Out & About: In the groove

In the 2000 film “High Fidelity,” a painfully uncool but well-meaning father enters a dingy record store called Championship Vinyl. He asks the store clerk, played by the manic Jack Black, if the store has the single “I Just Called To Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder, which he says he wants to buy for his daughter.

The clerk, clearly perturbed, tells the man the store does have the single, but adds he’s not allowed to buy it.

“Why not?” the man asks.

“God! Do you even know your daughter?” Black yells. “There’s no way she likes that song.” Then, pausing, Black adds: “Oops, is she in a coma?”

Yes, there’s just something about old-fashioned record stores—the musty smell, the yellowed posters, the unidentifiable music playing on the house stereo, the too-cool-for-school clerks with clunky eyeglasses and wool sweaters.

For some, these hideouts are little slices of heaven—a comfortable place to spend an hour, combing through stacks of records in hopes of finding that long-sought-after mint-condition copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico. For others, the experience is daunting, as they cannot shake the nagging suspicion the clerk is casting judgment as they buy the latest J. Lo release. All in all, for these folks, a trip to Tower Records is much preferred.

Luckily, University City has just enough variety in its record stores to keep both groups—the music snobs and the just-leave-me-alone record buyers—plenty happy.

The Marvelous!
208 S. 40th St.

The Marvelous! is University City’s haven for alternative media—from vinyl and compact discs to magazines and comic books.

Upon entering, you’ll walk past stacks of records and descend a small staircase into the main store area, where you’ll be asked to check your bag. Once inside, it’s easy to see why music lovers and comic-book aficionados can lose track of time—the selection here is impressive.

On your left, check out the prominently displayed copy of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor.” On your right, an aging poster of Andy Gibb—every good record store needs these visual ironies—peers over bins of used CDs.

The store is cozy and the customers are, for the most part, intensely involved in their own shopping—one is busy flipping through records; another dives into the comic racks—so you shouldn’t feel intimidated by the atmosphere.That isn’t easy, of course. The Marvelous! does give off that Championhip Vinyl vibe—especially when the house stereo is playing something so interesting and so, well, bizarre that you’re not certain it would be played anywhere else on earth.

Spruce Street Records
4004 Spruce Street

Just down the street from The Marvelous! is the more music-focused Spruce Street Records, which has the whole indie-record-store thing down pat. This is a CD store, plain and simple.

Posters hang on the walls—or simply lay on the floor—and while it feels slightly cramped, the well-organized space neatly separates new compact discs from old. The “new” section, near the front of the store, has merchandise stacked vertically, rather than in the typical bins you find in most record stores. Still, whether you’re looking for Ryan Adams or Warren Zevon, everything is easy to find and there’s plenty to choose from.

The “used” section is laid out in traditional bins, and like most record stores, the selection here is hit or miss—there’s the alternative (think Radiohead) and there’s the popular (think Van Halen).

Penn Bookstore
3601 Walnut Stree
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Ah, the safe confines of a Barnes & Noble. For the less adventurous, there’s nothing quite like the comfort, the cleanliness and the utter lack of pretension one can find at a music store tucked inside a bookstore.

All kidding aside, the Penn Bookstore’s second-floor music section is actually quite nice.

The selection here is just as extensive as most independent stores, and though there are no used CDs sold here, there are good deals nonetheless. The jazz and classical sections are especially impressive, and the special displays—such as “Artist of the Month” arrangements—and music listening stations are nice perks.

Originally published on March 17, 2005