Amidst all the recent talk of a "vinyl resurgence" and the renewed admiration for physical media in music, one niche seems to miss its fair share of the attention. Countless reissues, think pieces and brick-and-mortar retail stores have sprung up in favor of re-emphasizing the importance of tangible music formats; still, the emphases remain on pop and rock, and even reggae, soul, hip-hop, dance, avant-garde and jazz fall into the reach of these campaigns. But what about classical music?
The genre occupies the bare minimum of realty in most record shops, and there aren't exactly many Record Store Day exclusive slots reserved for classical music, but even more than that there's an unspoken and widespread belief that classical just doesn't belong with the rest of music, that it's somehow less, or more important than other musics, that, basically, it's something "other," and so it deserves to be treated as such. Which, honestly, sucks for those of us who dine out on classical as regularly as other genres, because, really, these implicit opinions about classical music translate into explicit results in the market place, making classical record shopping a far more difficult proposition than it ought to be.
Of course, there's simple explanations for all of this: commercial interests, common tastes, perceived accessibility and even general popularity all favor pop and rock over classical music, a genre the public still largely regards as stodgy and self-contained--exclusive in the worst ways. The explanations for why people think this way deserve an entire article in their own right--basically, both sides of the divide are at fault--and so I'll leave those concerns for another time. Instead, the present article is something of a how-to, a guide to shopping for classical music in North Texas. The thesis being: if you know where to go, our city is a great place to build and or enrich one's classical music library.
In truth, this article is partially occasioned by the closing of Dallas' nearly-gone, but never-forgotten CD Source, long the city's best option for the classical music shopper. High turnover, a willingness to buy almost everything, and an ever deepening selection made it so, and these features also guaranteed that surprise was a consistent outcome for those willing to dig through the stacks (surprise, of course, being the cornerstone of any great record shopping experience). Like many of the best outlets, CD Source offered both LPs and CDs (well, offers: at the time of writing this, CD Source is still open for business, if admittedly on its last legs), and a selection of compositions spanning hundreds of years, from Bach and Vivaldi, to Stravinsky and Steve Reich, and potentially everything in between. If the rewards and delights of shopping at CD Source taught me anything about local classical music shopping, it's that the quality of the experience hinges on a small, but key set of factors.
Basically, it all boils down to turnover, depth and price. Perpetual turnover helps insure that each visit is different from the last--the selection is always revolving; depth of stock, both in size and in variety, is key in consistently satisfying a wide range of listeners and tastes; and, well, price is quite obviously a big one, because it doesn't do anyone any good for a store to offer a world-class selection, if people can't afford to walk out with any of the records. (It's worth mentioning, too, that when Amazon recently raised their standard shipping rate to $3.99, low-priced classical recordings became yet harder to come by, giving the edge back to local shops. Hence, the importance of articles like this!). No question, a knowledgable staff is also a good asset, but now with the internet only an iPhone away, these people usually won't tell you much that a five minute Google search can't.
Dallas has a surprising number of places that do all or most of these things adequately well, and a select few that do them excellently. Let's start with the former.
Verily, there's something uniquely bookish and fetishist about classical records--they tend to be much more conducive to collecting and cataloguing than your average pop albums. This could have something to do with the innumerable editions, recordings, and performances that correspond to each of the also innumerable compositions that exist; or perhaps more, even, with the packaging, which is frequently of a higher quality than typical LPs (inner sleeves are usually plastic or rice-paper, opposed to the common static-inducing white paper slip, and the outer jackets tend to be thicker, too). In this way, collecting classical records often resembles book-collecting--there's a reason most classical music fans refer to their collections as libraries. It should come as no surprise, then, that book stores often double as great classical music shops.
Oak Cliff's Lucky Dog Books, (plus its Garland Rd. and downtown Mesquite locations) is a good illustration of this. While you get the sense that the inventory remains rather static throughout the year, the shelves are peppered with unexpected finds, and the prices are always unreasonably reasonable. Personally, I've found LPs here that I'd previously sought out for years to no avail, and friends have shared similar experiences. Informed by the cultural context of The Bishop Arts District, it's not hard to reason why Lucky Dog is a solid bet for shopping surprises. However, don't go in expecting to track down a specific recording: the selection isn't exhaustive enough for that. The quantity of LPs hovers in the several hundred; however, Lucky Dog carries very few classical CDs. In a nutshell, expect mostly big-name classical standards (bargain-priced boxsets included), with a few left-field gems hidden in the mix.
On any given day, any of DFW's Half Price Books locations can reward the classical music shopper, too; however, on any given day, these same locations can disappoint also. These stores tend to be grab bags whose quality of stock comes in waves. One day, you'll find more desirable records than you can possibly leave with, and the next you'll waste an hour with nothing more than a set of grimy finger tips to show for. While LP to CD ratio varies greatly from store to store (as do prices), HPB's Dallas Flagship location, located off 75 and Northwest Highway, consistently excels on both fronts, largely in part to the store's unusually high traffic and turnover.
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Heading farther north, Denton is home to two solid classical music destinations, one decent, one great. Books and More, an-easy-to-miss book and record shop hidden halfway along University Dr., offers roughly three-hundred LPs for sale--all currently 50% off. Admittedly, the selection tends to asymmetrically favor big-name, popular compositions and recordings, but the pricing alone warrants a visit nonetheless.
Recycled Books, tucked neatly in one corner of Denton's downtown square, is the heir apparent to CD Source's crown. In fact, if you don't mind the drive, it's every bit CD Source's superior. Sure, the LP stock, consisting mostly of eclectic, modern works (think: Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Charles Ives), is tiny by comparison--a hundred or so to CS's thousands--but its CD selection is on another level entirely. Undoubtedly fed on, and by, UNT music professors and students, the selection hovers around 6500 discs and, with very few exceptions, contains no filler. As Recycled's classical music overseer, Craig Foster, puts it: "we don't bother with budget labels or cheap reissues, and we pay accordingly for quality product." In short, if you're serious about collecting classical CDs, you won't find a better option than Recycled Books.
As mentioned above, record stores ordinarily leave much to be desired in the classical music department. For the most part, they offer feeble, ever shrinking classical sections, that is, if they offer one at all. Dallas' newest (and largest) Record Store, Josey Records, is a rare exception. High traffic, a continuously refreshed stock, wholesale-like pricing, and a selection spanning the full spectrum of classical tastes, all make Josey Dallas' best classical vinyl resource. From classical standards--your Bachs, Beethovens, Mozarts, Tchaikovskys, Chopins, etc--to experimental cross-over composers like Shoenberg, Charles Ives, Philip Glass, John Cage, and Xenakis, the store's 3000+ offering is as diverse as it is deep.
North Texas is fortunate in that we are, at least momentarily, privileged to have a wide array of classical music shopping options at our disposal. But, the fact of the matter is that these sorts of niche shops tend to disappear as often as they appear, if not more (for reference: note the many book and record shops closed over the course of the last fifteen years alone). With that in mind, let's take advantage of these indispensable hubs while we can. Dallas culture will be all the better for it.