Last year, revenues from physical music, a category that includes vinyl and CDs, reached its highest levels since 2013, with vinyl accounting for 72% of the pie. According to the Recording Industry Association of America, vinyl sales in the first half of 2023 were a whopping $632 million.
If you’re one of the many, many people still buying physical music, there’s no greater joy than a record store. Whether you’re new to vinyl or an old wax head, a fundamental part of the experience is browsing the stacks and seeing what creeps into your hands. The fingers and eyes dance together, seeing, feeling and flipping. It’s mindfulness in the music. And once you get the collecting bug, the hunt really begins. Lists will pile up and it’ll become harder and harder to walk past a record shop without sneaking in to check for your must-haves.
Chicago is a music city, the birthplace of house, gospel, urban blues and modern jazz. You can find live music every night, and vinyl in every neighborhood. So it’s tricky to declare a “best of” in the record store category. Finding the right record shop is personal, revolving on the music you want, where you’re willing to travel and ultimately what you’re searching for at a given moment.
Given the subjective nature, stakes had to be put in the ground to establish what makes the cut for this list. Here’s what mattered:
- City of Chicago address
- Reasonable pricing
- Aimed at the consumer, not the professional
- Appealing space (cleanliness and aesthetics)
- Extra points for listening stations, in-house events and a fully formed identity or attitude
Most Chicago record stores are independently owned — many on this list by BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and women — so supporting them is delightfully impactful. While there are endless genres of music, and even more types of music listeners, this list should have something for everyone.
The best of the best. If you’re limited on time, start here. These records stores will have what you’re looking for.
Wicker Park – 1379 N. Milwaukee Ave.
The gold standard in town, and for good reason: Reckless does it all and does it well. Operating in Chicago since 1988, they’ve expanded to three different shops, in Wicker Park, Lake View and the Loop. The Wicker Park location inspired the set for John Cusack’s 2000 film High Fidelity. In 2018, Rolling Stone listed them as one of the 10 best record stores in America. It’s an institution. Reckless’s vast collection mixes current artists, indie darlings and rare finds. Be on the lookout for in-store performances and events like album listening parties. Cutting to the chase: reliable, respectable and not particularly reckless.
Wicker Park – 1120 N. Ashland Ave.
Half a mile down the road from Reckless sits Dusty Groove. If Reckless is Chicago’s vinyl Mecca, then Dusty Groove is where you come on a soul search, figuratively and literally (they specialize in rare funk and soul). The shop is clean and reserved. Well-trodden territory, they also appeared on Rolling Stone’s best list, but in 2010. What sets them apart from others in the area is their website, which is updated hourly, and their pickup window. The owner personally writes up reviews for every album on the website with a heady, academic energy. If you know what you want and they have it, it’s a no-brainer experience, although finding parking on Ashland adds complications. Bargain hunters are sure to find some treats in the $0.99 basement.
Wicker Park – 1272 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Between Reckless and Dusty Groove sits Shuga, rounding out a lovely trifecta of Wicker Park vinyl. In a word, Shuga is cool. In two, it’s approachable cool. Their well-labeled collection is vast — they claim to have graded nearly three million albums in their 20-plus years of operation. There are tens of thousands of albums in store, overseen by a helpful and friendly staff. There’s a youthful energy in this shop. The performers they attract for in-store events and performances reflect that. If you’re in Logan Square, Shuga has a second location at 3306 W. Armitage Ave.
Andersonville – 5405 N. Clark St.
Rattleback does every genre well, without being overwhelming. This brightly lit store sits on the north end of Andersonville’s main shopping drag. Take a load off on the couch while you take in the mix of old and new albums. I personally prefer accessible, nonjudgemental staff, but I know some people are into negging — if that’s the case, you’ll hate it here. The enthusiastic, helpful employees will make recommendations based on your interests. The owner will even hand-select four albums a month for you if you join the Rattleback Record Club.
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Entries in this category blur together…in a nice way. These are solid shops, and each has their winning points. Find your local spot and expand from there.
