In every city I visit, I try to do two things: Find the best local bookstore and find the best local record store.
After decades of doing this, I’ve reached one surprising conclusion: Pittsburgh might be the best city in America to shop for records. We don’t have just one great, world-class record store — we’ve got several. Plus, a bunch of great little ones.
It’s not clear why, exactly. Some combination of a thriving music scene, (relatively) cheap rents, a continued reverence for old things (like low-tech vinyl) and a dedicated, growing base of collectors has made Pittsburgh into perhaps the spot to buy records. Talking to a lot of bands coming through town has largely confirmed this — a stop at Jerry’s or The Attic is required if you’re in Pittsburgh during the day.
And new record stores keep popping up all the time! The record store — more or less left for dead a decade or so ago with the apparent demise of CD sales, in favor of streaming — is having a major comeback, driven by vinyl. Vinyl album sales grew 15 percent in 2018 to 16.8 million, the 13th straight year of growth for the format.
Here are our favorites in Pittsburgh:
Jerry’s Records, Squirrel Hill
The best used record store in the world? This just might be it.
How many hip-hop and electronic albums have been constructed from the samples contained within the stacks at Jerry’s? How many of your favorite bands have bought their favorite records here? (Answer: lots)
Jerry Weber may have recently retired, but his temple to the cult of almighty vinyl lives on in Squirrel Hill. Rock, blues, jazz, country, funk, gospel — an entire history of recorded music — is contained in these rows of records. Remember, it’s a used record store. So you won’t always find what you’re looking for, because you never know what will be there on any given day. But you’ll always find something interesting and probably something unexpected. Start with the records in the front for a first crack at the new arrivals. The sheer volume of records that filters through Jerry’s enables the iconic shop to offer some of the lowest prices anywhere. It’s hard to just grab one or two when you can get an entire stack.
The Turntable Doctor, aka Vince at Galaxie Electronics, is in an adjoining room, so you’ll be able to get your record player in working order. He helped me figure out why mine kept turning on and playing records in the middle of the night.
Government Center, Deutschtown
I have no idea what motivates someone to open a record store in this music-is-free, Spotify-dominated world, but I’m all for it. This new spot in Deutschtown is absolutely terrific — it caters to serious collectors, and there’s lots of room to grow. That said, there’s still something here for the classic rock-buying Dads of the world (lots of rare Pink Floyd!), and all sorts of rare and unusual things: Cameroonian soul/funk/makossa compilations, a whole section of ambient and electronic music and exciting new jazz labels. I picked up a new record of lost avant-garde minimalist composer Julius Eastman, which I didn’t even know was available on vinyl.
Juke Records, Bloomfield
First it was Jim’s, then Paul’s CDs, then Sound Cat Records when it was owned by the late, beloved Pittsburgh musician Karl Hendricks. Now it’s Juke Records, carrying on the tradition of this Bloomfield space. This place has everything — whole sections of reggae and jazz, Latin and Afrobeat, local bands and avant-garde composers, along with all the latest indie rock releases. If you’re just starting a collection, this is a great place to begin. It’s mostly new records — and really, it’s the best spot in town for new music — but the used records section keeps growing. There’s also a small, but considerable selection for the CD diehards out there, plus music magazines. Juke Records just announced that they’re planning to close sometime this summer, so get there while you can.
Desolation Row Records/Caliban Book Shop, Oakland
The tiniest little record store — so small, that it fits inside Caliban Book Shop in Oakland — merits mention because it’s curated so well. There’s no room for junk — just about everything here is something good. Plus, you can shop for used and antiquarian books at the same time.
Cruel Noise Records, Polish Hill
Every city’s underground culture has a particular vibe, and Pittsburgh’s has definitely veered toward the mohawked for several decades now. So this is the spot if you’re serious about punk and metal — whether you’re an old head collecting Discharge or Exploited 7-inches, or a youngblood looking to have your mind blown by something louder and faster than everything else. One other bonus: Upstairs is the tiny-but-mighty Copacetic Comics Company, and downstairs is a terrific coffee shop called Kaibur. This building is like a veritable cathedral of archaic media (and caffeine).
Skull Records, Allentown
Allentown has the metal-themed coffee shop, Black Forge, and the metal-themed vegan restaurant, Onion Maiden — so it obviously needed a record shop, preferably one with lots of metal. Used punk and metal do dominate this cozy shop, but there’s a pretty good selection of other stuff, flowery-fonted psychedelia, leftfield weirdo folk music and private label oddities galore. I got a used Trinidadian calypso record and a Gypsy flamenco album recently for shockingly little.
The Attic Record Store, Millvale
The best of both worlds — new and used records — can be found in this labyrinthine shop. The Attic combines an almost-Jerry’s-amount of used albums, with a broad and brilliant selection of new and reissued music. Prices vary widely, but would be considered “pretty good” in any other city in America. Get a photo in front of the beautiful music label mural outside, and grab a macaron at Jean-Marc’s bakery down the street. Recent finds include “Bollywood Bloodbath: The B-Music of the Indian Horror Film Industry” and “Black Fire! New Spirits! Radical and Revolutionary Jazz in the USA 1957-82.”