It sounds better on vinyl: A look at CU’s record stores : Music – Smile Politely – Champaign-Urbana’s Online Magazine

I acquired my first record player this past winter. Despite being a newcomer, I have grown to thoroughly enjoy vinyl collecting. As a millennial who came of age as music went digital, I find it delightfully analog. Walking into a store without knowing what I want, flipping through the bins guided only by genre and alphabetical ordering, and making a discovery—an old favorite, someone I’ve been meaning to try, a name I had forgotten, even a so-bad-it’s-good guilty pleasure—is a joy and a rush. Then to take it home and put it on without the ability to pause and skip tracks, I can only sit back and enjoy the experience.

In our digital music world Champbana is fortunate to have multiple stores which sell new and used records. I’ve put together my novice’s impressions to help fellow and would-be newcomers to the world. A small disclaimer: I do not count myself as an aficionado of alt, punk, or indie music (the styles most strongly associated with small record stores …). My tastes are eclectic, but I do have an affinity for classical and older rock and pop. Still, I have tried to be as holistic as possible in my descriptions.

Image by Michael O’Boyle.

Record Swap: 119 Lincoln Square, Urbana

This landmark of Champaign-Urbana has been in continuous operation for over forty years. Its long and colorful history spans the “golden age” of underground music, the takeover of digital streaming, and the vinyl renaissance. So many people have stories (and opinions) going all the way back. Reading through the hype, though, I could not help but wonder how much of it is rumination on the good old days.

I must admit I was underwhelmed when I walked in for the first time. The long rows of bins and white walls postered with the likenesses of Queen, Nirvana, Kiss, and Bruce Springsteen reminded me more of a big box entertainment store more than a local record swap (despite the truly awesome portrait of Johnny Cash giving the bird). I had hoped there would be more atmosphere and character to accompany the mythos.

What it lacks it in style, it makes up for in substance tenfold. They have everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—you could possibly be looking for. The vast rows of records are comprehensive (even overwhelming) and are likely hiding whatever you’re looking for. The new releases section was the most comprehensive I had seen in town: while Adele and Taylor Swift vinyls are fairly common, this was the only place I saw Sam Smith’s Love Goes. However, what won my heart was their vast classical section. Bookcases filled with boxed sets of complete opera recordings. Records not just covering the usual pops program but also lesser known and modern composers. I was fortunate that I did not have any cash in my wallet!

Parasol Records: 303 W Griggs St, Urbana

Another name that pops up in local music lore, Parasol is usually discussed as a complement to Record Swap: instead of trying to carry everything, they specialize to “underground” groups. They certainly have the largest selection of 45s in town (which is how singles were released back in the day), but their LPs were broader in taste than I expected. The new record collection, self-described as modest, is actually pretty wide. The classical and jazz sections weren’t too shabby either: I walked out with two records from their one-bin classical collection!

Parasol’s most endearing quality is the ambiance. They share a space with IttyBittyBikeShop, which made me think I was in the wrong place when I walked in the door. Once inside and browsing, though, I got lost in the nooks and crannies of the shelves and the quiet background music. I could have easily spent a few hours just making my way through everything and browsing the backlog of music magazines they keep—another unique feature. In terms of both selection and vibe, I think Parasol is the closest Champbana has to a music hub right now.

The entrance to See You CD & Vinyl from the back alley. The brick wall has been painted with graffiti-style art, and a glass door displays the store logo: a stylized eyeball with a record for the pupil. A poster for upcoming shows from Pygmalion the store's hours are on display.Image by Michael O’Boyle.

See You CD & Vinyl: 208 W Main St, Urbana

I was frequenting Cafeteria & Company for an embarrassingly long time before I realized there was a hallway leading to our town’s youngest record store in the back corner. For the adventurous reader, there is also an entrance on the alleyway off Race Street by the Courier Café. Despite the hole-in-the-wall locale, the inside is meticulously polished to give a ~vibe~: a painted mural that is vaguely punky, a whole wall with skateboards and sneakers for sale, and hip hop-esque (Mac Miller and the like) background music.

See You is the only record store in CU (get it?) to explicitly cater to younger listeners. They take pride in their new releases section and invite special orders for their weekly shipments. They are also the only store I’ve noticed which stocks indie hip-hop groups like Jedi Mind Tricks. The used section does seem disproportionately focused on 70s and 80s pop and rock. But I guess they are unique in carrying a large collection of laserdisc movies (I have no idea …). Still, they must be doing something right, because every time I go in on a Saturday there is a college-age crowd. If you go then, you might be greeted by Rosa, the goodest, bestest doggy. Ever.

Exile on Main Street's storefront. There is green shrubbery in the foreground with a glass door propped open against a red brick and stone facade. The leftmost window display's the store name with an image of a record, and the rightmost window shows the logo to Dandelion (the store they share a space with).Image by Michael O’Boyle.

Exile on Main Street: 100 N Chestnut St, Champaign

The only dedicated record store in downtown Champaign, they more than carry their weight with selection. Walking in and glancing down at their ten-foot “conversation piece,” I am still amazed when I look back up at the giant wall of new releases. Then I turn the corner and see the long row of record bins going back through two open-walled rooms. It looks organic, though, making it feel secondhand or thrift shop more than big box. It pairs well with Dandelion Vintage & Used in the same space.

Besides the giant wall, they keep a very large collection of recent releases (both new and used). They also have not-insignificant jazz and classical collections alongside a small group of hip hop albums. This is another case where the large volume can feel overwhelming, and you should plan on a couple of hours to look through everything. But as before, there can be a big payoff. A few weeks ago, I walked out with a like-new recording of Charles Ives’ Fourth Symphony: a notorious composition that has never been popular in concert halls—let alone recording studios.

Honorable Mentions

Furniture Lounge (11 E University Ave, Champaign) primarily sells décor in the midcentury modern aesthetic, but they also have a sizeable vinyl collection. I’ve found several gems every time I’ve gone in, including an original print of Let It Be and audio from the Apollo 11 moon landing. It’s too bad the store is intended for shoppers with a certain level of disposable income.

The Urbana Free Library has a record collection and even a portable record player which can be checked out. This is a great option for those just starting out or dipping their toe in the water. However, the collection does not seem to have expanded much since 2018, so don’t expect to see the latest releases. And borrower beware: the collection is public, so there’s a nonnegligible chance that the record you check out is seriously damaged (has noticeably poor sound quality and/or skips).

Finally, for the sake of completeness, there’s the Barnes & Noble in Marketview Shopping Center. They carry recent releases and reissues in theoretically new condition. But no. Seriously, no.

Top image by Michael O’Boyle.

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