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.
I was 20, home in Florida from college over Thanksgiving break, and my friends and I were at The Social in Orlando to see David Bazan, singer of the recently revived sort-of-Christian indie rock band Pedro the Lion. Someone yelled, “Come to Florida more!” Bazan, historically saint-patient and even-tempered, broke for a moment: “Man, I just don’t think you know what that means!” he said plaintively. “You can schedule two, maybe three dates in Florida on the way down, and then you’ve gotta take an entire day to drive back up. And a day off means we’re just bleeding money.” Bazan finished tuning his guitar. “We’d love to come down here more. We just can’t.”
Florida is a land of no character, carved out of swampland and steamrolled into existence. The indigenous people who once populated the state—Seminole, Muscogee, Yamasee, Miccosukee, and myriad others—were driven out west towards the Mississippi, and war was waged on those who insisted on remaining. By the period between World Wars, cheap, undeveloped land and newly efficient, widely available air conditioning made Florida a target for land spectators. After World War II, Florida was slowly dominated by the tourism industry, ringed with cities that advertised coastal charm, and anchored by the throbbing cartoon heart of Disney World, with almost nothing in between.
The entire state of New York could fit between Miami and the Florida-Georgia border. Now, turn it on its side: It still fits. Florida is deceptively massive. It’s the third most populous state in the entire U.S., and almost all of those people live in the cities you know about, the ones that overlook water or a theme park or a college with a celebrated sports program. All that separates Orlando from the coastal cities is highway that runs through miles of orange groves pushed right up to the shoulder, cattle farms and tiny, worn out towns clinging to the side of train tracks.
It’s a place best visited by plane. From where I grew up in Sarasota, just getting out of the state takes half the day. Florida’s major highways are perfectly flat, straight ribbons of pavement. As the hours go by, it begins to feel like you’re on a giant treadmill, passing endless identical palm trees and highway exit stores selling bags of oranges and shot glasses. All those miles between us and the rest of the country meant one thing for music nerds like me growing up: if a tour wasn’t coming down to South Florida, we just weren’t going to see it.
A lot of teenagers grow up in these slow, lifeless cities, trapped in the suburbs with nowhere to go, nothing to do. South Florida, however, is a special kind of cut off and isolated, dangling into the ocean, bordering nothing. Once the snowbirds return north and tourist season ends, nothing comes and nothing goes. If you aren’t there on vacation, Florida is a terminal destination. Even the air doesn’t move: as soon as the sun clears the horizon, the humidity reaches rice-pudding consistency. You have officially become a Floridian when you hear your thighs peel away from the seat of your car as you get out. And it’s clear that you and your friends killing time drinking in parking areas beside the bay bridges are just going to keep hanging around, heavy and immobile as the moisture in the air.
Sarasota didn’t have a scene to speak of—Florida’s geography was limiting all the way down to local shows. There are no basements in Florida so we had to have garage shows, door rolled open and the band inside playing out to us where we sweated our asses off in a driveway, waiting nervously for the neighbors to call the cops. The YMCA stopped hosting shows after kids threw trash cans in the pit, the one bar downtown changed hands and names again and tore down the makeshift stage—so it goes. We had miles of beautiful white sand, and what felt like absolutely nothing else.
What we did have, thank God, was St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg forms a triad of cities with Tampa and Ybor City that ring Tampa Bay. Tampa is a “major U.S. city” in the manner of a high school sophomore showing up to school in a tuxedo: too buttoned up for its context, made silly by its surroundings. The city is the sum total of a football stadium, a hockey rink, hulking office buildings and a big-ass mall. Just to the south is Ybor City, a ramshackle party town founded by Spanish immigrants, a place that Craig Finn of The Hold Steady asserts in many songs almost killed him. A quick walk of downtown Ybor will bring you past venues that alternate between concert and club nights, several Cuban restaurants, cigar bars and hookah spots; the strip clubs (which are plentiful) are just a few blocks away.
St. Petersburg is the only city of the three on the other side of the bay: It’s the one that actually touches open ocean. The separation is more than just geographic. St. Pete is different from typical Florida cities. Most cities south of Gainesville run on tourism: the locals are incidental, inconsequential to the primary goal of inhaling tourist dollars. St. Pete has a thriving economy of local independent businesses who owe their success to a community that takes pride in investing in their city. Artists come from all over to contribute to the mural walls throughout downtown. In a constantly aging state, St. Pete is youthful and vibrant, home to an ever-increasing number of breweries and art spaces, and an unlikely but undeniable center of Southwest Florida’s independent music scene.
