5 Towns Where Records Still Rule

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- If it's supposedly a bygone relic from old Pearl Jam songs, wistful Gaslight Anthem film projects and obscure Jack White tech side projects, why is vinyl the fastest-growing music format in the country.

Don't get us wrong, vinyl is still a thin sliver of the much larger recording industry. Of the 316 million albums sold last year, a scant 4.6 million were on vinyl. Yet Nielsen Soundscan ( NLSN) and Billboard note that while total album sales dropped 4.4% last year and physical album sales plummeted 12.8%, vinyl sales grew 17.7%.

It's no fluke, either. Since 2009, sales of vinyl records have grown by nearly 2.1 million albums and by nearly 15% each year. During that same time, total album sales have dropped from 376 million, while combined physical album sales have fallen below 200 million for the first time ever.

That's not enough to undo all the damage vinyl and its purveyors have suffered throughout the years. Record stores saw their revenue tumble by 76% since 2000 to $2 billion, according to market research firm IBISWorld. That group estimates that record stores will lose another 40% of sales by 2016. Vinyl's still a large, cumbersome, decidedly nonportable music format in a digital world with little use for those traits.

Those recent sales spikes elevated vinyl from a thrift-store find to an honored portion of music collections throughout the U.S., though. You may buy a $1.99 digital single of the moment or download the full $8 to $10 album if you're really into it, but record buyers save that honor for the albums they truly praise or the ephemera they just can't find online. That's prompted labels such as Warner ( TWX) and Sony Music ( SNE) to crank up the vinyl works again and, on occasion, thrown in MP3 versions for free if people spend on shiny new 180-gram vinyl. Warner has gone so far as to pay for its spot as lead sponsor for the sixth-annual Record Store Day this Saturday at 700 participating independent record stores across the country and more than 1,600 shops around the world.

So where should you be if you want to get your hands on a Mark Lanegan/Moby single, a Black Keys/The Stooges 7" version of No Fun or any of the other special-edition releases headed to record stores that day? If your town is trapped in a sea of discs and downloads, let us recommend five places across the country where record stores not only live, but thrive:

New York

No, Bleecker Bob's doesn't exist anymore and, yes, the place is a whole lot more expensive than it was in vinyl's heyday, but even Manhattan still has dozens of record stores to choose from on any given day. Are you a bridge-and-tunnel kid who wants to see what Bad Brains sounded like in their original, hissy glory? Hit Generation Records on Thompson Street. Have you seen more sunrises than you'd care to mention coming out of Smalls jazz sessions? We're guessing you already live at Academy Records. Want to prove that your buddy's "experimental" band is just ripping of John Cale and David Byrne? Welcome to Other Music.

But those places are bourgeois/corporate/old/expensive/etc. You're right, they're not in Brooklyn. Still, The Academy's laid-back and extremely popular annex calls Williamsburg home and arguably the city's most voluminous shop -- the appropriately named The Thing -- lives in Greenpoint. If you're willing to walk amid the towering shelves, jumbled stacks and disheveled piles The Thing considers stock, you'll be rewarded for your trouble with a $2 price tag on whatever you find. First pressing of John Wesley Harding? Two bucks. Electro album you've been tracking for nearly 30 years? Two bucks. That dub record you heard in Kingston on your first trip to Jamaica. Two bucks, but only if you can find it. Oh, and it's cash-only.

Seattle

This city and its neighbor to the south in Portland have one of those great rivalries where everybody wins. They both have warehouse-sized vinyl-selling chains in Everyday Music, they both have multi-outlet new vinyl repositories in Portland's Jackpot Records and Seattle's Silver Platters.

So what does Seattle have that Portland doesn't? Sheer volume. While Portland has gems such as 2nd Avenue Records, Mississippi Records and Music Millennium holding vast stores of great finds among their crates and racks, Seattle just overwhelms with its numbers.

Jive Time in Fremont is tiny, but has perhaps the biggest selection of funk and R&B in the Pacific Northwest. Sonic Boom in Ballard and Capitol Hill has a ton of local indie titles, performances by local acts and little Seattle-scene touches including mixes by K Records founder and former Beat Happening frontman Calvin Johnson. With more than two dozen shops participating in Record Store Day alone, Seattle's putting in a better showing than Manhattan. For graying Gen Xers who just don't have the patience to wade through a list that long, however, those Sub Pop records and Green River reissues you're looking for can still be found at Easy Street in West Seattle, even if its 1999 roots don't exactly stretch into that long-gone grunge past you're looking for.

Minneapolis

From Twin Tone Records and The Replacements to Paisley Park and Prince, much of Minneapolis' lush music history has been committed to vinyl. Even more recent products such as The Hold Steady and Minnesota's burgeoning hip-hop community have embraced wax, which comes as very little surprise considering the city's strong core of shops.

The vinyl-only Hymie's Vintage Records has been in business since the '80s and is stacked with old-school finds priced a lot more favorably than those heavy new reissues. Electric Fetus, meanwhile, has grown to three locations since debuting as a record shop and counterculture hangout in 1968. Though its still stocks novelties, hippie-chic clothing and incense, the Fetus is still best known for its selection of both music and local picks.

While the punk kids and Husker Du preferred still-thriving Treehouse Records in the '70s and '80s and Minneapolis' hip-hop community supports Fifth Element, the biggest selection in town still belongs to the wooden bins in the basement at the Cheapo outlet uptown. Don't like that it's a chain? Doesn't matter, it's still Minneapolis' most thorough record selection for a reasonable price. That's how you create converts and crush the barriers of vinyl's cool-kids club.

Chicago

Did vinyl ever stop being a thing music fans bought in Chicago?

With nearly three dozen shops participating in Record Store Day alone, Chicago has a concentration of record stores unseen in major cities since the dawn of the CD. It's how you get a music nerd film such as High Fidelity filmed there, but it's also how the record store on North Milwaukee Avenue that Jon Cusack's shop was based on -- Reckless Records -- becomes a three-store chain and a mainstay for music fans who steer clear of Jack Black films at all costs.

So how do you chose among them? Well, if you really take the "record" in Record Store Day seriously, head to Dave's Records on North Clark. It makes a big deal about never selling CDs in the past quarter century and about keeping more than 40,000 records on hand. If you tend to like your record shop a little more shoppy -- games, toys, in-store shows, the occasional appearance by former employees from seminal Chicago bands -- Laurie's Planet of Sound on Lincoln Avenue is a fine place to start. Don't let the strollers and blended-coffee sippers patrolling the sidewalks outside fool you: Laurie's is home to all of the geeks, freaks and other assorted weirdos that the neighborhood supposedly gentrified out of. Oh, and their staff is a wellspring of esoteric knowledge that won't erupt if you ask it where the new Katy Perry album is.

Decatur, Ga.

So ... Decatur. Sleeper pick, right?

No, not at all. Pitchfork singled it out a few years back for giving the world Decatur CD, a shop whose name and dated outdoor art hide a knowledgeable staff and sprawling selection of vinyl within a stone's throw of decent tacos. Great record stores and taco stands should always be this intrinsically linked.

Decatur's best stop, however, is Wuxtry Records on North Decatur Road. Opened 35 years ago, Wuxtry has been buying and selling discs for that long and still takes cash for used LPs, 45s and 78s. While the Decatur location doesn't have nearly as much notoriety as its sister store in Athens -- where Danger Mouse and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck once worked the counter -- it's the selection that keeps die-hards coming back.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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