sound tracks: a sampling of detroit record stores, circa 1990

Sound Tracks (1)

When I hit my teens, I started imitating my father’s interest in building a healthy music library. It started with an occasional cassette, then the gift of The Beatles 1962-1966 (aka “The Red Album”). During a stop at Sam the Record Man on a grade eight trip to Toronto—a stop I insisted the group I was with make, even if it cut into others’ precious time at Yonge Street head shops—I bought my first large haul of pre-recorded music, some of which is now laughable but was influenced by peers at the time—Poison’s Open Up and Say...Ahh! anyone?

In early 1990, my father clipped an article from the Detroit News listing record stores worth investigating on future cross-border trips. Both of us, along with my sister, would rapidly expand our collections thanks to at least two stores listed in the piece.

Twenty-three years on, most things associated with this article are gone. Nearly all the stores profiled. The massive tape collection I built up. My father. Yet, along with a bookshelf full of $1 used records and good memories, this browning piece of newsprint survives.

Alongside Dr. Disc locations in London and Windsor, Sam’s Jams was the first used record store I seriously browsed. It wasn’t a case of admiring the album sleeves like I had on younger journeys to Sam the Record Man, A&A or Harmony House—I was looking for music to buy. Albums I read about in library books or Rolling Stone, or heard snippets of on classic rock stations (I wasn’t really into new music at this point apart from copying some of my classmates’ tastes—that required the discovery of CBC Radio’s Brave New Waves and Nightlines, along with the arrival of Windsor’s 89X). Partly picking up on Dad’s bargain bin tendencies, and partly because $1 records and $3 tapes fit my allowance budget, I stocked up on everything from the Band to the Sex Pistols.

Other discoveries occurred on those trips. Thai food at the Bangkok Café, which still serves up tasty stir-fried dishes crafted to your level of pain at rock bottom prices. Piles of Rolling Stone magazines from the 1970s at the Library Bookstore, where I still find great oddball items. Often it was an excuse for Dad and I to spend a day together, which grew more important after I moved away and his health declined. From the springboard of Sam’s Jams, we roamed all over Metro Detroit in search of new sources of cheap vinyl and good food.

Two decades after Sam’s Jams closed it still feels like something’s missing whenever I wander through downtown Ferndale, though lunch at the Bangkok Café quickly pushes aside any misty-eyed moments.

Sound Tracks (2)

Notes on some of the stores listed on this page:

Harmony House: A major player in the Detroit market for years, with freestanding and mall locations. Dad liked browsing in their classical shop further north on Woodward Avenue in Berkeley, occasionally finding a bargain that match his low-cost purchasing approach (unless an album was something he really wanted, anything over $5 was a splurge). They also had a store tucked in a high corner of the Trapper’s Alley complex downtown (now the Greektown Casino) where one day I noticed a couple openly doing the horizontal bop during my descent back to street level. They didn’t need the Bob Seger song as mood music.

The superstore listed in the article wound up being the chain’s last location, surviving until it was bought by Trans World Entertainment in 2004. The name lingered on for a few more years before it was converted to an f.y.e.

Dearborn Music: Only popped in once or twice. While Dearborn ended up on our record-browsing rounds, we shopped at the Desirable Discs branch downtown—maybe it was their bargain bins, maybe it was the exact duplicate of the Fisher-Price record player I had as a kid they had to test platters on. Of the stores mentioned in the article, Dearborn Music is only one that still operates a bricks-and-mortar store under the same name.

Car City Records: If Sam’s Jams was our main stop during my early teens, Car City was our prime destination as university neared. It became a reliable source for oddball items I spun on the radio in Guelph. We usually took the scenic route to Car City, driving through the ritzy Grosse Pointes and along Lake St. Clair. We also tried numerous greasy spoons along the way, one of which became the butt of endless jokes. Dad and I weren’t impressed by Monty’s Café—don’t remember the specifics, but perhaps this reminiscence on Yelp provides clues:

In Saint Clair Shores, there was a 24 hour diner called Monty's Cafe.  The food wasn't the greatest, but nothing was horrible either.  Their hash browns were totally on point & the omlettes were always decent. The best thing about Monty's, though, was not the food, but rather the people.  The waitstaff was quite eccentric & so were the cooks for that matter.  And being that it was 24 hours, there was no better place to be seen after a night of excess out on the town.  I  swear some of the patrons lived there.  

Dad wasn't broken up when he noticed Monty's passed on to the great diner in the sky. Car City called it a day in 2011.

Sound Warehouse: I dimly remember dropping by the Troy location of this national chain, which doesn’t seem to have lasted long in the Detroit area. It was across the road from one of my family’s regular shopping haunts, Oakland Mall. Dad’s rule of thumb: if a record store lacked a decent bargain or cutout bin, it wasn’t worth stopping at, which likely explains our few visit to stores like Sound Warehouse.

I imagine Arista’s glee over deleting pressings of 33-1/3 copies of Milli Vanilli was short-lived after their career crashed. Nowadays, they’d be happy to press a platter or two for today’s vinyl connoisseurs.

Not much to add regarding this page. Rarely stopped at the Royal Oak record shops, though some of my peers who made buying trips to Detroit did. With Dad, Royal Oak tended to be a fueling stop, whether it was sitting on the patio at Mr B’s or America’s Pizza Café (a short-lived fancy spin-off of Little Caesar’s), or sampling the BBQ at Memphis Smoke.

Time to leave the computer. Think I’ll head over to the record rack and toss on any album still boasting a Sam’s Jams price tag. 


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