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.
I had only been buying CDs for a year or two when my dad took us to the new music store that had recently opened within walking distance of his house in Baltimore in 1993. My brother and I were amused that The Sound Garden’s name was so close to a certain Seattle band we loved, although I’m sure the store’s staff has taken pains to point out many times that their name has a space between “sound” and “garden.” I don’t think I had a clue at the time, however, that the store would play a greater role in my musical development than the band (and I learned how to drum in weird time signatures from Soundgarden, so I don’t say that lightly). If memory serves, my brother left with a copy of Siamese Dream, and I didn’t buy anything, either strapped for cash or overwhelmed by the store’s wealth of choices.
Within a couple years, The Sound Garden moved into a bigger space right across the street from the original location, from 1617 Thames Street to 1616 Thames Street, where it resides today. Fells Point is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Baltimore, and the street in front of The Sound Garden is the same cobblestone laid down centuries ago; driving on it is a slow and bumpy ride, but you don’t really want to go too fast in a waterfront neighborhood that’s usually overrun with pedestrians.
Thames Street is lined with bars, and Fells Point has long had an active nightlife. But The Sound Garden moved in at possibly the perfect time to capitalize on the blossoming retail sector in Fells Point without getting priced out of the neighborhood. Homicide: Life On The Street was on primetime on NBC, and its primary filming location was right down the street from The Sound Garden; I can remember several weekend trips to buy CDs that included spotting cast members filming exteriors on nearby side streets.
Owner Bryan Burkert, who grew up in Buffalo, New York, opened an additional Sound Garden store in Syracuse in 1996 that remains open to this day. But the Baltimore store remains the big one, and has actually gotten bigger over the years. The Sound Garden acquired the space next door in the ’90s to expand its floorspace. And then it expanded again in the other direction in the last decade, taking over where a carryout window had sold food primarily to the Sound Garden’s customers. That acquisition became the new home of the store’s vinyl section, now a bigger piece of The Sound Garden’s business than ever before.
The Sound Garden doesn’t have the sprawl of, say, Amoeba Music, but is so packed with product everywhere you turn that you’re unlikely to leave empty-handed. The shelves are too well organized to call the store cluttered, but there’s a refreshingly chaotic sensibility to the layout of the store — signs and posters and stickers all over the walls and counters. In the ’90s and 2000s, Burkert co-owned the rock club Fletcher’s, just a couple blocks up Bond Street. And there are countless framed photos peppered around The Sound Garden of rock stars shopping for CDs before their show at Fletcher’s, along with other celebrity music fanatics like Elijah Wood.
I have to admit, though, that I’m nostalgic for the store’s old vinyl section in the ’90s, which was at the top of a steep set of metal steps in the back of the store. When I got my first hand-me-down turntable, I listened to my parents’ old LPs, but didn’t much see the point of buying new albums on vinyl that would be more convenient to own on CD. Instead, I bought dozens of cheap indie rock singles in their 7” bins, records I still keep around for B-sides that never made it to streaming services.
Another great way to spend a few bucks at The Sound Garden was the small but potent cassettes section, where I got the copy of Elvis Costello’s My Aim of True that was in the tape deck when I crashed my first car. On my last visit to the store, I was delighted to note a sign near the vinyl register that the store is currently looking to beef up its used cassettes selection. I made some great discoveries taking a chance on a cheap CD in The Sound Garden’s voluminous used bins. And when I was collecting unemployment and barely scraping by a few years ago, The Sound Garden gladly bought back a few dozen less loved purchases and allowed me to pay some bills and contribute to the used bin circle of life.
I don’t think I’ve ever had an actual conversation with the famously friendly and knowledgeable Sound Garden staff while shopping. But I would chalk that up to my arrogance, not theirs; I usually know what I’m looking for and where to find it, having logged hundreds of hours wandering around the store over the last quarter century. And it’s more fun to eavesdrop on the staff as they move around stacks of CDs behind the counter and argue about what to play on the store speakers. The last time I stopped in to pick up a Merle Haggard CD, one staffer had chosen Genesis’s Invisible Touch. But the moment his shift was over, a co-worker turned off the ’80s blockbuster in favor of the considerably more hip Solange-affiliated alt-R&B duo BC Kingdom.
The Sound Garden once proudly branded itself as ‘The CD Joint at the Point,’ a nickname that gets less mileage now that the store does booming business in vinyl and DVDs, and dedicates floorspace to everything from clothing to books. Its continued survival, celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, is particularly remarkable in the digital music era. Two respected regional chains that once provided ample options for buying music in Maryland, Kemp Mill and Record & Tape Traders, both closed their last remaining stores in the last two years. My dad sold his house in Fells Point shortly before he died a couple years ago, so when I’m in my old neighborhood now, it’s usually specifically to go to the Sound Garden.
Al Shipley lives in Maryland, writes for Complex, Noisey, Spin and Billboard, and wrote for the Baltimore City Paper before Tribune Publishing killed it.