Take a tour of the US capital's greatest vinyl treasure troves with our handy guide.
Location: 1901 18th Street, NW, Washington D.C.
Metro: Dupont Circle Red Line
Hours: 12:00 PM to 7:00 PM (Weekends 12:00 PM to 5:00 PM)
Genres: Punk, Rock, Rap, Jazz, R&B, Gospel, Blues
There’s almost certainly a straw man theory to be had tying the dwindling quality of D.C. record stores to decades of systematic gentrification. But for the sake of civility, let just say that shops located within the city limits generally leave a lot to be desired. Red Onion contains a meagre library of vinyl and books, but their longstanding tradition of hosting in-store indie band performances earns it top billing in the land of the blind. The owner, 36-year-old Josh Harkavy, is also probably the only music retailer in the entire DMV to properly wield the power of social media. The quaint boutique’s public Facebook feed is updated daily with new arrivals or forthcoming events.
Red Onion is located just half a mile south from the Adams Morgan McDonalds where Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg used to DJ circa 2007. Lawful parking on this side of town is little more than a cruel myth; use of the Metro is heavily advised.
Location: 12160 Parklawn Drive, Rockville, MD
Metro: Glenmont Red Line (C4 Bus)
Hours: 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM (Weekends 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
The narrow aisles of Rockville’s Second Story Books takes you back to a time in American history when literary research was as exhausting as it was rewarding. Towering shelves are crammed to the hilt with rare and out-of-print novels, comics, monographs, almanacs and digests. The owner, Allen Stypeck, is in the business of bookselling, but his side hustle can be found in a glorified janitorial closet in an outlying corner of the store. Inside, thousands of records are jammed into milk crates with regard for neither genre nor alphanumerics. It makes for a frustrating dig, but Stypeck is practically giving away his audible inventory.
With the exception of high-ticket items framed on the walls, all vinyl is advertised at a flat rate of $1 per record. Alternatively, you can load up with as many albums a single “box” will allow for, ultimate buffet style, for a mere $50. Second Story Books is tucked behind an industrial no man’s land, so food and entertainment isn’t even an option. However, on the flipside, parking is an absolute no-brainer.
Location: 2607 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22201
Metro: Courthouse Orange Line
Hours: 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM (Sundays 12:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Genres: Rock, Comedy, Jazz, Pop, R&B, New Wave, Disco, Electronic, Rap,
Arlington’s CD Cellar runs a remarkably tight ship. Crate diggers that seek comfort in the cluttered and disheveled nature of modern record stores will find it to be almost organized to a fault. But don’t be fooled by their misleading namesake; inventory consists of nearly equal parts vinyl and compact discs, albeit completely devoid of go-go. Overall, prices are reasonably cheap, especially if you take advantage of the 10-foot stretch of $3 record bins.
The quarter-mile radius encompassing CD Cellar is probably the only strip in Clarendon’s commercial district where parking doesn’t induce suicidal thoughts. Unfortunately, northern Virginia is still largely medieval, so your Park Mobile doohickies will be rendered useless here. Always remember to bring a roll of coins to feed the meter. Just three blocks northwest, at the intersection of Wilson Boulevard and North Fillmore Street, you’ll encounter a prime bar-hopping enclave.
Since the demise of Orpheus Records back in March of 2008, CD Cellar has asserted itself as Arlington’s preeminent music store. Ironically, its most compelling draw comes in the form of prose rather than poetry. Laurel Hardy, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor take refuge in a far-reaching nook designated as the comedy section. Also, be sure to peer over the sales counter and marvel over the collage of sticky note illustrations penned by retail clerk Jonathan Howard.
Location: 3883 Branch Avenue, Temple Hills, MD 20748
Metro: Suitland Green Line (P12 Bus)
Hours: 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM (Sundays 12:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Genres: Go-Go, Rap, R&B
PA Palace draws its name from the board recordings of go-go shows called “PA tapes.” The conga-driven jam sessions are no longer captured and distributed on lo-fi cassettes, but locals have held onto the antiquated title since the dawn of the Reagan era. While the store currently occupies a spacious unit inside Iverson Mall, it still has all the makings of a niche-catering kiosk. On the portside, there’s a waist-high jewellery display case decked with CDs. Homegrown rappers and go-go bands are given equal billing with tabloid media darlings. Along the opposite side, hundreds of DVDs, ranging from Shaw Brothers films to the Booty Talk franchise, are encased in a multitude of sliding glass cupboards. Their shallow catalogue is primarily governed by youthful trends, but collectionists can still find out-of-print rarities like 'Nas Presents Nashawn: Napalm' harboring dust mites behind the sales counter. PA Palace is handily the most streetwise music outlet in or around Chocolate City.