Portage Park – 4356 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Looking to relax while pursuing wax? Tone Deaf is on a less visited stretch of Milwaukee Ave. and boasts both a listening station and conversation couch. It’s neatly organized, tastefully appointed and easy to move around. Great punk collection and really well priced offerings — you’ll snag a decent amount of titles for under $10. Vinyl lovers will appreciate their record cleaning kits, and if their in-store machine is cooperating, it can administer a thorough wash.
Pilsen – 1722 W. 18th St.
Located steps off the 18th Street L stop, Pinwheel is small and mighty, with a nice mix of old and new. They get the vibes right, and it’s a comfortable and inviting place to linger a while. Plus, with a listening station, you can find some hidden gems and try them out, buying a used album with confidence. Their $1 bargain bin is filled with strange and delightful used treasures. The owners feel part of the broader vinyl community and will quickly recommend another store nearby if they don’t stock what you’re looking for.
Pilsen – 1808 S. Allport St.
You’ll find 606 down the street from Pinwheel and directly across the street from Thalia Hall. DJs take note: they specialize in independent labels, and love highlighting international and local artists. If you’re into album art, 606 will surely have some covers you’ve never seen before.
North Park – 3455 W. Foster Ave.
Newer to the scene and in a strange part of town (they picked it for the plentiful parking and proximity to schools, including NEIU, so they can serve the next generation of music lovers), Round Trip is also smaller than you’re thinking in square footage, but deeper in sleeves than you’d expect. Owned by two former musicians, they bring an artist’s appreciation for selling and cherishing vinyl. Case in point: records here are stored without genre because how can you put music in a box? They will know every band you mention, have a buddy at every record store in America and never judge you for your selects. Lots of deep cuts and off-the-beaten-path pickups. If you come on a slow day, owner John Donahue (former Mercury Rev frontman) might regale you with stories of the ’90s rock circuit including an on-brand Nirvana run-in.
Wicker Park – 1343 N. Ashland Ave.
Also new in 2023, Signal quickly expanded to two locations, one in Wicker Park and another in Logan Square. They specialize in global sounds with a heavy focus on jazz, soul and rare spins. The Wicker Park spot was easy to digest and had a large listening station.
Avondale – 2935 N. Milwaukee Ave.
They’ve been on the scene for as long as Reckless — over 35 years — in various Chicagoland locations. An ownership handoff a few years ago included another location change (to the old Blind Pig Records storefront). Funky styling, exposed brick, long rows of record bins, plus additional offerings like band T-shirts and collectibles place Record Breakers squarely in the old-school category. No overhead fluorescent lighting gives the space a dark but warm feel, and there’s a turtle in a fish tank who stares at you when you pass by. The staff say they aim to “stock a lot of interesting used albums.”
Hyde Park – 1377 E. 53rd St.
This South Side staple has been in business for 40 years with a focus on R&B, soul, jazz, house and hip-hop. It’s another stop that’s big on the DJ circuit and wisely has a listening station. The store also rotates artistic memorabilia by season, think vintage Vibe and Jet magazines, vintage Bulls starter jackets and other seasonal ephemera exhibits like one for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
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Vibes Over Everything
Aiming to be transported to a different time, or thrown into a niche experience, while also buying records? Look no further.
Lincoln Square – 4639 N. Lincoln Ave.
Gen X hearts will swell as they enter Laurie’s. Hand-drawn record dividers punctuate the stacks. Magnets, buttons and incense cover every other surface, giving the place a throwback feel. After 25 years in this trendy spot on Lincoln Square’s main strip, Laurie’s has earned a reputation for a strong selection and knowledgeable staff. Their consistency might feel underwhelming, but they are a mainstay for a reason. No listening stations, but the staff is happy to toss on anything you want to give it a test.
Avondale – 2845 N. Milwaukee Ave.
A Millennial fever dream, Bric-a-Brac is singular. While they sling very specific ’90s memorabilia, collectibles, records and a ton of VHS tapes, their speciality is soundtracks. But they’ve got some new music, and some really old vinyl in $1 bins. An attached retro coffee shop rounds out this hallucination come to life.
Avondale – 3182 N. Elston Ave.
Given the name, and the speciality in heavy metal and punk, this place has way more charm and rosy verve than expected. Probably as many books as albums, their fiction focus is horror, sci-fi, fantasy and manga. The film section is heavy on horror. It’s like a very specific, very small Barnes & Noble, but rock ‘n’ roll.
