Smashing Pumpkins on its Machina: The Machines of God tour. Tim Johnstone, who worked at the store at the time, remembered hustling to meet the demands of the show, at one point enlisting the Boise State University Broncos football team to move tens of thousands of records and shelving to make room for the stage and fans, and installing a privacy curtain between the green room and the bathroom.
“[Smashing Pumpkins frontman] Billy [Corgan] doesn’t want to be seen because nobody poops,” Johnstone said in 2019 at a Treefort Music Fest storytelling event. “At the end of the night, it wasn’t worth it, but it was cool.”
“The RX” regularly throws in-store shows, but the Pumpkins’ performance stands out as one of the most memorable, notorious among the RX staff who worked it and famous for the Boiseans who got to see it. At the new millennium, Boise straddled the line between being a cow town and a city. Just a few blocks away was the “Boise Hole” — a two-story deep pit that had stymied developers for decades and a missing front tooth in Boise’s skyline — but there were also the amenities that would land the City of Trees on top-10 livability rankings lists: the scenic Foothills and Boise River, easy access to four-season recreation, affordable housing and a few reasons to hang out downtown.
Foremost among them was, and still is, The RX. Its gargantuan stockpile of records and CDs, gift shop and cafe had been out-urban-ing its urb since 1977. It has been a tentpole of local commerce and the hand pulling the pin from the grenade of the music scene.
The history of The RX is the history of downtown Boise as it stands today, and the store has met every challenge. When it opened at its current location, city leaders wanted to demolish historic buildings in the heart of town to make way for a regional mall. It’s a bit of local legend that the turn-of-the-century movie palace The Egyptian Theatre was spared from destruction by protests from the wives of those same city leaders. Speaking about that ill-fated era of urban renewal, Michael Bunnell, who co-owns The RX with his wife Jil Sevy, would later tell the local alternative newspaper, Boise Weekly, “You could shoot cannonballs down the street. It was grim.”
Other hard times would follow: the rise of CDs and online music; and, of course, the Great Recession, which cratered Boise with empty storefronts. Record stores around the country began to close, and Boise’s began to feel the pressure, but a stroke of creativity helped it go on the offensive.
“Record Store Day started in 2008 when the music business was at a low ebb. Illegal downloading and the economic downturn had laid waste to a thriving hard-goods industry. Over a thousand record stores had gone out of business. It was looking really bad for the future of the music retailer. The press had also decided we were irrelevant and had officially driven the first nails in our coffins,” wrote Bunnell in an email. “I am the executive director of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores, one of the three coalitions that now manages Record Store Day, and together with the other two independent coalitions, we decided it was time for some good news from the survivors.”
Record Store Day celebrates indie record stores with live in-store performances, food and vendor pop-ups and exclusive vinyl releases. Beyond the schedule of performances, and crates of Record Store Day music and swag, The RX marked the 12th year of the event in 2019 with a special “Damn the Man” beer release and screening of Empire Records with local brewery Woodland Empire Ale Craft.
Record Store Day coincided with a broader movement nationally and in Boise of retailers appealing to customers with the intangible joys of shopping downtown. Shortly after the founding of Record Store Day, indie booksellers riffed on the concept with Independent Bookstore Day, thrown in Boise by Rediscovered Books, and The RX has long been a partner with the Downtown Boise Association, though in recent years it has scaled back its involvement in some of the association’s activities, like its involvement in Alive After Five, a weekly free concert series held downtown during the summer.
Boise is the center of Idaho’s cultural gravity, but The RX has played a leading role in the national record store industry, with member of Boise-based band Finn Riggins and co-founder of Treefort Music Fest Eric Gilbert calling it “definitely one of the top-20 record stores in the country.” In Boise, it’s virtually synonymous with the day-to-day promotion and maintenance of the local music scene, being one of the few places in Idaho that prioritizes selling music by locals.
“It’s an incentive for artists to make a record if a store is there to sell it,” Gilbert said. “I love the motivation in that place.”
For years, The RX fomented Boise’s music culture, over time helping to export a few acts like Finn Riggins, Built to Spill and Curtis Stigers to the wider world. In 2012, Treefort Music Fest held its inaugural festival, adding a new accelerant to Boise music. What started as a few dozen acts touring through Boise after SXSW has grown into a cultural juggernaut, with almost 450 bands in 2019 and a slew of ancillary “forts” focusing on tech, food, literature, beer, film and more. The RX has been an intuitive ally to the expanding festival, doubling as a venue and launch pad for touring and local bands to put their music in front of customers.
“They were some of the first people we talked to when we started doing this,” Gilbert said. “They’ve been amazing partners.”
Forget the lists of best American cities Boise keeps appearing on: Any city would call itself lucky to have a record store like The Record Exchange, and for as long as most people can remember, it has been at a prestige apex. It has topped Boise Weekly’s Best of Boise poll so many times that the paper retired the category of “Best Local Record Store.” In 2000, it hosted the Smashing Pumpkins; nearly 20 years later, it still helps bring big acts to the City of Trees, but those are small wins compared to its legacy of lifting up local artists and building community. That — and selling new and used records — is business as usual.
Harrison Berry is an award-winning journalist and editor of Boise Weekly. He has been involved in print journalism since the eighth grade, and over the course of his professional career he has covered everything from the Patriot Movement and homelessness to literature and Treefort Music Fest. His work has also appeared in a variety of publications like Edible Idaho and American Theatre magazine.