Location: 8236 Georgia Ave Silver Spring, MD 21701
Metro: Silver Spring Red Line
Hours: 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM (Weekends 12:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Genres: Rock, Jazz, R&B, Metal, Folk, Reggae, Rap, Soundtracks
“If Chubby Checker was still alive today, he wouldn’t approve of people buying his records without the intentions of ACTUALLY LISTENING TO THEM!” says a 70-something, vinyl-peddling gentleman. It's a knee jerk response to the good folks at Silver Spring’s Record Exchange suggesting his crates would be worth significantly more to them in mint condition. The man can’t wrap his fedora around how a functional For Twisters Only LP could be marginalized on account of a few superficial bumps and bruises.
To management’s credit, they’ve hired a rag-tag band of cool young Care Bears to handle day-to-day operations. Their bellies radiate beams of veritable empathy; they are literally the nicest people you’ll ever meet in Montgomery County. The clerks successfully convince the irate merchant that vinyl ages like automobiles: appreciation only occurs if said product is deemed both classic and well-kept. Collectors should applaud Record Exchange’s passive fleecing techniques. Otherwise, we'd never score Purple Rain, Purple Haze, and Purple World for less than the price of a gallon of gasoline.
In addition to selling music, the store also fancies itself a retrograde video game vendor. Cartridges and accessories from nearly every golden age gaming console—Atari, Nintendo, Genesis, Gameboy, Super Nintendo, Game Gear, and Playstation, among others—are locked inside transparent cabinets and display cases. It’s an exotic peep show for digital savvy eighties babies. Record Exchange stands less than 100-feet from Joe’s Record Paradise, and therefore in proximity of the same foreign restaurants, storied theaters, and convenient back alley parking.
Location: 801 E Street, NW Washington, DC 20004
Metro: Gallery Place Chinatown Juncture
Hours: 11:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Two Sundays of the year, scores of eager vinyl collectors wrap around E Street hoping to get first dibs on the D.C. Record Fair. Over the years, the event has floated between various venues, but Penn Social (previously the short-lived Riot Act Comedy Theater) has held a monopoly on the fair since the summer of 2012. Early birds are charged a $5 cover fee to gain admission before noon; delayed entry is typically $2. Once inside, patrons encounter a labyrinth of record bins shuffled across the cramped street level showroom floor. Downstairs, the fair unfolds into a macrocosm of the bustling marketplace above.
To ease the suffering of all the apathetic spouses and significant others dragged along to the convention, the social club provides numerous time-consuming distractions. Vintage arcade games, pool billiards, alternating live DJ's, enormous projection screens, and a reasonably adequate cash bar circle the perimeter of the sprawling 10,000-square-foot cellar. Representatives from the local retail chains turn out regularly, but most of the vendors in attendance are independent in the most literal sense. The D.C. Record Fair places all merchants on equal footing, regardless of their size, repute or tax bracket—thereby driving competitive prices on quality pieces.
Location: 9039 Baltimore Avenue, College Park, MD 20740
Metro: Greenbelt Green Line (C2 Bus)
Hours: 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM (Weekends 12:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
CDepot insists they’re the “largest independent CD store in the Mid-Atlantic region.” It’s a bold claim, but their College Park branch has the inventory to back it up. It’s Kemp Mill Music on anabolic steroids, yet thoroughly devoid of personality; the Sam’s Club warehouse of DMV record stores. But the sheer volume of jewel cases lining their densely stocked shelves is awe-inspiring. The vinyl archive is also fairly impressive, perhaps only second—in terms of quantity—to their Montgomery County brethren, Joe’s Record Paradise. Interestingly enough, 90 percent of the 12-inches are brand spanking new and even sheathed in the original factory shrink wrap. The depository shares a parking lot with an AMF bowling alley and Sakura Seafood Buffet, making it all the more easy to bamboozle that special someone in your life into a crate digging soiree.
Location: 8216 Georgia Ave Silver Spring, MD
Metro: Silver Spring Red Line
Hours: 12:00 PM to 7:00 PM (Closed Mondays)
Genres: Soul, R&B, Go-Go, Rap, Reggae
“Did you ever get a chance to see James Brown in concert?” Scooter asks. “I saw him back in 2005, about a year before he passed, at the 9:30 Club—him and Chuck Brown! Maaaaaan... That was an absolutely incredible performance. You know, they say that man used to lose seven pounds of water weight every night he stepped on stage. When you get home, look for that one on the Internet. The 9:30 Club on December 30th, 2005.”
