The 50 Best Record Stores In America is an essay series where we attempt to find the best record store in every state. These aren’t necessarily the record stores with the best prices or the deepest selection; you can use Yelp for that. Each record store featured has a story that goes beyond what’s on its shelves; these stores have history, foster a sense of community and mean something to the people who frequent them.
It’s said that when you try to do everything you’ll succeed at nothing. Take a trip to Louisville, Kentucky, and you will find that statement to be incorrect. This city, born along the Ohio River, became a safe haven for those going West or South and it can be seen in nearly everything Louisville does. The place is a veritable clearinghouse of traditions, history, arts, commerce, and ingenuity. Occupying this bizarre balance between North and South, Louisville takes the best of both worlds and makes itself a Northern city in the South and a Southern city in the North.
In the first week of May, Louisville finds itself on the world stage for a grand total of 2 minutes. The Kentucky Derby has been held at Churchill Downs every year since 1875. The perfect time for anyone to don their seersucker or giant hat and drink a mint julep (over 2,000 pounds of mint are used each year), all in the name of Southern tradition. Leading up to Derby, we throw ourselves a two-week party. Starting with the largest annual fireworks display in the country, we put on a huge celebration of our own greatness (it is a little ridiculous, yes, but let us have this).
If you walk along Main Street downtown, you’ll see the remains of Whiskey Row, currently being rebuilt after a fire broke out in 2015. The old Chicago-inspired buildings were constructed just before the Civil War by many famous bourbon distilleries to be used as warehouses where they could quickly unload their finished product. Bourbon was the lifeblood of early Kentucky settlers who needed something to do with their corn, which would rot if sent back across the Appalachian mountains. So bourbon was made because it had a much longer shelf life and it was shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi to meet large demands in New Orleans. These traditions — bourbon, horse racing, etc. — not only stem from an economic demand, but from a long-standing passion to do what you love. Kentucky, and Louisville, wouldn’t continue doing any of this if our city and state didn’t love the excitement and celebration. Passion is what keeps a tradition alive.
Knowing this, it is no surprise that the best record store in the state keeps thriving. Surrounded by a gym and restaurant on either side, you’ll notice that the front door is almost always left open at Better Days, inviting anyone off the street to come in and take a look at the absolutely massive selection. Everything about the shop indicated that it was curated by someone who holds that same passion found in nearly everything Kentucky does. That someone is Ben Jones.
Hailing from small-town Stanford, Kentucky, Ben always had a passion for music, no matter the genre. His love for music — especially records — led him to become a DJ when he was only 12. His eclectic taste is still seen today in the vast selection of records at his stores, and he carried that taste with him to school at Western Kentucky University. Continuing to DJ on the side to help make money for school, Ben was dubbed “DJ BenMan” and became a hit at parties. Always looking to expand his repertoire, Ben found himself constantly at the local record store. His diverse taste led others to encourage Ben to open a store while he was still in school. The store did extremely well until the other partners decided to go their own ways, forcing Ben to put his business acumen to rest for a while.
His time away from record stores wouldn’t last long, because when Ben found himself in Louisville, he was back working at a record store — the original Better Days. The original owner saw Ben’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit and told Ben he would be much better as the owner. When asked if he would buy the store, he seized the opportunity — much like the early Kentuckian settlers with their bourbon — to share something wholly unique to himself with a market that craved what he provided. Since that purchase in 1982, Ben has shared his passion with Louisville. His store moved to its current location along Bardstown Road just a few years after he took the wheel. This was followed by an expansion to another store on the opposite side of town in 1995 and showed Louisville that Better Days still had their best to come; the music scene in town took notice. In a 1998 article, Louisville Music News called Ben “the patron saint of Louisville’s music scene,” mostly due to his dedication to keep the indie scene in town alive through the manufacturing of CDs for local bands. Other record stores might promote local bands but Better Days provides them the tools to reach their audience, without selling out or shelling out loads of cash.
With the advent of the internet and online marketplaces, Better Days came to be the port in the storm for lovers of music who wanted personalized service in an era becoming increasingly impersonal. This commitment to music lovers has been the saving grace of Better Days. No one would expect a store like them to still survive in such an environment. Better Days is completely fine taking its small percentage of the massive music industry, surviving on return customers and word of mouth, and using that to promote local music diversity and celebration. Greed does not drive a store like Better Days, but a genuine desire to serve its community.
This labor of love is an established tradition, using its name and expertise to promote everything that makes Louisville unique. It’s a melding of nearly everything that makes Kentucky, and Louisville, great: Southern style tradition and personalization mixed with a Northern entrepreneurial spirit — and acceptance of the weird. A passion for music is shared every day at Better Days, with everybody who walks into this store.