Good record stores are a dying breed. Chalk it up to the digital revolution if you must, but the simple fact is that mom-and-pop shops seem to be on their way out. I should know—I used to work for one. On the other hand, it's music dorks like myself (and a number of you reading this) who can occasionally see light in this dark place. Various media reports have suggested that vinyl sales are surging—or at least holding steady—while CD sales continue to decline, meaning that some people still want the genuine article. The problem is finding it. Luckily, I've done a lot of the work for you by picking out the best area record store of all (Lou's), the archivist's dream (Folk Arts) and a slew of other local shops that are worth your while. NUMERO UNO
Lou's Records (434 N. Coast Highway 101, Encinitas)
In business since 1980, Lou's is unquestionably the king of area record stores. The only thing keeping city dwellers from discovering its greatness is its inconvenient North County location. From the outside, the place looks downright crappy, consisting of two taupe-colored bungalows—one housing new products, the other used, plus DVDs—that look like they could occupy the parking lot at a local high school. But inside is a music nerd's wet dream. Lou's has damn near everything, especially reggae vinyl and obscure experimental, which is categorized as “new music.” The staff is friendly, though you might have to chat them up a bit to get some help. However, if you go off about that Phil Collins album you love, don't blame me when they make fun of you.
Folk Arts Rare Records (2881 Adams Ave., Normal Heights)
Folk Arts is a converted residence that looks like any other house on the block, except inside is one of the most expansive selections of vinyl imaginable. Owner Lou Curtiss was kind enough to show me his archives, consisting of thousands of live, locally recorded and self-produced reel-to-reel recordings, as well as his personal record collection. Honestly, all of it is a little mind-blowing. For me, the jewel was an album from a '73 Tom Waits show, but that's only because I don't know shit about music before the '60s. Curtiss spreads the wealth, too—the place is filled with stacks upon stacks of records, most of which are surprisingly inexpensive and well categorized. This isn't the place for modern music, but Curtiss does make a point of carrying a small variety of local CDs.
M-Theory Records (915 W. Washington St., Mission Hills)
Of all the stores in urban San Diego, M-Theory is the most comprehensive. I was surprised at how much stuff is crammed into a small space until I realized, after browsing the aisles, that it's all about taste. These guys don't waste their time with music they don't like, and that makes it easy to get the goods. They've obviously put a lot of time into organizing the vinyl, and the used-CD section isn't packed with old Spin Doctors and Hootie. A store this size is naturally going to lack in certain areas, but M-Theory makes up for it by selling all kinds of collectables not found in most record stores (would someone please buy me that mini Orange amplifier?).Off the Record (2912 University Ave., North Park)
I've heard a lot of complaints about Off the Record since it moved from its Hillcrest location a few years back. People bitch about the new store—how it's small, dumpy and the selection has diminished, among other grievances. To tell the truth, it really hasn't changed that much; it's just consolidated new and used CDs and concentrated far more on used vinyl. Sure, there's lots of kitschy stuff (the '80s are so, like, three years ago), but there's also a super-cool section for out-of-print soundtracks, an excellent selection of music magazines and some “Holy shit, I can't believe they have that” R&B records up on the wall. Record City (3757 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest)
One of three great stores within two blocks in Hillcrest, Record City has been underappreciated for years, possibly because it played second fiddle to the old Off the Record for so long. This place has a ridiculous assortment of $1 vinyl, not to mention a clever use of sub-genres—when have you been to a store that has “'80s Alternative” and “Prog” sections? Not that anyone needs duplicates of their Adam and the Ants records, but it's still a great throwback to the days of 120 Minutes. Record City doesn't deal much in new CDs, but nobody buys those fucking things anymore, except for maybe, um, me.Taang! Records (3830 Fifth Ave., Hillcrest)
For what it's worth, Taang's hardcore punk credibility will continue to remain intact as long as the store is open. It's one of the only stores you'll find that sub-categorizes its punk. Yeah, they take that shit seriously. Of course, the store is eternally dingy and haphazard, but therein lays its charm. There's something undeniably awesome about the attitude of the place—besides a smattering of soul records, it's all ROCK, or variations thereof (and it contains the first Soft Boys record, which I can never seem to find). Basically, if it ain't dirty and loud, look for it elsewhere. Thirsty Moon Records (525 Evans Place, Hillcrest)
We all know at least one “music guy” who never steers us wrong. Thirsty Moon is run by three of those guys. Part of the reason the store is so unique is because it's operated by friends with similar musical interests—two of the dudes (Mario and Mike) play for local space-rock explorers Earthless, and the other one (Jeff) spends his extra time keeping the store going (he works another job and is the default weekend guy). Thirsty Moon might be the size of a large closet, but it's the top destination for rockers looking to spice up their collection with Soul Jazz comps, Harmonia records and Japanese psych-rock.
Access Hip Hop (1537 Garnet Ave., Pacific Beach)
Since almost every other store I visited seems to avoid hip-hop like the plague, I was elated to find this inconspicuous spot that is solely devoted to the genre. Founded six years ago by Mark Onstad almost strictly as a way to sell the work of his friends in Living Legends, the store has grown significantly and is somewhat of a hip-hop landmark in a city needing more of them. Let's put it this way—any store that has this many D.I.T.C. classics in stock is miles ahead of its competitors. Access doesn't sell used music but its consignment deals give MCs a shot at local stardom, and it has an excellent a selection of break records, new hip-hop vinyl and CDs.California Sound & Lighting (1919 San Diego Ave., Old Town)
Considering that the store is in the process of expanding, CSL does a great job of managing its influx of groove-based vinyl. The selection covers everything from The DFA to Deltron because owners Shawn and Sasha stay in tune with the latest trends in DJ culture. Plus, California has a ton of turntables and supplies for sale, making it a healthy alternative to the unhelpful monolith Guitar Center. It amounts to somewhat of a DJ superstore, and there's no better place to test out records—there are eight listening stations to make sure the cuts are choice.