Maybe, while walking to shows at the Black Cat or waiting for a table outside the trendy Café Saint Ex, an LP in a store window has caught your eye. Its bizarre, garish cover might feature a leotard-clad Linda Evans advertising the Crystal Light Body Workout, or promise “Joyous Disco Versions of Christmas Classics.” If so, you’ve just found Som Records.
If it weren’t for the album in the window (which changes every week), finding the basement store might be a little difficult. Located just off DC’s hip U Street Corridor, Som is the archetypal record store: small and dimly lit, with vinyl taking up every available flat surface—even the ceiling. The store’s lone shoebox-sized CD rack sits near the cash register, while a handful of t-shirts hang on the far wall. Speakers blast a shopping soundtrack that ranges from The Buzzcocks to Duke Ellington, and the rare vinyl is in a bin helpfully labeled “Expensive $hit.”
In short, it’s a music lover’s paradise.
Before opening Som in 2005, owner Neal Becton spent a decade as an editorial aide for the Washington Post. He’d never worked at a record store before, but had spent countless hours (and dollars) at them, amassing a collection that numbered in the thousands.
“I kept joking that I needed to open my own store,” says Becton. “And the more I thought about it, it seemed like a good idea…I decided to do it, and told enough friends I was going to do it that I couldn’t back out.”
A devoted fan of Brazilian music, Becton named his store after the Portuguese word for sound. He’s made several trips down to Brazil since then, buying and trading with other collectors. His musical preferences are reflected in Som’s stock: the store boasts the finest selection of Brazilian music in the city.
Located steps from the Black Cat and a few blocks away from the legendary 9:30 Club, Som gets a fair amount of musicians and DJs dropping in. In addition to folks like Henry Rollins, Peanut Butter Wolf and Kid Koala, there’s the occasional world leader (or at least someone who works for them). When Russian president Dmitry Medvedev—a known fan of jazz and rock, and a vinyl collector himself—was in town to meet with President Obama, two of his staff members (after receiving instructions via cell phone), rang up $150 in purchases that included albums from Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Gil Evans, and Blossom Dearie.
Som boasts a stock of approximately 15,000 records, both new and used, with another 40,000 waiting in storage. This, along with the parade of customers buying and selling, ensures that the selection stays fresh.
And while there’s rare vinyl to be found, it’s also a place where a kid can start his record collection with the typical Dylan and Beatles LPs for just a few bucks. Though CD sales are dragging, vinyl sales have skyrocketed in the past few years, and not even the recent recession has put a damper on the record revival.
“The economy dropped the same time vinyl started taking off again,” says Becton. “But it’s been a steady rise. Every year’s better than the year before.”
Longtime collectors and DJs make up a good sized chunk of vinyl’s customers, but more and more of them are under 25—something Becton finds “very encouraging.” And although humans are the shop’s preferred demographic, Som is perhaps DC’s first dog-friendly record store—if, like me, you’ve trained your pup to sit patiently while you flip through the country and folk LPs and talk shop with other vinylphiles. Just be advised: peeing on the dollar bins is strictly forbidden.
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