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April 20, 2014

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Hunting for (and finding) good vinyl records in Las Vegas

For music fans, local record stores are one of the city’s best kept secrets

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Since receiving a record player for Christmas a few years ago, I’ve devoted an embarrassing amount of my disposable income to vinyl records. I’m not a true collector — someone devoted to owning complete catalogs or buying rarities to sit forever sacred and unplayed on the shelf. I just love the sound. I’m of the school of thought that you haven’t really heard an album until you’ve heard it on vinyl. Then there’s the satisfaction of holding a record and studying the packaging and artwork. But above all, I’m a sucker for the hunt. There’s a distinct joy that comes with finally finding a record, a mix of personal accomplishment and the thrill of unwrapping a new toy on Christmas morning.

As a native Angeleno, I’d been spoiled with an abundance of resources for vinyl. Whatever can’t be found at L.A.’s numerous independent retailers dotting the east side is almost surely available at fabled Amoeba Records in Hollywood. Even flea markets boast vendors with impressive offerings.

So when I took a job in Las Vegas in January, I spent the weeks preceding the move milking L.A.’s record stores for all I could get, spending recklessly in what I was sure would be a last hurrah for quality records, at least for the foreseeable future.

When I got here, though, I was thrilled to find that not only was there one record store, there were several, some with multiple locations. Eager to see how they stack up, I set out with a wish list (and a $25 per-store cap) and got to hunting.

I start at Zia Record Exchange (4225 S. Eastern Ave.). Walking in feels like something of a time warp to the heyday of the music retail chain. The store is huge, and it takes some meandering through the racks of CDs (complete with listening stations … they still have those?!), DVDs and posters before I find the vinyl section tucked away in the back.

Zia is the only vinyl retailer in Las Vegas that regularly carries new releases, so I start at the top of my list with The Raveonettes’ new "Into the Night" double-EP, a limited and lesser-known release. I find the store’s last copy easily enough (for a reasonable $9.99), but quickly realize that the alphabetical markers (particularly in the used section) in the racks are more suggestions than actual indications of the artists I’ll find in those sections. It’s frustrating if you’re looking for a specific record (I quickly give up on the rest of my list), but if you’re there to browse, the mystery adds to the fun. While perusing “H,” I find a Radiohead single for $3; in “S” I discover Lee Hazlewood’s "Trouble Is a Lonesome Town," which had no price and heads home with me for 99 cents. The organization might be slapdash, but the prices are right, and the variety is substantial.

Next up: Fremont East’s cafe-cum-record store, The Beat (520 Fremont St.), whose modest selection of used records and prints is fun to browse if you already happen to be there for a drink. The selection is largely generic classic rock and ’80s fodder: The same forgettable Steppenwolf and Cars albums that come standard at every record store for $5-$10, but cost more like $15-$20 at the Beat. There are occasional gems and novelties — a Bowie live album and "The Baroque Beatles Book," a collection of classical covers of the Fab Four — but nothing rare or interesting enough that it couldn’t be found elsewhere cheaper. I come away with a stack of ’90s novelty postcards for $5, but no records. If you’re at the Beat, spend your money on food and drinks instead.

About 10 minutes south of the Beat is Record City (300 E. Sahara Ave.). If you’ve never been, its impractical hours (Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and unassuming, rundown exterior might make you wonder how it has managed to claim the title of Las Vegas’ oldest record store, having been around for more than 20 years. Step inside its cozy, meticulously organized interior, however, and you’ll see why. Record City specializes in used records and CDs of almost every genre, though it does carry a limited amount of new albums. It also might be the best place in the city to buy DVDs, with some titles priced as low as $2 a pop.

They don’t have any of the records I’m looking for, but their selection is impressive nonetheless (Beatles imports, Ramones single promos and a first-pressing promo of The Runaways’ self-titled debut, to name a few), and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. Perhaps the best thing about Record City: its dollar deals, making it the perfect shop for filling in holes in your record collection; I take home Fleetwood Mac’s "Rumours," John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s "Double Fantasy," The Who’s "Tommy" and the soundtrack to "2001: A Space Odyssey" for a cool $4. Total. The sleeves aren’t in stellar condition, but the records themselves play beautifully.

