Oye Records, Berlin. (photos: Brandon Roos)
For some, a vacation may mean snapping famous sights, sampling local foods, or simply taking things slow. As a vinyl junkie, anytime I go somewhere new, my focus is on unearthing stacks of a town’s local record shop.
The premise of record shops is largely the same everywhere you go, but the
personality and selection can vary dramatically. My European getaway revealed shoebox shops with loads of personality, near-obsessive organization, and kind shopkeepers willing to accommodate tardy shoppers. During my two-week stint overseas, I visited Amsterdam, Munich, and Berlin, and was lucky enough to stop by at least one shop in each city. Here’s an overview of what I saw, and what I picked up.
In Amsterdam, I visited one shop best known for its jazz selection. Until stepping into Back Beat, I’d never seen a shop choose to organize its jazz by instrument. Here, guitarists Grant Green and Wes Montgomery mingled together while staring across the space at trumpeters Miles Davis and Freddie Hubbard. While I passed on jazz and a couple notable world/afrobeat titles (I’m kicking myself for letting We All Be Africans by Idris Ackmoor and the Pyramids slip away), I settled on soul, picking out Valerie Simpson’s self-titled sophomore LP, whose cover I’d only ever seen online.
I think it’s fair to call Back Beat a hole in the wall. However, much like those no-frills establishments we often lovingly associate with the term, its limited space was no mark on the quality of its stock.
Conclusion: Even if the space felt cramped at times, the shop’s organization and curation proved it’s well worth digging through. If you’re a fan of world music, Latin jazz, or soul, I highly recommend making a stop.
I had little intention of looking for records while in Munich, but a stroll through the city’s Englischer Garten inspired a look at nearby stores when stopped for a drink at an open-air food market. Google spotted Public Possession, a shop that defies easy categorization. As they spell out on their site, “the effort of Public Possession is driven by the fun of creation and an urge to combine data –to create news.” The owners are active DJs who travel the world.
Since my vinyl knowledge related to electronic music is limited, I chose to stick with in-house and related releases. Intrigued by the cover, I picked up Mr. Tophat’s A Memoir From the Youth Pt. I and & II by collaborators P Relief and D, located in Amsterdam and LA, respectively (the 12” is released under their own imprint, P&D Records).
Conclusion: This unexpected detour proved a brilliant slice of a life, a quick glimpse into Munich’s creative scene. While I wouldn’t recommend the shop for everyone, if your ear skews ambient and electronic, it may be worth your while to pop in.
During my second evening in Berlin, I headed solo to one of East Berlin’s hipper neighborhoods, Freidrichshain, to dig through about five shops within walking distance of one another. I started at Audio In, and felt a cold reverence permeate the space. The more I explored the shop, I grew convinced I’d never seen such meticulously organized electronic music in my life. It seemed to all be there — house, techno, tech house, Detroit and Chicago house, drum n bass, IDM, minimal techno, music organized by heralded labels such as Trax and Nervous. They even had bargain DnB and techno in boxes on the floor!
Rather than veer electronic, the fanboy in me rejoiced when I found a copy of Devotion by Jessie Ware in their soul box — I have a copy of the record hanging on my wall at home. This one, though, was the original European cover (I said I was a fanboy). I’m not gonna argue with that find for €10.
Conclusion: If you’re well acquainted with electronic music’s varying flavors, make sure to stop by the shop, which is a short walk from legendary techno temple Berghain.
After Audio In, I made it to Vinyl a Go Go in Berlin, my record store highlight of the entire trip (for selfish reasons). Due to poor time management, I arrived ready to rifle through the stacks with less than 10 minutes until closing. Thankfully, the shopkeeper told me I could stick around and take my time. Soon after, he handed me some gems I’d never known about, and may never come across again.
After describing some key artists I was looking for, he challenged me with some avant-garde European jazz mostly from Amiga Records, formerly a state-owned East German music publisher. This was exactly the moment I was hoping for – a curated hand guiding my ear toward sounds I was not informed enough to find on my own.
His avant-garde choices largely proved a bit too free for my tastes. They felt too still, too stoic – except for two records he recommended from a label called Black Pearl. One, from an East Berlin group called SOK, was originally deemed too Western to release back in the early ’70s. The other was by a Yugoslavian band called Spektar. For my third choice, I snagged a copy of Jan Garbarek Quartet’s Afric Pepperbird, one of the more notable early recordings from German jazz label ECM.
Conclusion: This shop had the best jazz I came across during my trip. They also had a robust rock section, and are noted in reviews for their dense selection of soundtracks. Pound-for-pound, the best shop I encountered to satiate various musical tastes.
My final day in Berlin, I made it to Oye Records in Kreuzberg. The shop was a well-curated collection catering mostly to electronic interests, similar to Audio In but with an even larger stock. General electronic was broken up by label when able – Warp, Planet Mu, Ninjatune, Hyperdub, etc. They also had a house room – let that sink in.
I almost picked up two Hudson Mohawke EPs, but opted instead to choose a comp from the wall. London is the Place for Me 2: Calypso & Kwela, Highlife & Jazz from Young Black London chronicled an amalgam of sounds coming out of London in the ’60s and ’70s, which capture elements of jazz and soul mingling with Caribbean calypso influences.
Conclusion: If you’re electronically inclined, this spot is certainly worth your time, though I wouldn’t recommend this spot for the casual vinyl collector since its sheer selection and organization can be a bit overwhelming.
Conclusion: Vinyl culture is very much alive and well in the spots I explored while in Europe, and my trip helped me understand that record collecting is indeed a worldwide pastime.
Looking back, I was both surprised by and terrified of how well curated some of these shops were. In particular, Berlin showed, through its meticulously sorted shops, why it stands as one of the world meccas for electronic music. Even at spots that catered to a different musical ilk, there was a clear reverence for different shades of music based on the wide variance of music you could sort through. I feel I enjoyed a great sampling of spaces, which left me yearning to go back and dive into the stacks of shops I’ve yet to visit.