On one strip of St. Pete’s Central Avenue stands the State Theater, a 1924 bank-turned-movie theater that opened its doors as a concert venue sometime in the ’80s, and across from it is the beloved punk hole in the wall, Local 662. (The Local 662 sadly closed for good this past summer.) Between the two of them, more legendary bands found their way all the way down to St. Petersburg than could reasonably have been expected. Any odd Friday night was a tale of two St. Petes: one side of the street lined with people clutching tickets, waiting to get into a sold-out national tour at the State Theater, while on the other side, metal riffs intermittently split the air as concertgoers banged out of the Local 662 to converge with smokers from the neighboring bars.
Right in the middle of it all is 666 Central Avenue: Daddy Kool Records. They sell an excellent cross-section of new and used vinyl with a focus on indie rock and heavy stuff—my proudest find was a $5 copy of I Hate Myself’s 10 Songs LP, a Florida screamo holy grail. Beyond the music, they’re also the place everyone in the know buys their concert tickets from for the upcoming shows, free of Ticketmaster’s predatory fees. It’s proximity to the venues makes it an ideal place to hang out before a show, and back when flip phones were more prevalent than smart phones, stopping at Daddy Kool always meant checking the posters outside the venues giving the forecast for upcoming concerts. Daddy Kool isn’t just adjacent to the scene, however: in many ways, they founded it.
I didn’t know it while I was spending my teenage years shopping there, but Daddy Kool actually took form in my hometown, Sarasota. In 1985, Tony Rifugiato opened the first Daddy Kool Records in Bradenton, Florida, a cute little beach town with the misfortune of being located just north of a much more lucrative beach town: Sarasota. (Bradenton’s only other major exports to my knowledge are We The Kings, the kind of pop-punk tailor-made for mall outlet Journeys, and various homemade opioids). Daddy Kool relocated to Sarasota a few years after its inception, where Tony and his partner David Hundley formed a promotion company, No Clubs Productions, with little more than a good set of speakers and a friend who knew how to wire the fuses for the sound system. No Clubs became the heart of the local scene and the vehicle for bringing larger bands to Florida, the kind of bands that mattered to the world outside the peninsula. They booked countless shows in Sarasota and in the triangle of Ybor, Tampa and St. Pete: Suicidal Tendencies and the Red Hot Chili Peppers one month, Bad Brains and the Butthole Surfers the next.
It wasn’t an easy market, even once they got bands down there. Sarasota banned No Clubs permanently after Senator Bob Johnson walked out of his black tie Christmas gala and into a parking lot full of skinheads attending a 7 Seconds show next door. The nail in the coffin, according to Hundley, was the woman exiting the concert wearing nothing but a slice of pizza. With shows in Sarasota off the table, No Clubs needed a headquarters closer to their primary market, so Daddy Kool Records made the move to St. Pete. Focusing entirely on Tampa Bay shows, however, came with its own set of problems. There was talk in the late ’80s that the area was getting too violent. Racist skinheads became a serious issue, and bands started warning each other about the city. Henry Rollins refused to return to Tampa for almost a decade after an altercation with a claw hammer at a Black Flag show put on by No Clubs.
However, No Clubs never gave any thought to giving up. “We always had a better PA than almost anybody put up there, spent as much money and more, many times, on the PA than we did the bands,” says Rifugiato in a Youtube interview, “so every time a band would show up … they would tell everybody else.” No Clubs simply persisted doing what they knew how to do—rallying the Tampa Bay area’s resources, disparate venues, and contentious punk community to build a market for the bands that previously had no reason to travel so far south. I don’t personally know the men behind No Clubs and I can’t tell you what they’re like as people, but their tenacity as promoters in those early days was self-evident. When one venue closed, they moved on to another. They made it work.
What makes Daddy Kool the best record store in Florida isn’t just elusive 7”s and cheaper tickets; Daddy Kool is the symbol of refusing to accept the state’s geographic limitations, the aging population, the absence of a founding band to spark a scene. It’s the timeless mantra of punk, repeated throughout decades, from coast to coast: Fuck it: If they can do it there, we can do it here. And in many ways, that record store is the most visible landmark of how Florida learned to make a scene for itself, still right there in the middle at 666 Central Ave.
It isn’t accurate to say that Florida ever became the musical center of anything besides Christian metalcore. The draw still isn’t huge, and bands often avert their eyes as they cruise through Atlanta. But my last summer in Florida before I left the Gulf Coast for good, there was a week when I saw three shows in St. Pete in four days, fresh-faced emo revival bands in small bars and venerable punk bands on sold-out reunion tours, a week when I showed up to work each day devastatingly hungover and deeply happy, full up with songs that had defined my youth and songs that are soundtracking my clumsy journey out of that youth.
The place where I heard many of those songs for the first time, naturally, was Daddy Kool.
Up next, the best record store in Vermont.