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.
Buried in a strip mall in Fords, New Jersey, is one of the state’s greatest gems: Vintage Vinyl. You wouldn’t notice it was anything special. To the naked eye, it’s the last place a record store would ever be situated—next to a Rite Aid, a spa and some small strip mall restaurants. But if you found yourself in high school, broke and looking for an escape, Vintage Vinyl was the place to go. The crowd was usually polarizing: either middle-aged men who had an affinity for classic rock or Jersey hipsters and scene kids.
I loved that it was a hidden gem, and what I loved even more about it was that it had some of the best free concerts in the state. I wish I could say I discovered the store on my own, but alas, I did not. It does, however, bring me back to what brought me there and really the essence of what brought me to music journalism: a mixtape. A new friend from high school had made me a mixtape—the first mixtape I ever received. I listened to it once through and just thought about how beautifully the music flowed. From Built To Spill’s “Car” to The Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” the songs stuck with me. But as I listened again and again to the lyrics, I started to overanalyze: Was this just an innocent mixtape, or was he trying to tell me something? One week later, he said he wanted to take me somewhere, but it was a surprise. We arrived to a desolate parking lot with the distressed signage of ‘RECORDS’ on a blue awning. I gathered it was a record store, but it looked deceivingly tiny from the outside. As we walked in, I was stunned to know such a vast vinyl store existed in suburban Randomsville, New Jersey. He told me it was his secret place to go to whenever he was having a bad day. One week later we started dating, and four months later we broke up, but I knew instantly when I went there that it was going to be my secret place, too, from then on.
Since the store was really primed for music lovers; you had to be in the know about all it had to offer. But once you had set foot in the warehouse-sized store, you were quickly caught up to speed on the magic of the store. The floors are dull gray and no fancier than a basement, but the space is brightly filled wall-to-wall with rows of vinyl. Organized by section from electronic to classic rock, Vintage Vinyl spans new and used records. At the center of the store is an intimate stage where you can stand arms-width distance from bands hosting in-store performances. They’ve since changed the policy to purchasing a record and getting a wristband to attend these live shows, but for years, the store hosted killer concerts for free twice a week. And I’m not exaggerating, these were acts you would never expect to be in a shopping mall: Ryan Adams, Queens of the Stone Age, Thursday, Liz Phair, Ozzy Osbourne, Pete Yorn, New York Dolls, The Shins, Bayside, Jimmy Eat World, Kevin Devine, Teenage Fanclub… I could go on forever. I discovered some of my favorite bands. One of them being the now-defunct Freelance Whales, who were one of the first groups I’d ever interview for an article. Princeton Record Exchange may have gotten the New Jersey hype because of the area, but Vintage Vinyl has always been a truly special place because of the intimacy of its performances. Twelve years since I first set foot in the store, I still check the website at least twice a month to see if there are any artists coming through that I need to go borrow my mom’s car to go check out.
At a time when record stores are shuttering, this obscure New Jersey haven is still alive and kicking. It’s survived amid New York City record store closings and still books big and burgeoning acts. Not only does Vintage Vinyl still house countless rows of new and used records, but it’s kept the spirit of live music for the past 30-plus years. It’s one of the reasons why the Garden State still warms my heart, and feels like home.
Up next, the best record store in Ohio.