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.
Growing up in Alabama can be a conflicting experience. It’s a place where idyllic southern traditions butt roughly against normalized political corruption, poor education rankings, and a bruised past of numerous Civil Rights transgressions. We’ve learned from the past, and we’re better because of it, but we’ve had trouble translating those lessons into a stable present. For every step forward, celebrity creeps like Roy Moore, Robert Bentley and Jeff Sessions push us back.
It’s frustrating, because there’s bountiful, beautiful potential here. For starters, Alabama isn’t all NASCAR tracks and hillbilly dense forests. Take I-65 all the way down, and you’ll start to notice the rich and diverse geography that extends from the mountainous, tech hub of Huntsville to the white sand beaches of Gulf Shores.
Near the middle of that particular journey, you’ll find yourself in Birmingham. Once ground zero for some of Alabama’s most infamous Civil Rights atrocities, the “Magic City” is now in the middle of a cultural renaissance. It’s doubtful the Washington Post, the Conde Nast Traveler and the Wall Street Journal would have written travelogues exploring downtown 20 years ago like they do now. Architectural restoration efforts, a burgeoning startup culture and lauded foodie scene have recently put Birmingham on the map as a hip southern city — which, luckily, has bled into its growing music scene. On any weeknight, locals in the know can catch a parachute punk show at the space-themed Saturn, a retro basement show at the kitschy dive bar Mom’s Basement or an experimental act at the Spring Street Firehouse.
For so long this wind of change never seemed to extend to the local record stores. The shops are, generally, venerable old favorites with bins that cater more toward the treasure hunting culture of true collectors and crate diggers. That wasn’t just in Birmingham, either. For some, corporate chains like Best Buy, Target or F.Y.E. still offer a greater chance of finding either the latest releases or the base classics of certain genres. Dan Drinkard noticed this obvious oversight almost immediately after moving to Birmingham in the spring of 2013.
Originally from Memphis, Drinkard suddenly found himself without access to the hardcore, punk and underground releases he came to rely on from stores like Shangri-La or Goner Records. After getting sick of feeling underwhelmed by his options, Drinkard decided to create a space for what he couldn’t naturally find.
“That’s just how I operate in life. Nobody else is going to do things for you, so you gotta fuckin’ do it yourself,” Drinkard said.
Luckily, Drinkard had experience introducing new ideas in places steeped in tradition. He spent the majority of his teen years figuring out ways to play punk rock in the Dominican Republic. He later founded his own record label, Fat Sandwich, so he could release his and other friends’ music.
On November 3, 2013, just a little over six months after his initial move, Drinkard opened Seasick Records, proudly named after track four on the Jesus Lizard’s 1991 noise rock classic, Goat. Thanks to five years of loyal community support and numerous in-stores, Seasick, located in Birmingham’s Crestwood neighborhood, is an absolute breath of fresh air for music enthusiasts — a rare haven for fans of all genres to browse, share and talk shop.
“I think many of us are who are really into this, we’re very grateful to have it here, and we try our best to support it and make sure it’s healthy and growing and it continues,” said Jim Johnson, a record collector who’s lived in the Birmingham area for over 20 years. “Because, there have been times in Birmingham’s history where we didn’t have a lot music venues, a lot of record stores — it’s now turned around.”
Beyond Drinkard, the Seasick crew now includes three full time employees, one part-timer, and numerous volunteers. In the early days, Drinkard made it a point to stock his shop with mostly punk, metal and underground specialities. Now, you’re just as likely to hear the new Bob Mould over the shop speakers as you are a new Merengue compilation. This expanded inventory is partly from personal growth, partly from capitalism, but mostly due to the wide tastes of Seasick’s still-growing fanbase.
“The people come from all over, but we’re still a neighborhood store. If you drive in from Moody, we’re still your neighborhood store,” said Matt Seward, Seasick’s manager. “In Moody, you can go to Wal-Mart for a CD and that’s it.”
Though the clientele ranges from families to serious collectors to friends, the staff always get the most excited when kids and teens slide a classic over the counter.
“Y’know, when a teenager walks in here with green hair and they’re like, ‘Hey, do you have the newest Green Day record?’ It’s like, ‘Well, yes, but let me show you the oldest Green Day record, let me show you this Rancid record, then let’s start talking about the other stuff if you don’t know it,’” said Seward.
There’s a democracy to Seasick — you’re encouraged to be loud and proud of what you love, but you’re also expected to be respectful of others’ tastes and walks of life. The staff tries to cultivate an environment where political, social and musical differences don’t keep people from conversation.
“There’s plenty of things that come through here that none of us are necessarily fans of, but we have loyal customers who come every week. And they like it, so we’re gonna get it for them because, that’s what they want,” said Drinkard. “You can’t find that anywhere else in this town. And very few places in the state do what we do.”
Other than a diverse inventory, the fact that a full service barber shop stands mere feet from the record counter is yet another testament to Seasick’s unique nature. Newman Evans, owner of Newman’s Classic Cuts, was cut from much of the same DIY cloth as Drinkard — the two became lifelong friends at punk and hardcore shows across the southeast.
The idea to fuse the businesses together first came after the runaway success of a weekend of popup haircuts in Seasick’s old space. Even still, Evans said he was skeptical of how people would perceive getting their haircut in a space dedicated to vinyl. He didn’t worry long — Newman’s Classic Cuts now runs on a strict appointment-only schedule after the shop’s walk in lines started blocking people from record bins.
In a way, the barber shop’s presence within the store showcases how much of a community gathering place Seasick prides itself on being. It’s common to walk in and find other local, burgeoning businesses doing pop ups inside the store.
Seasick is more than a record store — it’s a positive influence that attempts to reflect back all of the good that exists around it — a small step toward encouraging Alabamians everywhere to find and celebrate what’s already available in their own backyard.
Reed Strength is a Birmingham-based music fan who wouldn’t be here without Green Day’s American Idiot. Find his other bylines in Paste, The Big Takeover, FLOOD Magazine, and elsewhere.