In high school, my Spanish teacher once assigned us Jorge Luis Borges’s classic short story The Library of Babel. It famously imagined the universe as a library, and the library as the universe. Books were not just books; they were gateways to the indefinite and the infinite. I remember loving the story but also wanting to revise it. I hadn’t found the universe in libraries. I found it in record stores.
Like the volumes lining the bookshelves of Borges’s library, the spines of records and the labels of cassettes with their prices scrawled in Sharpie or stamped with a pricing gun opened portals into limitless knowledge and unending musical discovery. My favorite record stores looked so unassuming with their bland exteriors and darkened windows and their quiet and shadow-like staff, but inside they were a fantastical hall of mirrors. Every record in their crates was an opportunity for self-reflection, but also complete reinvention. The me who entered the store was never the me who left it.
The first record store in Los Angeles, Tally’s Phonograph Parlor, opened downtown in 1893, selling Edison cylinders that contained “hundreds of new and beautiful songs and band selections.” Several others followed across the city, but the first L.A. record store to promise the universe was Wallichs Music City, a monumental musical emporium that opened at the corner of Sunset and Vine in 1940.
Music City pioneered the modern record store as a social experience, with records wrapped in cellophane and piled into bins for customers to flip through and hold (at earlier L.A. shops like Phillips Music Company in Boyle Heights or Repertorio Musical Mexicano downtown, records were displayed in cases or behind the counter). Musicians booked time in the store’s recording rooms. Shoppers slipped into its phonograph booths where they could sample records before deciding what to buy. In the Pleasures’ 1965 ode to the store, “Music City,” a couple meets cute in one of the booths but leaves with romance instead of the latest hit single. “Didn’t buy a record,” they sang, “but we had a good time.”
Nat King Cole, Judy Garland, and Bing Crosby all shopped there in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and John Doe of punk band X bought one of his first records there with his grandfather in 1962. The store pressed its own records, released weekly charts, and published its own music catalogs. Music City was also the birthplace of Capitol Records, co-founded by the store’s owner Glenn Wallichs just two years after it opened. (The legendary label was headquartered above the store until moving to its landmark building north on Vine a decade later.) Music City lived up to its name: not a store, but an entire city, a bustling human settlement with its own residents and customs and style.
By the end of the ‘60s, Music City might have been name-checked by the GTOs in their tribute to rock scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, but it was losing its cred. The store struggled to compete with smaller shops that offered discount pricing and more niche stock. By the time Music City finally shuttered in 1978, Sunset was littered with record stores. There was The Wherehouse, Licorice Pizza, and Larry’s Discount Records, and as you moved east, a proliferation of shops targeting Sunset’s surrounding Latino neighborhoods, including Discos Latinos and Pacific Record Shop, Echo Park’s home to “discos y tapes latinos.”
The closest heir to the Music City throne was Tower Records, which opened in the heart of the Sunset Strip in 1971. Like Music City, it was technically a place to buy records, but became so much more—a laboratory for industry marketing, a sanctuary for musical outcasts, and a classroom for the curious. Novices and snobs alike could linger over bins full of “deep catalog” and with the help of the store’s learned staff, be introduced to new musical worlds. It was also a hangout for musicians, who could do their own shopping while sharing the aisles with potential fans.
“It’s that place where your dreams meet the listener,” Bruce Springsteen recently said of Tower on Sunset, which surrendered to the age of file sharing and MP3s in 2006. His statement could have been applied to Music City in its ‘40s and ‘50s heyday, or even to Sunset’s 21st-century claim to record store fame, Amoeba Records.
“That’s where the final connection was made,” Springsteen continued. “That audience you dreamt of is walking through the door right now.”
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