As a seasoned music enthusiast and vinyl hunter, here is a guide to the best stores where to find the best music in the great New York City. We’ll send you first in Brooklyn, as most hip stores have moved in this trendy neighborhood in the last decade, but also in Manhattan, where a few stores survived the tough years record stores have had since the digital format’s arrival.

What are you looking for?

First of all, you need to establish what exactly you are looking for. Is it new music? Used records? Rarities (what we called bootlegs up to the 90s)? Are you looking for good deals or are you willing to break your piggy bank to own something special?

You also need to prioritize the music genres you prefer. Some stores specialize in specific genres. If you are on a tight schedule (which is often the case in NYC as there are so many things to see), you’ll want to invest your time in the best stores for you. As some stores aren’t necessarily close one from another, you’ll also want to calculate the commute time between destination. Fortunately, NYC’s public transportation is rapid and efficient. Subway will be your best friend to go from one store to the other.

The best stores for used vinyls

In my latest quest for great music in the Big Apple, I was looking for rare gems mostly in reggae, jazz, early classical music (Baroque or Renaissance music) with an eye open for some cool indie rock and classical solo guitarists and pianists.

After a short chat among Facebook friends and other music enthusiasts (which I thank at the end of this article), I established that a day in Brooklyn was vital for my music tastes.

grafiti boy

Brooklyn: where gems are!

It’s never dull in Brooklyn. This trendy neighborhood combines a sense of trendy fashion and hipster lifestyle that will please the 25-35 year old crowd that enjoy this vibe. Awesome wall graffiti, cool boutiques with expensive shirts, an overall ambiance that makes every café like the one you’ll want to spend 3 hours in enjoying a latte. I personally feel very comfortable in this ambiance.

human head

HUMAN HEAD

168 Johnson Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11206 – Website

My first stop on my vinyl hunting in Brooklyn was this tiny store located beside an old barber shop and grocery store on Johnson Street, at the intersection of Puerto Rico Avenue in sympathetic and no-jetset Bushwick Brooklyn neighborhood.

porto rico avenue

Porto Rico Avenue (Melrose metro station)

I felt great the minute I entered Human Head’s record store. Cool 60’s jazz was playing, a couple of friendly employees greeted me in, place was clean and felt like music experts were managing it. Nothing fancy, but records are classified in a logical way. I immediately proceeded in looking at the thousands of vinyls in this store to validate prices and choices: all good by me!

In the used vinyl record business, the shopper wants to be sure the albums aren’t overpriced nor in bad condition. Human Head had reasonable prices and a vast choice of reggae, jazz and indie rock, satisfying 3 out of the 4 music styles I was hunting for. Not much classical music. That’s all right: I rather visit record stores who perfectly know their field rather than simply visiting a warehouse full of old scrap without any help.

human head

I visited Human Head’s Record store on a Friday morning in March. There was a rotation of 4 or 5 customers all the time, so it was very easy for me to use the turntable and listen to the vinyls I had an eye on.

I am fast to decide if I like an album enough to buy it, but I’m looking for artists I never heard of, and am looking for nothing less than beautiful gems. Listening for a few minutes before purchasing is vital to me.

Very friendly store owner Travis let me access the store’s WiFi so I could listen to new albums (that I couldn’t unwrap, obviously) through YouTube. Very appreciated for a tourist that is on international roaming on his cell phone like I was.

I must have spent three hours at Human Head, living many moments of happiness whenever I was finding a new section of in this small store, or putting down the needle on another beautiful album.

I came out of there with 18 vinyls under my arm, for a total of $160 USD. This got me a free Human Head t-shirt that I proudly wear back in my hometown.

A lot of great inexpensive jazz albums made my day ($2 to $5!!):  The Giants of Jazz, Sonny Rollins & Thad Jones, a NYC 1940s jazz compilation, Dizzy Gillespie & Lester Young, Steve Kuhn/Sheila Jordan Band, Stéphane Grappelli/David Grisman live… plus the album from Charles Bradley backing band, the Menahan Street Band (the only new LP of all these), modern classical cellist David Friesen, and African folk singer Miriam Makeba… What great findings at Human Head!

human head

Purchases of that day – jazz

I also found great reggae albums by The Mighty Diamonds, Gentleman, Pablo Moses (all discoveries to me) and always excellent Bunny Wailer. As for indie rock: Cheap Girls, The Fresh and the Onlys, and a CSS single caught my ear, as did folk singer Barbara Mauritz.

human head

Purchases of that day

SUPERIOR ELEVATION RECORDS

100 White St, Brooklyn, NY 11206 – Website

This store is located in a bit more industrial part of Brooklyn. You kind of wonder if you are at the right place until you get in front of the door, where a small sign indicates the basement space.

superior elevation

The place is cool, and had free homemade kumbucha lemonade drinks when I was there. I had all the time I needed on the turntable to listen to the 50+ albums I had found while browsing in their bins. Superior Elevation had a nice selection of South American used records. Brazilian music reigns there, and some of the albums are pretty rare (and expensive). I did pick up a few gems in the world section, as much as in the jazz section. There weren’t as many records as at Human Head, but there were more weirder ones and rare ones, I felt.

superior elevation

I bought LPs by Bud Powell, Chuck Berry, Dave Brubeck, Paul Bley and discovered jazz huitarist Bill Connors, latin jazz band Gabor Szabo, Brazilians Zimbo Trio, a reggae album by Martha Velez produced by Bob Marley (the only one he produced without playing on) and a the “Reggae Scorcher” compilation from the 60s.

A1 records

Purchases of that day

ROUGH TRADE

64 N 9th St, Brooklyn, NY 11249 – Website

This is a place to go. Absolutely. Not to buy reggae or jazz records, because Rough Trade mostly have new alternative and indie rock albums, but for the space the store is in. It’s a little paradise for the record-owner, music-lover, wanna-be-15-forever as it includes a small venue, a café, a cool books section, has turntables for sale and, of course, records to check out. There are probably a few t-shirts and posters as well, I don’t remember.

rough trade

I spent a lot of time on the “Sonos Room” they had upstairs. When I got there, I was alone for over 40 minutes. Just playing around with the Sonos app, selecting music to listen to and simply relaxing in this awesome music room that had all I needed: a couch, speakers and an infinite music (digital) library to choose from.

rough trade sonos room

The Sonos Room at Rough Trade Records

I only bought a few CDs there: one was a rare live Lou Reed album from his 1984 tour (probably a bootleg of some sort), just because I’m a huge fan, but I enjoyed the 3 hours I spent there chilling and listening to music.

Check out our other “Vinyl Hunter” articles here! We write one in every city we shop vinyls!

 

Thank you to Marc-André Laporte, Julie Godon, Karl-Philip Marchand-Giguère, Nahame Obomsawin, Guillaume Cloutier, Vanessa Hauguel, Nadine Mathurin, Ritchie Kretschmer, Ben Shannon, and Jeff Rioux for their help in maximizing my March 2017 visit to New York City!

All photos by Nico Pelletier for RREVERB, all rights reserved.

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About The Author

Nicolas Pelletier
Fondateur et rédacteur en chef
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Mélomane invétéré et rédacteur agréé, Nicolas pratique la critique en mode olympique: il parle de tout, tout le temps, depuis 1991. Il a publié 4 500 critiques de disques et concerts dont 1100 chez emoragei magazine et 600 sur enMusique.ca, dont il a également été le rédacteur en chef de 2009 à 2014. Nicolas a publié "Les perles rares et les grands crus de la musique" en janvier 2013, un ouvrage de 1250 pages en deux tomes.