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 was 23 shows into a fall tour when we arrived at Total Drag in Sioux Falls. Over 4,000 miles away from my home in England, almost every venue we’d stopped at over the past four weeks had been a new, unfamiliar experience. This was my first time touring across America and while some things stay the same — (a few) crumby sound folks, sticky floors and flat, crappy beer — my foreign outlook often found the past month to be a little jarring and overwhelming. So understandably, by the time we had rolled up to this little record store, I was more than a little tired.
Nestled next to a cute screen printing place, Total Drag’s windows were adorned with bright, illustrative posters, much like the bedroom of a passionate teenager. Despite our weary bodies, we were greeted by co-owner Dan Nissen, who quickly and helpfully welcomed us into the space. He mentioned his wife and Total Drag co-founder Liz Nissen would arrive later, as she had to take their dog Billie back home. I glance behind the counter and find an illustrated tribute to Billie hanging proudly among the posters.
The husband-and-wife team opened Total Drag on May 1, 2014. Despite its young life, the store already feels like a home. Thanks in part to the little touches, like the illustration of Billie, the stickered mini-fridge or the fairy lights covering the tiny bathroom, Total Drag feels like being welcomed into the living room of a young, neighborly couple. Record stores are usually the only constant in each new city. I would seek out their comfort, the recognizable decor, the owner always eager to chat to a new visitor. Total Drag felt like an amplified version of this, a collected serenity during the instability of touring.
While Total Drag is a record store, it’s also a pillar of the live music scene in Sioux Falls. Liz and Dan have always been invested in going to shows in their city, having met when they were just 16 through live music. “I lived in a house and then later Liz lived in that house, where we had basement shows all the time which were, of course, all-ages,” Dan explains. “And then the scene just moved over to the bars as we got older and then slowly it just seemed like the all-ages thing disappeared. If you weren't 21, you really weren't seeing any good music.” Instead of leaving the next generation to deal with the problem, the couple took it upon themselves to create a safe, all-ages space. “We just felt like that was such an important connection and an important thing for other kids to be able to have,” Liz adds. “We just wanted to be able to continue that and share that with people.”
If you head to the store’s website, a mission statement proudly describes Total Drag as “a community orientated art and music space open to people of all ages who are interested in participating in and supporting an environment of creativity and artistic innovation and freedom.” While the scene in Sioux Falls has always been healthy, Total Drag continues to be singled out by local acts and music fans as a turning point in the city’s cultural climate, especially for kids 21 and under. “Total Drag has impacted the Sioux Falls music community in countless positive ways,” customer Andy Howes tells me. “They’ve provided a welcoming, safe, supportive home for local musicians of all genres. They’ve built up a stellar reputation as a great place for touring bands to visit. Sioux Falls has become a destination for dozens of bands that had never even been to South Dakota, let alone played here. And of course they’ve provided a home for music fans, of all ages and walks of life.”
As I set up the merch table, I see both 15- and 50-year-olds stroll into the store, thumb their way through the latest releases and chat with Liz and Dan like old pals. Zines and tapes from local acts adorn the counter, as Dan excitedly tells me about the store’s own tape label and Liz huddles together with the attendees outside. There’s a quiet, magical quality in watching the store blossom into the essential space it so clearly is.
Before Liz and Dan opened up their space, bands would rarely stop in Sioux Falls. Now, they find it difficult to fit everyone in. “I get at least four or five booking requests a day and I have to turn down a lot of them,” Dan explains. “It's awesome to get these requests and it's great how quickly our name has got out there and obviously bands that have played here have a good time and they tell their friends about it and that's awesome — it's just at this point with Liz and I doing all the shows, we have to make sure we don't stretch ourselves too thin.” Scrolling through their event page, bands like Twin Peaks, The Coathangers and The Hotelier sit alongside local band album release parties. Most shows are under 10 bucks, meaning that Total Drag not only offers a space for an all-ages audience but makes it accessible, too.
While the venue is Total Drag’s primary focus, Dan and Liz knew that solely opening an all-ages space was a risky venture when it came to paying the bills. So, naturally, a record store was added to the project. Their ethos of hosting and championing local acts filters throughout their stock, with quick but in-depth descriptions of each release embellishing each sleeve. Used records and tapes stand alongside new releases, as I pick up both a Sugar Cubes tape and Tim Darcy’s latest album. There’s a noticeable level of extra care in Total Drag’s presentation, one that encourages you to look again and again, often tearing me away from my duties for the evening to check that I haven’t missed anything one last time.
Now entering their fifth year as a viable business and starting out without any expectations, Liz says that the venture has constantly surprised them. “We really didn't even know if there was an all-ages scene there to support us, so that was a huge surprise. Every year when we do taxes is a huge surprise because we're actually selling a good amount of records, y'know! It's not like we're getting rich or anything but the store is supporting itself, which is more than we could have hoped for really. We get to meet people from all over the world on a regular basis, too. There's people who have sought out the record store specifically and to us, that's amazing.”
Regarding Total Drag’s future, Liz and Dan are just excited about expanding their outreach, in terms of the venue and their own label. “Other than that we just want to keep growing and fostering the music community,” Liz adds. “Sioux Falls as a city is getting some really incredible bands coming through now, which I don't think ever would have happened five years ago, so I definitely feel like our opening has brought the community together a little bit more and providing somewhere to have even bigger shows. We want to just keep doing what we're doing and stick to what we set out to do and I think it'll pay off.”
Creating such an important space for their community, it’s clear that Liz and Dan are the modern-day heroes of the Sioux Falls scene. They’ve provided a home for those who never had one –– albeit a temporary but imperative one for me –– and cultivated a space to discover and invest in new, emerging talent. Their vision and their belief in their own community serves as a reminder that when you encourage those who need it most, the benefits will quickly materialize. If you build it, they will come.
Up next, we travel to a record store in Arizona.
Sammy Maine is a freelance writer based in Bristol, England, focusing music and popular culture. She is also the managing editor of specialist music website Gold Flake Paint.