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’ve always considered myself transient, not unlike a speck of disturbed dust lifted from the aging cover of my favorite album. The bit that floats around the room, feverishly trying to find a new place to relax. It’s no surprise, then, that when my older sister asked me to move cross-country to Arizona, I didn’t hesitate. I booked the flight within hours.
Phoenix is a city best likened to a young drifter without any one identity, also trying to fit in among a plethora of look-alike strip malls. I found myself on common ground with this town. Not yet saturated with hip boutiques, molecular gastronomy or avocado toast, it’s still littered with antiquated diners, small Baja taco joints and monster truck arenas. It’s a place where folks can seemingly bury themselves amid the scenery or cause a bit of a ruckus.
Despite my initial assumption, I still felt isolated. There was no culture to speak of, none that I could find, anyhow. Stucco buildings in hues of brown, peach and deep beige blended straight into mountain ranges that surrounded the city. Driving a few miles, you’d pass a dozen big-box retail and fast food chains. It was easy to get lost here. All of the streets offer views of palm trees, the front yards manicured with stone rather than greenery. The sky, often void of clouds, housed an ever-militant sun.
I missed the immersive music scene of towns I once called home, and I’d often throw familiar bands on a loop throughout the day. Songs by the Love Language and Thunderlip never lost their luster, but they did make me thoroughly homesick. I needed some new material. I wasn’t in Carolina any longer; I was up for a challenge.
Cruising down a stretch of Indian School Road, I’d manage to make it a bit further each day, fiercely on the hunt for a sign of life in the desert. I’d heard talk of valley fever, the dry heat, torrential summer downpours, wild boar and dust storms. I’d seen actual tumbleweeds in action and found a few Sonoran-style hot dog joints like Nogales that offered up bacon-wrapped beef sticks enveloped in buns that cradled them fully to withstand the pinto bean, jalapeno- and tomato-slathered on top. All of this madness and I still hadn’t uncovered a haven for my proclivities, which included music, coffee and a bit of booze, in short order.
A few months in and that stretch of road finally gave back to this weathered broad. I found a jazzy (now defunct) cafe called Mama Java’s that hosted open mic nights. While chatting up the owner, who felt I was in need of much more than an open mic and a cup of coffee could lend me, I was turned on to the record shop that I’d visit weekly while living in town.
Stinkweeds: a name bold enough to do its bidding and odd enough to cater to an elite crowd of record hounds who like to feel they’re in on something half-wicked. It had been minutes away from that coffee house all along. I regretted not making it there sooner, but the Arizona summer in a car with no air conditioning makes even a five-minute drive feel like a long-haul across the Sahara.
The shop, housed in-between other intriguing buildings, stood out among the rest. Located at Camelback and Central, a stones-throw from the Light Rail station in downtown Phoenix, it’s an easy find. Its mint green, tiled facade featured a black door with bold white lettering proclaiming it the most lively joint in the city. My heart skipped a beat, and I tore around the block to park nearer the rusted-out, industrially designed entrance, a contrast to its otherwise retro frontside. A store with dueling personalities — I was intrigued. I walked toward the door, and the heat rose from the pavement, punishing my feeble senses one last time before I entered the aptly cool confines.
Early-afternoon on a weekday and the store was all mine. I was greeted promptly by the owner, Kimber Lanning, who was so casually hip and breezy. Nothing at all like the typical record shop employee who stands behind the register like a space-age overlord, all the while judging your band T-shirt, discernable body art, or how you flip through the stacks. She’s the kind of record store owner you can trust blindly. Not one to shill for coin, she warms up to your sensibilities and recommends music she thinks you’d enjoy. She didn’t offer up the rarest import, the first on her list for me was a CD from a local band that had just released their latest project. I’d been in the store 10 minutes, she already knew me so well. She also seemed to pick-up on the fact that I wasn’t from the area, similar to the protagonist in every filthy western flick who rolls through town like a one-trick pony looking for trouble. She ushered me in kindly while I spent hours in the shop parsing through their extraordinary collection of tangibles. Most notably their local artists’ section, the largest I’ve seen in a record shop to date.
The store is surprisingly roomy for its small stature, and patrons never shoved up against the crates (save for Record Store Day). There’s room for more than one person to browse each aisle and littered around the shop, between listening stations, are vintage figurines propped on top of the shelves — notable music publications, T-shirts, CDs, some cassettes and the ubiquitous flyers are pinned neatly to a bulletin board, advertising upcoming events. The kitsch logo that harkens back to the 1950s is on a handful of merchandise and a few signs.
With my arms full, I headed to the register, where Lanning assuredly coaxed her pick by Dear And The Headlights into my purchases without breaking a sweat. I also grabbed a copy of Simple Love by a fellow traveler, David Dondero. It was a call back to my days in North Carolina where I’d seen him play small venues on a regular basis. It all felt a bit interconnected at that moment, a welcome taste of my past.
The Stinkweeds story is a love story, and it’s not as noxious as its name would suggest. It began when Lanning worked at another local record haunt that didn’t recognize her ability at bringing folks together. The owner passed her up for a promotion, stating that not many people would take music advice from a young woman. With conviction, she took off and conspired with her then-boyfriend. They gathered their extensive personal collections and she negotiated one hell of a price on their first humble location in Mesa. They’d often make a mad dash to L.A. to pick up records. Shopping there was compared to attending a party in your schoolmates’ tidy garage: intimate, undeniably underground and grassroots. The story continued, and the store became a mecca of sorts to audiophiles in the valley seeking solace among their peers. Someplace where music was varied and rare, someplace where you often had to trade something of worth to get her to release a purchase — the stock was that limited. Talk to anyone who was around when the project ignited and they’ll admit that memory serves it well.
The shop moved four times before landing in its big-city digs. It rode the format wave through the cassette- and CD-heightened ’90s and put the old-timers to shame with its accessible approach to vinyl consumption. Lanning also ensured small acts got a fair shot in a scene slowly relegated to aggregated online sites that began siphoning the fun out of discovering sounds not necessarily tailored to you — sounds essential to nurturing your growth as real bon vivant.
Thirty years on and Stinkweeds is still the quintessential valley record joint. A revolving door of familiar silhouettes and new experience seekers, retaining the most modest and customer-oriented staff alive, to include Dario and Lindsay. A team who go out of their way to ensure you’re coming back in for another listen, another show, another chat.
Every time I grab an album I purchased from Stinkweeds I’m reminded of my stint in the valley, the bands I stood awkwardly dancing to that played in the backlot. The art shows I attended, first Fridays with souls I’d met while digging for gold in the form of another Tom Waits stunner. I now count the Phoenix scene among my favorites. Artists, musicians, other kings and queens of local industry, they all meet here, keen to talk shop while sipping large cups of takeaway coffee. All are welcome; no vinyl needs are too obsolete, too basic.
Up next, we travel to a record store in Louisiana.