There’s no greater city in the world to buy records than Detroit, especially if you’re after the kind of R&B, soul and jazz that was the Motor City’s second most famous export. There is an almost infinite supply, and despite a healthy international demand, you can still find music from Detroit, in Detroit, for way less than you’d pay in a store in, say, San Francisco, let alone the top dollar eBay auctions command. If you’re a serious collector, a digging trip to Detroit is akin to pilgrimage to Mecca. Here’s how to do it right.
Stay in Hostel Detroit. I’m not aware of too many other cities that have a hostel—though they litter most of Europe and Asia. It might not work everywhere—but the recently opened Hostel Detroit in the beautiful Corktown neighborhood is the only place I’ll be staying from now on. You can rent a private room for $27 a night, which comes with full access to wi-fi, kitchen, showers, laundry and living area—not to mention you’re virtually assured to meet a few interesting people. The week I visited Detroit, it was full every night and booked through the weekend well in advance, so make a reservation.
Start by visiting Richie Wohlfeil at Lo and Behold Records and Books in Hamtramck (formerly Hamtramck Hoardhouse). I interviewed Richie for Splice Today after my last visit, and since then he’s managed to accumulate even more amazing ephemera from Detroit. Even more importantly, Richie is something of an ambassador for the city, and will enthusiastically point you towards the best experience possible.
Say hello to Windy and Carl at Story Records in Dearborn. Windy and Carl are fantastic musicians with a national following, but for some reason their record store still seems like the best kept secret in town. That needs to change—the store is a veritable treasure trove, well organized, with two of the friendliest proprietors you’re likely to ever meet in a record store. They carry new records as well as used, and are an absolute must visit destination. In fact, go twice.
Go to People’s Records. People’s is run by Brad Hales, who is too modest to admit it, but is probably the world’s foremost expert on music from Detroit. Talking to him about music is like tossing around a football with Tom Brady. Press him for a few recommendations, set up camp at the listening statement and soak in all the beautiful hand painted signs that cover every box and wall.
Eat at Slow’s. Slow’s BBQ is the first of a lot of great restaurants that come to mind, but you have to start somewhere. You could do a lot worse than a place that serves Michigan’s best beers and some of the best ribs outside the South. If there’s a wait (and there usually is), it’s worth it. If it’s a long wait, go check out any of the nearby bars and dig the fact just about every jukebox is stocked full of R&B, soul and Bob Seger.
Get in some sight seeing. Detroit has more to offer than abandoned buildings, and large swaths of the city are thriving. If you’re there during summer, Eastern Market is a must. The bustling open-air market features a lot of produce grown at urban farms, freshly butchered meat, and plenty of ethnic food. If your visit is during the winter, check out Belle Isle for a nice view of the sky line and a glimpse into what the city looked like during its heyday.
Spend a day in Ohio. There’s a place in Toledo that a record fanatic couldn’t conjure in his wildest dreams. But AA Records is a real place, even if it is spoken of in hushed whispers by the sort of dudes that get sweaty palms when they hear “half a million 45’s,” “rare jazz room,” and “you can smoke in the basement while you dig.”
The store’s proprietor is an elderly man (phenomenally) named Frank Lynn who will hand you an ashtray upon entrance, show you around and then park himself in front of Fox News while the hours melt away and the piles of 45’s seem to multiply. The best part? Every 45, save the box of insanely rare Northern Soul heat he keeps behind the counter, is three dollars. A word of advice—a portable turntable is a must, because the best records you’ll find will be the ones that make you say “what the fuck is this?”
There are a ton of other great record stores; this is just a place to start. One of the best things about Detroit is that even though it’s been through some tough times (to put it mildly), the people that live there love it. You can’t throw a rock without hitting an amateur historian who would love nothing more than to tell you the history of their neighborhood—and the affection is infectious.
Detroit is a deep city; dive in.