11th Street Records is the Best Record Store in Nevada
Downtown Las Vegas in the 1990s was not a place you’d want to be after dark. Though my high school, the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts (originally Las Vegas High School, built in 1930) was a shining magnet program beacon, the neighborhood surrounding it was in disrepair. One day, we watched a drug den being bulldozed across the street from our classroom; itinerant people would wander through campus regularly. However, as the Strip transitioned to include family-friendly attractions such as midways and thrill rides, plus more Cirque du Soleil shows than you can shake a stick at, downtown also started to clean up its act by turning a portion of the street into a pedestrian thoroughfare and added the Fremont Street Experience, a four-block long video canopy with themed visuals. Our martini-toting Mayor, Oscar Goodman — formerly a lawyer for the mob and frequently flanked by showgirls — was a big proponent of transforming the neighborhood outside his office door.
Fast-forward 20 years and the bustling Fremont East District is the place to be for those in search of a craft cocktail at the speakeasy-esque Downtown Cocktail Lounge (good luck figuring out how the door opens). There’s a myriad of musical stylings during the local favorite Nickel Fucking Beer Night party at Commonwealth on Tuesdays. You’ve got plenty of punk and rock shows at Backstage Bar & Billiards, plus options for great eats like La Comida. The spot where the drug den once existed is now modern office buildings and luxury condos. Fremont East has become a favorite destination for Las Vegas locals, though gentrification and B2B infighting has pushed out some unique veteran businesses (RIP Kabob Korner, Insert Coins, and Beauty Bar). Growing up in Vegas, the majority of my friends tended to avoid getting into gambling because we learned early that the house always wins. However, in a city with essentially no last call, the party never ends. If one bar closes for the night, you just go to one of many 24/7/365 watering holes all over the valley.
Just a short walk from the reinvigorated Fremont Street is a gem of a record shop that’s garnered the attention of numerous notable musicians. Opening on Record Store Day in 2015, 11th Street Records fills the void left by departed record stores also pushed out by chains and the declining sales of physical music. During the third-wave ska heydays in Vegas, bands would cram into the back of Balcony Lights between record bins, as fans packed not only the first floor, but hanging over the loft railing above the musicians as well. That’s where I first met the Rx Bandits, who were touring in a van and needed a floor to sleep on that night; I still visit them at shows to this day and they’ve returned the place-to-crash favor as well. Across the street was Big B’s, with a much larger selection, and it lasted a bit longer before going out of business as Napster infected the ‘net.
It was quite common to run into local musicians digging in crates back then, and Big B’s was where I ran into drummer Ronnie Vannucci again. I knew from his amazing and experimental rock band Expert on October, and prior to that, Attaboy Skip, a ska band that played the Mardi Gras dance at my high school. He told me about his new band called The Killers and invited me to see them at (now bulldozed) Café Espresso Roma.
I myself even worked a short stint at Blockbuster music, where I’d happily blow most of my measly paycheck on the used CDs we’d buy and trade. They went out of business even before the independent shops. Fortunately, the Zia Records chain existed for those looking for tunes and quirky trinkets at two locations in Vegas, but those came without the sense of community fostered at a local shop where you can nerd out for an hour with the staff about rare vinyl or learn the history behind one of the more valuable records on the walls.
11th Street Records has now emerged for those who long for a 20th-century experience in a digital world. Owner Ronald Corso moved to Las Vegas in 1995 and worked in various aspects of recording, radio, and audio while amassing a large vinyl collection.
“People were starting to really talk about the importance of record store culture,” says Corso. In addition to offering up most of his own vinyl collection to start stocking the shelves of what would become 11th Street Records (named for the intersection at which it resides on the corner of Fremont Street), Corso would raid thrift stores, garage sales, and Craigslist. “People thought [vinyl records] were garbage at that point and it really wasn’t until about the time we opened that it was front-page news on the New York Times, ‘Hey, records are back.’” As interest in vinyl was accelerating, it became harder to buy used records, but Corso acquired as much as possible and filled multiple storage units with his finds, from small collections to buying an entire large lot from someone. As he prepared to open the store, he’d peruse eBay for special pieces he thought should decorate the walls for opening day.
While 11th Street Records has its fair share of new pressings, its main appeal lies in digging in the crates for a lost gem, as the store is alphabetical by artist with only a few genre sections. Underneath the bins are a myriad of albums for a buck or two for those that get in a zone flipping through random records. The back wall serves as a permanent “sidewalk sale” with no sleeves or tags that has become a popular feature with customers. There’s even a listening station in the corner to preview potential purchases. “It’s not like the store is enormous,” says Corso. “You could probably flip [through] this whole place pretty thoroughly in 30 to 45 minutes.” 11th Street Records has also become a favorite for local Vegas DJs that are getting back in touch with spinning wax, while others are looking for that perfect sample to rip to Serato.
As far as the aforementioned musicians that have 11th Street on their radar, that’s partially due to a recording studio down a hallway lined with authentic vintage punk flyers Corso acquired from a regular customer who needed some money to skip town (a thing that happens pretty regularly around here). National Southwestern Recording at 11th Street Records is where Las Vegas natives The Killers recorded a good chunk of their album Wonderful, Wonderful for six weeks. Powerful chanteuse Meg Myers tapped the spot to record live songs for Spotify Sessions, as did the band Metric. Anti-Flag even recorded a full live acoustic album at 11th Street Records during an in-store performance as part of the Punk Rock Bowling annual festival in DTLV, packing fans in the store that even crowd-surfed in the intimate space.
When I was little, my friends back in my home state of Florida often thought that Las Vegas was only the Strip and the residents all lived in hotel/casinos, where they worked as well. Since moving to Vegas in 1993, the city has become my adopted hometown and while there’s over half a million people in the valley, you’d be surprised how interconnected the locals are, as exemplified by how the city came together after the mass shooting on October 1, 2017. If it wasn’t for our NHL team, the Vegas Golden Knights (who made history as the first pro sports team to ever make it to the playoffs in their inaugural season), I avoid the Strip like the plague (the addition of expensive paid parking has also deterred many locals from frequenting Las Vegas Blvd. now as well). But thanks to stores like 11th Street Records, making the excursion to downtown at least is worth wading through the tourists to this gem of a shop where good tunes and great conversation hark back to the comradery and community between music fans and proprietors once thought to be relegated to the past.
Other Indie Record Stores in Nevada:
Moondog Records: 572 S. Decatur Blvd., Las Vegas NV
Wax Trax Records: 2909 S Decatur Blvd., Las Vegas, NV
Recycled Records: 822 S Virginia St., Reno, NV
Originally published in The Best Record Stores in the United States, December 2019, compiled by Vinyl Me, Please, ISBN 978-1-7923-2034-7