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.
Get on I-70 and start heading west. Just outside of Kansas City, you’ll get on the Kansas Turnpike. After a little over half an hour, take exit 204 going south. Cross the bridge over the unnaturally murky waters of the Kaw and take a look around: you’ve made it to the idyllic college town whose residents affectionately refer to it as Lawrence Fucking Kansas, LFK for short, or Larryville among polite company.
Lawrence’s roots run deep, and as you walk the streets, you might get the sense that the ground you’re traversing has a long memory. The distinctive nature of the city dates back to its 1854 foundation by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, an organization formed to transplant settlers with abolitionist leanings to the newly established state. They never reached the numbers to which they aspired, but they did provoke the reaction of pro-slavery insurgents. Lawrence was still in its infancy when a haphazard group of Confederate guerillas based out of Missouri targeted it for attack in 1863, nearly burning it down and slaughtering a great deal of its adult male population. The raid left a deep legacy on the city’s identity; its seal depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes, and its motto is “from ashes to immortality.” Local institution Free State Brewery has a mural depicting abolitionist martyr John Brown, and the powerhouse basketball program of the University of Kansas sitting on Mount Oread — the hill from which the raiders descended upon the city — takes its name from the abolitionist militia of the Jayhawkers.
Growing up in Lawrence, I remember a class project in grade school where we took a tour of the city’s downtown, surveying the buildings that dated back to those formative conflicts, an era when “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” wasn’t a hackneyed phrase from a boring movie, but rather an indication that you didn’t have to worry about being murdered by a paramilitary group. Our destination today isn’t housed in one of those, though. On the main hub of Massachusetts street right between 8th and 9th Street, you’ll find a welcoming shop called Love Garden Sounds. It wasn’t always found here — you used to have to crawl up a foreboding staircase to acquire its goods, but now that’s just a piece of cultural currency for Lawrence townies to salivate over. What matters is that Love Garden has fiercely retained its status as a purveyor of music, particularly the kind that you won’t find if you don’t search for it, and that in a way, this is symbolic of the role Lawrence has come to take in a deeply conservative state.
It’s tough to say the first time I heard about Love Garden. It was a known entity to me when I was an angsty teen at Central Junior High School, conveniently located a short walking distance from the store. As such, I took it upon myself to ensure that every after-school trip my friends took downtown included a stop there. As a budding metalhead, I rejoiced to discover they had an entire section for metal, complete with decorative pentagrams. In retrospect, a lot of the records were in the used section for a reason, but how else was I going to learn that I really, really hated technical death metal? When I subsequently developed a passion for vinyl, Love Garden is where I learned the objective bliss of thumbing through a stack of records; I felt like a D&D player whose wizard had finally accumulated enough experience points to cast the really badass spells, thumbing through the pages in the handbook detailing those available at such a level, trying to determine which might save my life and which would never mean anything to me. I have particularly fond memories of grabbing an album by some band named Blind Illusion on the basis that their logo had an upside-down cross and later finding out that their bass player ended up founding Primus.
These explorations ran parallel to my blossoming love of live music. Lawrence is a great place to grow up if you’re musically curious, despite Kansas being smack dab in the middle of the country. In the 1980s, it became a sort of rest stop for punk bands touring the country, particularly a BYOB venue located on the outskirts of town called the Outhouse, where Nirvana played early enough in their career that they were the opener. It may have closed down in the late ’90s before reopening as a strip club (the BYOB part stuck), but other bars and clubs opened their doors to acts left of the dial. I cut my teeth on shows at the Granada, Bottleneck and Liberty Hall, shows I would later boast of getting to attend as a high schooler, as though growing up in a place with a vibrant music scene were a personal achievement and not a fortunate circumstance. Love Garden didn’t play any role in booking those tour dates, but have had a more tangible influence on matters closer to home. Over the years, countless Lawrence bands have played shows right within its walls, and the store even has its own record label, although as of this writing the only releases are two 7” singles by Lawrence indie group Ad Astra Per Aspera in 2008.
“It might be a store, but it’s also an institution with the power to change the life of anybody who finds the right record at the right time.”
This symbiotic relationship traces back over the store’s history. When Kelly Corcoran began frequenting Love Garden in the early ’90s, it had only been open a handful of years. Like so many others who became acquainted with its dimensions, he was a student at the University of Kansas. Corcoran worked at the college radio station KJHK, another fixture of the local music scene, and started a trade program between it and the record store. Love Garden hired him in 2000, and in 2004 he bought the store. Ten years later, Love Garden celebrated its 24th anniversary at the aforementioned Granada. On the lineup were the winner and runner-up of that year’s Farmer’s Ball, a competition highlighting local bands put on annually by KJHK. Love Garden and the Lawrence music scene are intertwined; where one ends, the other begins.
There’s no authoritative definition for what makes any given record store a good record store, or even the best record store. Some stores offer a wider selection than you could hope to explore in a lifetime. Others played or continue to play a central role in the development of a local scene. What makes Love Garden Sounds one of the best record stores in country? Like so few other places have even the capability of doing, it embodies the community that enabled its existence and supported it lovingly throughout the years. It might be a store, but it’s also an institution with the power to change the life of anybody who finds the right record at the right time.