Last on my list is Wax Trax (2909 S. Decatur Blvd.). Its Yelp and Google reviews are so negative that I anticipate my visit with all the enthusiasm of a trip to the DMV. Across the board, customers panned the place as a dusty, overpriced warehouse whose owner is a cantankerous hoverer looking to rip you off.

They were right about one thing — the place is a warehouse located inside a lime-green, two-story house packed floor-to-ceiling with records, magazines, figurines and an assortment of other music memorabilia. Wax Trax isn’t a store for those looking to pick up the new Vampire Weekend album for their record player from Urban Outfitters. Nor is it a store for filling a crate with dollar deals. It’s a store for people with a serious passion for records — those who value vinyl as more than fun nostalgia. If you fall into that category, Wax Trax is among the greatest record stores you’ll ever find.

The owner, Rich Rosen, isn’t cantankerous, but he’s definitely in-your-face. He begins asking me what kind of music I’m looking for before I’ve completely stepped through the doorway. But it’s with good reason; you won’t get far among the unmarked, cluttered stacks without him pointing you in the right direction. In the basement, jazz; an upstairs bedroom, rock; a walk-in closet, blues.

Nothing in Wax Trax is priced. Rosen explains that everything in the store is based on market value, which he looks up in a book at the register. Most records start at $40-$50, with many in the thousands. Judging (correctly) that I don’t have much cash to burn, Rosen kindly shows me to a coat closet stocked with records $20 and under. “Those are just records I have too many copies of,” he explains. I quickly spot an original copy of George Harrison’s "All Things Must Pass," the only copy I’ve seen in town, which typically retails for $100-$200. I grab it for $20.

New releases aside, there isn’t a record I can’t find in this store. And not only are they easy to find, there are usually several copies, versions and editions of each. If you can’t afford something — one album on my list, a first edition of The Sonics’ "Here Are the Sonics" is $100 — Rosen is knowledgeable enough to help you find an alternative in your price range. He offers me the reissue for $30. We haggle, and I can’t hide my grin when I finally get him to agree to $20. I could probably find it even cheaper online, but where would the fun be in that?

This story first ran in Las Vegas Weekly, a sister publication of the Las Vegas Sun.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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  1. "I'm of the school of thought that you haven't really heard an album until you've heard it on vinyl."

    Domanick -- in a recent interview Neil Young talked about how the late Steve Jobs had been talking to him about some better music project, particularly the limitations of mp3. What stuck with me is his revelation for all Jobs' wealth and access to this planet's newest and latest and bestest technology, at home he still preferred his vinyl.

    Someday I'm gonna get my gun and hunt down the thief who stole all mine with my stereo out of that old storage!!

    "And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music" -- Nietzsche quote and Megan Fox tattoo

  2. Vinyl is a treasure that most have forgot. The sound is incredibly good. I miss my Klipsch Cornwalls and tube setup. People would fall over backwards hearing it play a good analog recording on vinyl. The MP3 generation has no idea what they missed. BTW, I have ~5k songs in MP3, ~500 CD's and hundreds of records. I know what sounds good.

  3. All Things Must Pass regularly sells for $50 - $60 in NM condition online. $20 is a decent price, but only for a NM copy. A VG+ copy clocks in at $25.
    The reissue of Here Are the Sonics typically goes for $20 sealed. If the condition was sufficient, I would have gone for the original, which is tough enough to find online that an original in NM condition sold for over $500 last year, and a copy in VG- condition went last month for $46 online.

  4. coming from the bay area and spending countless hours scouring the dollar bin at amoeba's in berkeley and sf i've always been a bit disappointed with las vegas' offerings in the vinyl department. however, there are treasures to be found and as the author states: it's all about the hunt.
    does anyone remember oasis records on las vegas blvd near the og? i miss that place.