Oldies But Goodies
Steeped in Chicago history, some places you should patronize out of respect. These are those. They are overstuffed, overflowing and worth a visit.
West Garfield Park – 4407 W. Madison St.
Speakers are propped outside, pouring music onto the street. Inside, crowded shelves stacked to the ceiling house thousands and thousands of albums, the culmination of an establishment that once was 10 times larger. A white cat prowls like a snow leopard. Still operated by 82-year-old Marie Henderson, this Garfield Park store has seen a lot of change. The original building burned down in riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., but Marie is still here, selling “strictly old school” for over 50 years. As all the shops in this category are, it’s borderline decrepit, but respectfully and lovingly, like a grandparent’s house. A flood this spring was even the catalyst for the reorganization of a few sections. You’ll come across rare vintage finds here, and an unbeatable selection of gospel.
Irving Park-ish – 3419 W. Irving Park Rd.
Bob Koester was nationally known as founder of the influential Chicago blues and jazz label Delmark Records. When he died in 2021 at the age of 88, obituaries ran in The New York Times and The Guardian. Delmark is still in operation, claiming to be the oldest continuously operating independent jazz and blues record label in the country. Their artists regularly play the Green Mill. His record shop garnered regional fame specializing in, you guessed it, blues and jazz. Now operated by his son, Robert Jr., bins and overstuffed furniture create a winding, cluttered treasure trove reminiscent of an antique store. Robert is the first to admit he thought their days were numbered, but he stays pleasantly surprised by the sustained appetite for vinyl. Overflowing with originals, it’s a must-stop for jazz and blues fans.
Beverly – 11612 S. Western Ave.
The sign out front reads “Beverly Records, Where Vinyl Still Lives.” Family owned and operated for over 50 years, the store is a success story of female business acumen. The late Christine Dreznes “didn’t know the Monkees from the Beatles” when her husband purchased a novelty store for $3,600 in 1967, but the daughter of tavern owners understood people. She immediately installed a pair of barstools at the counter, to encourage folks to come in and talk, and slowly became known for her ability to source rare and hard-to-find records. From humble beginnings, she expanded the business to four stores during the ’70s and ’80s, but it’s now just the single location on Western, the street she was born on. A classic South Side Irish establishment, be prepared to chat.
When You Want to Feel Pretentious
Owning and buying vinyl can be a snobbish pastime. When you’re in the mood to lean in on grandiosity, go here.
Ravenswood-ish – 2022 W. Montrose Ave.
This blurb from their website is your early indicator on vibe: “We exclusively sell used vinyl LPs and specialize in original vintage pressings and rare and interesting titles.” This small store caters to the vinyl wonk. When I came in, no one spoke to me, but there was an ongoing discussion between three men about Klipsch La Scala speakers being “light on the bass” (not what you want in $14,000 speakers). Cardboard boxes mix with album bins making it unclear what’s actually for sale. It’s a bit haughty, intentionally out of reach, but sometimes that’s your mood.
Rogers Park – 1768 W. Greenleaf Ave.
No website, no store hours and their Instagram bio teases “catch us if you can.” Electric Jungle is basically a private collection, viewable by appointment only. How do they get away with it? Pedigree. The store amounts to a small share of the collection of John Ciba, the former owner of Logan Hardware which closed in 2018 after a decade of success. Albums are housed in wheeled shopping carts, which pop against bright green walls lined with live plants…from what I hear. I couldn’t actually get in. Try emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a visit.
Washington Park – 307 E. Garfield Blvd.
Owned by two DJs, the collection is heavy on funk, soul, house and disco, but has a bit of everything. Named for the Japanese word for “shrine fortress,” Miyagi Records is “influenced by the hyper-curated, hidden away vinyl shops of Tokyo.” Online sellers for years, the business incubated under the Rebuild Foundation’s Creative Entrepreneurship Program and opened its brick and mortar operation in the spring of 2023. It sits squarely in Washington Park’s Arts Block, a corridor teeming with creatives, so there are tons of in-store events. Every Saturday a visiting DJ comes in to spin vinyl-only sets. If this is pretentious, I don’t want to be humble.
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