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Tower records is gone.

And as of last month, Virgin Megastore is too.

So are scores of local independent record shops, slaughtered by the iPod, iTunes, Amazon.com and "big box" stores like Best Buy and Target.

R.I.P. record stores, you old dinosaurs you. Right?

Wrong. Independent record stores are alive and well in the Chicago area. Some even claim to be–gasp–making money. Some crazy folks are even opening new ones.

Customer service is one reason. But another, perhaps more surprising factor is the growing demand for LPs.

Two of the newest record stores–Permanent Records on Chicago Avenue and year-old Revolver Records on 18th Street in Pilsen–opened specifically to specialize in vinyl, carrying thousands of used and rare records.

It's a quest for tangibility that is, in some ways, driving the vinyl craze. To some music lovers, CDs, at about 16 grams, feel less substantial than a 180-gram audiophile vinyl record. And that's not counting the record jacket, with its poster, perhaps, and liner notes and art on the back and front.

There's something alternative, even subversive, about vinyl, especially when everybody is carrying around iPods.

"If everybody from your mom to your grandparents has ear buds in their ears, how do you differentiate who's cool?" said Eric Levin, president of the Atlanta-based Alliance of Independent Media Stores. "The girl at the end of the dorm hall spinning records is infinitely cool. It's a huge youth movement. Vinyl is just out of control. It's like somebody pushed the cool button again."

Elliot Pence–a 19-year-old sophomore at DePaul University who sports an inner-lower-lip tat that reads "romantic," a nose ring and an occasional pompadour–concurs, noting a trend toward nostalgia among his peers.

"I think vinyl is definitely coming back, along with vintage clothes and just wanting something different," he explained.

Pence said he had only ever been to Virgin once. "And that was to buy movies," he said.

"I like to buy from independent places, to try to keep them open, 'cause I like them better than giant corporations. They're so much more personal and the staff really knows their stuff and actually cares about the music."

The Jazz Record Mart on East Illinois Street was looking pretty alive on a recent Tuesday afternoon with a half-dozen customers sifting through its bins, including Gustavo Verdesio, a University of Michigan professor with a collection of 2,500 albums in his Ann Arbor, Mich., home.

On this summer day, Verdesio was looking to add three or four more. In his hands he had CDs by jazz pianist Fred Hersch and jazz saxophonist Chris Potter and a rare album by jazz pianists Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron that he didn't even know existed before he spotted it in the bin. It was $7.99.

Verdesio was thrilled.

"It's the sensual experience of touching the records," he said, explaining why he goes online for music as a last resort. "If it's secondhand, it's the arbitrariness of how the records are located. And there are people around you, so you get a feeling of community. Buying online is a lonely experience. I have nothing against lonely experiences but it is nice to alternate."

A few aisles away, Ashley Crawford was clutching a CD by jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. In town from Mystic, Conn., to visit family, Crawford said she prefers visiting record stores to ordering on the Internet.

"I try not to buy records online," said Crawford, a high school music teacher with a collection of about 200 records and so many CDs she has lost count. "I like seeing and holding what I am about to buy."


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