Chicago Record Shops: A Journey (Slightly) Outside My Comfort Zone

As my daughter and I left Chicago last week, I longed for one more day in town. The four days we spent there weren’t nearly enough. So much went undone, uneaten, and unexplored. And the two of us covered a LOT of ground.

But I knew going in that a city of that size could not be adequately explored in the limited time we had. All we would be able to do was the best we could. That meant something had to be neglected. In this case, it was record stores.

To know me is to know I could’ve spent that Monday through Thursday exploring Chicago’s music scene, and little to nothing else. But this trip was about my daughter. That meant exposing her to as many educational tourist sites as a 14-year-old mind could tolerate, while still having fun at the same time. Slowly but surely, my daughter is becoming as music-obsessed as her old man. Therefore, I knew I could get away with a couple of shop visits.

I decided to get them done after we checked out of our hotel and before we hit the highway to head home. In hindsight, I should’ve taken in one shop for each day, given what I’m told I missed. Well, lesson learned. That being said, the two shops we did visit provided some very valuable treasures. To say “it was better than nothing” would be a vast undersell.

Our exploration led us into three record shops, and past a fourth (which I learned after the fact). These stops were based on advice received from friends in St. Louis. I had never heard of any of these places. The first stop was both a complete misunderstanding and a near disaster. For reasons comprehensible only to the inner workings of my mind, I just knew a friend told me to seek out “Ruthless” Records. This was the only day I drove anywhere save our hotel three days prior. So when I asked Siri to take us to Ruthless Records, this is where we wound up:

It was a sketchy store in a sketchy neighborhood, and it didn’t strike me as the kind of place my friends would recommend I visit, particularly with my daughter in tow. I knew it wasn’t the store I was looking for, but we went in all the same. Our visit lasted less than five minutes, and the less said about it, the better.

We made a hasty exit, and a beeline for the car. Once there, I declared Ruthless Records a loss, and asked Siri to get us to Permanent Records. That name I knew I had right. Siri found it, and guided me there. Along the way, we passed a storefront window with a painted sign reading “Dusty Groove.” It sounded like the name of a record store, but I went past the window too quickly to verify it. I pointed a thumb to my right and said to my daughter, “Keep that place in mind.” But that was the last I spoke of it.

Now that Siri and I were on the same page, it was less than 15 minutes later that we found ourselves here:

I had a much better feeling about this place. After a step inside, I found that I was right. This was what we had been looking for!

As record stores go, Permanent struck me as being relatively small, and was quite vinyl-centric. This was of no concern, since my daughter and I both have record players. Still, I had no idea where to begin. I wanted to collect titles from Chicago-based (or at least originated) artists. Fortunately, my new friend Robert was working.

I’m sure he has to endure all kinds of people, particularly where tourists are concerned. But when I told him about my “six-hour” tours, and what I was looking for musically, Robert smiled brightly and got a look of determination in his eyes. I just followed him, and took what he handed me as he dutifully scoured the store’s browser racks.

The most obvious record he handed me came from Howlin’ Wolf, which felt like a requirement. Everything else was completely foreign. At the risk of sounding pretentious, Robert treated me like a musicologist. He knew I was looking for depth, and that’s precisely what he gave me. He also never went anywhere near the CD racks at the back of the store. It’s funny how this never bothered me. If Robert wasn’t taking me there, then I figured there was nothing there worth seeing.

I’m pretty sure my daughter is annoyed/embarrassed by her father’s ability to strike up lengthy conversations with complete strangers. There was a time when she would never dare leave my side in a strange place. Well, that day is gone. While Robert and I chatted, she went off and had her own little adventure.

A true chip off the old block. And yes, she did find an LP for herself.

As Robert rang up our purchases, he asked if his was the only record store we’d visited. I told him the brief and tragic tale of trying to find Ruthless Records, which apparently no longer existed. My new friend got a puzzled look on his face. “Do you mean Reckless Records?” he asked. “That’s a pretty cool place, and it’s not very far from here.” I had promised to have my daughter home by 7, and still had a five-hour drive to look forward to. But my watch said we had time for one more stop. And like that, we were off!

This time, Siri knew exactly what I was talking about. I found Reckless Records less than 20 minutes later. What I couldn’t find was a parking spot. We wound up leaving the car about half a mile away, and hiking back to this storefront:

This store was a bit bigger than Permanent, but it still had a nice indie feel to it. And while they have more than one location, nothing about Reckless Records smacked of a chain/franchise store.

I liked what I was seeing.

It was here I met Beth, a very kind (and incredibly busy) young lady. I told her the same story I told Robert, and asked for her guidance. I got another knowing smile and look of determination, and Beth was off like a shot! Unfortunately, I was unable to get a decent photo of Beth, as she was helping me and at least two other people simultaneously. Still, while I wandered through the browser racks, she managed to appear out of nowhere to hand me a recent favorite LP of hers. A brief description from her made it sound like it was right up my alley. Still, it’s not easy describing/selling obscure music to complete strangers. So I completely understood when Beth said, “It won’t hurt my feelings at all if you don’t want it.” I raised a reassuring hand. “You took the time and trouble to consider me for it,” I said. “That’s all the endorsement I need.” Her smile told me I’d made a new music buddy.

While most of what I bought was foreign to me, it could be argued that I hedged my bets just a bit, because most of the artists were on the Thrill Jockey label, which is based in Chicago. This is the label that introduced me to Tortoise, Isotope 217, Chicago Underground, and other artists I absolutely love. I was taking a risk, but it was a calculated one.

Meanwhile, my daughter did what she’s learning to do best: ignore her old man’s blabbering, and go it alone.

And once again, she found something to her liking. That’s my girl!

I wanted to stay longer, but my watch said it was time to hit the road. Rest assured, I will visit these stores again. And as it happens, I’m due back in Chicago in October to cover Progtoberfest 2017. There’s a very good chance I will arrive more than a little early, so I can visit some record stores.

And for the record, I had my daughter at the front door at 7:15. There was a traffic jam on I-90/94. It took almost an hour to get out of Chicago.

Funny aside: The day after we got home, I got a note from music journalist and friend Anil Prasad via Instagram. “Visit Dusty Groove,” he wrote, “the greatest record store in America.”

Son of a …

ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I yelled in my head. I DROVE RIGHT PAST IT!!! Well, I guess I know where my first stop is come October.

That aside, I want to offer a sincere thank you to Robert and Beth. You made my entire trip worthwhile with just a couple of minutes worth of attention. I really appreciate it. And the music you selected is KILLER.

What did I end up buying, you ask? I’ll tell you all about it next time.


  1. These “old-fashioned” record stores look awesome! About a year ago after I had “rediscovered” vinyl, I found this tiny record store close to my house, “Revilla Grooves on Main” ( Main stands for Main Street, Milltown, NJ.

    In addition to mostly carrying used vinyl records, the store also sells refurbished vintage stereo equipment. It’s a tiny store and the volume of records coming in and going out seems to be so high that the super nice owner can barely keep up with it. As a result, most records are unsorted, and you actually need to browse to see what he has.

    While this may not be ideal for folks who are on a tight schedule, I happen to like it, since you can truly discover treasures! I haven’t been there in a while. You post motivates me to go back there this weekend!

    Liked by 1 person

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