Gramaphone Records in Chicago is open today from 12pm to 6pm, as it is every Thursday and that feels like it’s a victory.
In a new story for NPR, Vocalo producer, host and Chicago DJ Jesse De La Pena and Ayana Contreras profile Gramaphone Records, an enduring icon of both Chicago dance music and Chicago record stores. In the process, they unlock a few clues to the store’s incredible longevity – 52 years and counting.
Gramaphone has employed a shocking number of Chicago house DJs over the years. De La Pena is one of them. “There [have] been many artists [and] DJs that have worked there: everybody from Derrick Carter to Ralphi Rosario, DJ Sneak, Psycho-B,” he says. “It was a fun little job that a lot of us worked part-time, before a lot of those DJs were touring and making a living from it.”
De La Pena interviews Gramaphone owner Michael Serafini. Way back in 2008, 5 Mag profiled Serafini just weeks after Gramaphone’s owners, Joe and Carl, had passed the business on to then-manager Serafini. “A top notch DJ and beloved figure in Chicago’s House Music community is now the new high priest of the record bins,” Jeremiah Seraphine wrote, “and is in a position to drop knowledge about the state of Chicago House Music because he is also in a place where he can help determine its future.”
The future, ready or not, is now. Gramaphone survived the pandemic, as it’s survived countless recessions and technological shocks. But the world is different on the other side, and so is the record business. For one, the opening of clubs hasn’t actually lead to more local DJs trudging into the shop. “There hasn’t necessarily been an uptick in them coming to the shop,” Serafini told De La Pena. “The clubs are opening up now, but the clubs are digital. That’s not really a vinyl scene… Definitely there [are] still people who buy 12-inch singles and guys who are DJing with vinyl, but it definitely is not like it was back in the day for sure.”
Records that are being made with long intros and long outros — records made specifically for DJs — are not necessarily being sold to DJs. “We see with electronic music that people are pressing compilations on vinyl more now than before,” Serafini notes, “People are listening, not just DJing with those.”
As the customers have changed, so has the role of the record shop.
“I’ve become Professor Serafini, I guess, because people come in and they have questions,” Serafini says. “‘What do I need to play records? What’s a good turntable? What are the best needles? What kind of needles do you have to play music?'”
And the challenge of running a vinyl-oriented record store in 2021 often comes what you’re willing to do for customers when orderly distribution has totally broken down:
Photo via Gramaphone Records