To say that Roadhouse Oldies has a warm, personable atmosphere would be an understatement. The aforementioned wide-eyed recollection is what you can expect to hear upon checkout at Silver Spring’s Roadhouse Oldies (providing, of course, that “The Big Payback” is surging through their wall-mounted house speakers). Warren "Scooter" MaGruder, the general manager and former host of 100.3 WBIG-FM's Night Train radio show, has been DJing about the Washington area for nearly 50 years; pick his brain and you'll be rewarded handsomely.
As a rule of thumb, Roadhouse carries all black music recorded prior to the release of Groove Theory's self-titled debut LP. Vintage promo posters are pinned to the recessed ceiling like jerseys retired in the rafters. At the sales counter, you’ll find a yellow flyer with hundreds of classic soul songs listed. The menu is similar to that of a Japanese sushi bar; circle the line items of interest, and Scooter will make the vinyl-to-CD conversion at a dollar a pop.
Location: 8216 Georgia Ave Silver Spring, MD
Metro: Silver Spring Red Line
Hours: 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM (Sundays 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Genres: Rock, Rap, Jazz, R&B, Soul, Go-Go, Gospel, Blues, Country, Reggae
With nearly 100,000 titles spread across two sprawling showroom floors, Joe’s Record Paradise is arguably the most complete vinyl shop on the east coast. The current owner and retail manager, Robert Johnson Lee, inherited the business from his father, Joe Lee, back in 2008. The store has a particularly extensive catalog of used rap LPs, CDs, and even a few dozen cassette tapes, though the bulk of sales are attributed to rock, jazz, and soul albums.
Located in the heart of downtown Silver Spring, Joe’s neighbours many of the burgeoning city’s most noteworthy attractions: The Fillmore Auditorium; Fire Station 1; The AFI Cultural Theater; Piratz Tavern; The Society Lounge; and an infamous sculpture bust of Silver Spring’s town drunk, Norman Lane, are all within walking distance from the Lee family’s vinyl oasis. Metered parking along Georgia Avenue is relatively scarce during high traffic hours, but there’s an unpoliced lot sandwiched between the Meineke auto repair shop and Addisiedet Inte Church off Ripley Street.
While Robert carries a fairly deadpan Paulie Cicero-esque demeanor, his sales clerks are generally sociable and attentive. In exchange for a single form of government-issued picture identification, they’ll cough up a pair of headphones to be used at any of their half dozen listening stations. Joe’s Record Paradise lives up to the age-old adage that “bigger is better.”
Location: 3743 Branch Avenue, Temple Hills, MD 20748
Metro: Suitland Green Line (P12 Bus)
Hours: 10:00 AM to 9:30 PM (Sundays 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM)
Genres: Go-Go, Rap, R&B, Contemporary Jazz, Southern Soul, Gospel
Kemp Mill Music is the Washington area’s last truly chic record store. It’s the only shop where you can purchase the latest issue of Black Tail magazine, Michael McDonald’s 'No Looking Back' LP, and Gucci Mane’s comprehensive music video anthology all in one fell swoop. At one point in the mid-90s, Kemp Mill was the District’s foremost music chain; 30-odd locations were littered throughout the region. Four decades since its inception, economic calamity has whittled the franchise back down to a solitary store in Prince George’s County. It’s nestled between Iverson Mall and Seafood Palace. The latter establishment furnishes their buffet with steamed hard-shell crabs and wafer-infused banana pudding.
Those exclusively in search of wax will likely be disappointed by Kemp Mill’s skeletal record selection. Current ownership has shied away from ordering vinyl due to its painstakingly slow turnover in the “urban” market. Instead, they traffic in compact discs, which is still—inexplicably—the format of choice for an overwhelming majority of their consumer base. The go-go section, brimming with live performances dating as far back as the early-80’s, is ambitious as you’ll find inside the beltway. That in itself ranks Kemp Mill higher than most, if not all of their brick and mortar competitors.
Washington D.C.’s local music scene is still somewhat insular, but few cities are more rewarding to music buffs than the nation’s capital. You can’t escape body and soul inside the beltway: conga drummers greet you stepping off the Chinatown Metro Station; Chuck Brown blares from speakers perched atop the 7th and T Street carryout; and Bob Marley welcomes you to Nationals Park via Kurt Suzuki’s rasta-tinged walk-up playlist. Appropriately, the area is home to a legion of reputable music retail outlets. Each shop accommodates a very unique strain of fandom. This guide serves as a tool to familiarize tourists, transplants and natives alike with the best independent record stores at their disposal.
Click on any photo to launch the list.