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.
All of the most well-worn Indiana stereotypes contain a measure of truth. We love basketball. We’ve got corn. Our classic rock stations are absolutely drowning in the heartland rock of John Mellencamp (our native son). But if you’ve spent virtually any time in Indiana, your sense of the state’s identity likely hinges on how you feel about Indianapolis.
The Indianapolis economy is robust and tourism is growing; the city just experienced its seventh straight year of record growth in tourism. This is bolstered in part by the city’s growing reputation as a convention hub, its quiet ascension as a prime destination for the tech industry, and sporting events (like the NCAA tournaments, the Brickyard 400, and the Indianapolis 500 — the largest single-day sporting event in the world). The state’s capital is growing at a healthy clip, cementing its reputation as a middle ground between the country’s largest cities and a smaller town. Today, Indy largely dodges the pitfalls of both, boasting greater accessibility than the former and livelier entertainment options than the latter. At the heart of its growth is a revitalization of its smaller corners, such as the thriving Massachusetts Avenue area and Irvington, a historic district five miles east of downtown.
One of its clearest current success stories is Fountain Square, a neighborhood just southeast of downtown. The Fountain Square boom is real, and nowhere is that more evident than in its music scene. In the context of Indiana’s musical history, Fountain Square isn’t central; it’s 152 miles from the Jackson Family’s (and Freddie Gibbs’!) home of Gary, and 61 miles north of Mellencamp’s birthplace of Seymour (Babyface, perhaps the most famous musician with Indianapolis roots, grew up 10-15 miles north). But a local music community has blossomed nonetheless. Arthur’s Music Store is a beloved family-owned shop with a neighborhood presence since the 1950s. The Hi-Fi is an intimate concert venue whose roster continues to grow more formidable. Pioneer has recently rebranded itself as a bar and music venue frequented by prominent local acts. In the center of it all is Square Cat Vinyl, founded by Mike Angel, Patrick Burtch and Kurt Phillips — a record store positioning itself as a major player in the Fountain Square music scene at exactly the right time.
The neighborhood’s turnaround feels all the more remarkable when you consider its history. Hitting its stride in the early 1900s, Fountain Square’s Virginia Avenue evolved into a predominant commercial district with a thriving arts scene. As the century reached its halfway point, though, the neighborhood faced a steep decline, with much of its economic activity drifting to the city’s south side. In the 1970s, the construction of the interstate system decimated the area further, displacing countless buildings (estimates peg the displacement of Fountain Square residents alone at 6,000). Residents mostly fled to the outskirts of Marion County; minorities were disproportionately affected due to the racially discriminatory real estate laws of the era. As the neighborhood’s economic activity plummeted and the city turned its back, crime climbed steadily. This all left Fountain Square with a grim future, with its previously bulletproof reputation as a promising Indianapolis neighborhood now uncertain at best.
That nadir is a sharp contrast to Fountain Square’s current trajectory. The real estate market continues to trend upward, and an influx of restaurants, bars, breweries and assorted other businesses are dramatically stimulating activity. This growth has elevated Fountain Square as a local force, a highlight among the best destinations the city has to offer.
While many of the area’s newest businesses represent attempts to strike while the iron is hot, the forces that brought Square Cat Vinyl here are more fortuitous. The story begins with Mike Angel. In 2013, he was drifting, on the road, in the desert. He lived in a van. Tired of being shackled by his own aimlessness, he moved back to Indianapolis, settling into a house that just happened to reside in Fountain Square.
Angel sensed opportunity. In 2015, he started the Virginia Avenue Music Festival alongside Patrick Burtch, an event that now stands as the largest music festival in the state of Indiana. It was during the festival’s second year that the genesis of Square Cat emerged; Angel saw the impact the festival had on the nearby music scene and wanted to extrapolate that beyond a few short days in the spring. He was not content to adhere to a formula, though; Indianapolis has plenty of serviceable-to-strong record stores, and what Angel envisioned was a slightly different beast. “We had a common vision, which was that we would never survive if it was just another record store; it has to be unique. And it won’t happen unless we can find the perfect spot.”
Angel had the exact location in mind, one that had been vacant for years — but one smack in the middle of the area’s most prominent musical landmarks. After propositioning Kurt Phillips, a local entrepreneur, over a drink at New Day Meadery, the two of them walked around the corner to size up the location that would eventually become Square Cat. They agreed to move forward on the spot, and the grand opening happened just six months later.
Since its launch three years ago, Square Cat’s splash has been considerable. Spend a chunk of your Saturday afternoon in there and its appeal is clear. The owners have curated a distinctive but inviting atmosphere, one that welcomes newcomers and regulars alike, who banter with the employees with uncommon ease. The back of the store morphs into something of a lounge, complete with a bar stocked with craft beers from breweries both large (Three Floyds Brewery from Munster in northwest Indiana) and small (Fountain Square Brewery, from right around the corner), but almost always with Indiana ties.
The bar, with its craft beer, wine, cider and coffee, lends Square Cat much of its charm. But the most tangible impact stems from its events, which are calculated to engage and stimulate the local music community. “The vision was to bridge all the divides within the community,” Angel says, “To make this a safe place for people to gather and share ideas.” A monthly hip-hop night is the only consistent hip-hop event in the neighborhood. Regular open mic nights illuminate new, as-of-yet undiscovered talent.
Angel is especially fond of the Random Band Challenge, currently underway for its fourth year. Dozens of musicians are randomly paired with other local musicians they have likely never heard of. They then have a few weeks to come up with 15 minutes of original music and submit the results to an audience and a panel of judges. Angel notes proudly that this has spawned a number of lasting musical partnerships that would otherwise never have existed.
Angel sees one of the underappreciated keys to their success as their insistence on holding all-ages events. It is a rarity in the Indianapolis music scene, and allows an outlet for younger talent to make connections and get early exposure — or simply to enjoy a show they otherwise would be denied access to. The inclusivity is resonating with the community. “Having an all-ages venue in our neighborhood is really important to the long-term development of the musical community in Fountain Square,” says Rob Funkhouser, a regular customer and performer who has participated in multiple Square Cat shows.
For those who have been watching its ascent, Square Cat seems primed for the long haul. It is no small feat to establish a record store with strong selection and a friendly environment, and it is even harder to build one that proactively seeks to improve the local culture. Right now, Square Cat is attempting to balance its intimate roots with a desire to expand its reach to a larger slice of the community. Just this month, plans were announced for a second location, just two miles away, on the north end of the aforementioned Mass Ave. “We do have bigger dreams to ultimately become a true destination,” Angel admits.
For now, the change they are bringing to Fountain Square — and to Indianapolis — feels like more than enough.
Alex Swhear is a full-time music nerd from Indianapolis. He has strong opinions about music, film, politics, and the importance of wearing Band-Aids to Nelly concerts.