By John Alex Colon
More than a record store, it is a cultural icon, patronized by the top DJs in the world whenever they visit. Chicago’s Gramaphone Records has been pleasing ears and creating community since 1969, moving from its original location at 2663 North Clark—where it resided for thirty-six years—to the updated 2843 North Clark store in 2005. Gramaphone began as a “general purpose store,” according to former owner Joe Dale, who credits his capable staff with the store’s rise to legendary status. The staff, over the years, is a who’s who of local artistry: Mark Grant, Derrick Carter, Bad Boy Bill, Josh Werner, DJ Sneak, Justin Long, Sativa, DJ PNS. Dale’s trust in his employees, most of whom are the store’s buyers, led to Gramaphone becoming Chicago’s dance-music resource, most notably for house. Trax and Dancemania, Cajual and Relief, are just a few of the labels that exploded on the Gramaphone walls. With the advents of techno, hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass, the store further cemented its role by employing and supporting those out on the streets, playing the records, passing out the flyers, creating the scene in its varying forms.
Now, the torch is being passed. Dale cannot currently say what’s next for him, but health reasons and a desire to live life outside of a record store are some of his reasons for departing. As for what’s next, he says, “There’s no solid answer for that one.”
What is solid is that Gramaphone’s ownership now resides in Michael Serafini, a veteran Chicago DJ and store employee. Raised in Bridgeport, Serafini moved north at 25 and, like many, shopped at Gramaphone for most of his life. He was hired for counter work in 1993, just as Best Buy, his previous employer, stopped buying music independent of its corporate office. Serafini used his DJ experience to gain a buying position and has been family ever since. The move to give him the reins was brewing for some time, becoming official just last month.
“It feels strange to me,” comments Serafini, “so I still just tell people I work at Gramaphone.” His goals for the store are logical and modest. “No need to fix what isn’t broken,” he says, while acknowledging that ownership under Dale was about providing for the DJ, “for the love of it,” rather than investing in technology or growth. While this helped Gramaphone’s local status, it also hindered changes that pushed other stores around the country to close. Globalization and the Internet are facts that Gramaphone must reckon with, despite its continuing ability to rely on a picky, yet loyal customer base.
“Chicago,” says Serafini, “needs to have its history. It needs its icons, something that represents, that keeps people coming together.” That Gramaphone can be that “something” is clearly his belief. His first step involves gramaphonerecords.com, which is currently a static page, a repository of local event flyers that links visitors to their successful eBay store. It has seen various phases of functionality, struggling to remain consistent. Family and friends aided the effort, but Serafini can ill afford to wait any longer to create an online presence.
“People come to the site because they can get information on what’s going on in Chicago, just like at the store. Now, imagine if they could also buy records, and gear…and have it shipped anywhere in the world.” Indeed, how can a name so revered as Gramaphone not be online?
Once there, however, he will begin the push for selling downloads through the site, and “not just the big name tracks.” Serafini vows his support for the locals that have supported Gramaphone. He understands that Gramaphone’s retail operations have always doubled as a social networking tool, and feels it should continue as such.
Gramaphone records, whether Dale or Serafini is at the helm, surely accounts for a large part of Chicago’s musical evolution. Count blues, jazz, house, techno and hip-hop, and the list is far from through. The store has defined the sound of the city, while providing a connection to the underground, the fabric of Chicago’s DJ culture. With its dedicated staff and customers, Gramaphone will continue to be that gateway, linking DJs and audiophiles to each other, and to the music itself.
Gramaphone Records is located on 2843 North Clark, and online at gramaphonerecords.com. Michael Serafini is a resident DJ at both Music 101’s weekly Boom Boom Room party at Green Dolphin, and Tuesday nights at popular boystown haunt Cocktail.