If there are three things that visitors know for certain about Kalamazoo, it's that the town has a funny name, its' biggest landmark is Western Michigan University and it's the home of Bell's Beer. The last two items on that list have helped to define Kalamazoo's cultural identity and Satellite Records fits right in to that venn diagram.
Built around a collegiate atmosphere and rust belt work ethic, Kalamazoo has carved itself into an interesting melange of restaurants, bars, coffeehouses and shops. Satellite Records is placed at both the geographic and cultural intersection that is the heart of Kalamazoo.
Set in an old office row building, their new space is large enough to accommodate shows in the rear of the shop for local and regional acts. This helps to provide more than enough room for comfortable browsing. Record bins are filled with an adequate number of titles, but are not at all crammed or difficult to maneuver. Having shows regularly also allows Satellite to create a community center atmosphere in their shop.
The organizational setup is pretty standard, but very well done. There are sections for Rock, Country/Folk, Soul/R&B, Jazz and International. There are also very healthy sections for 7" and 12" singles that are almost exclusively filled with used product. The bins are organized very well according to alphabet, and titles are even arranged alphabetically within each letter. While many stores will simply chuck all of the records that start with "B" in a bin with no organization, the staff at Satellite will make sure that The Band records are found before The Bangles LPs. This makes for easy searching if you're hunting for a particular title and not sifting through the entire lot.
Shoppers at Satellite are greeted with a set of "New Arrivals" bins when they enter. These bins are also arranged by genre. This is an asset to regular visitors who might want to stop by weekly or monthly and see what has just come in to the shop. Most stores have them, but every shop should have one of these setups.
Satellite does carry some new vinyl. These titles are housed in a smallish new section located just before the used rock bins. Some additional new releases are displayed along the two wall that run the length of the store. The new vinyl selection is pretty limited. On my last visit they seemed to have just a few dozen new titles. The used market is where Satellite seems to have placed its' emphasis.
Perhaps the greatest cache of goodness that Satellite has to offer is its' 50¢ per sticker bin. This collection of crates, bins and boxes is a veritable goldmine for the vinyl collector - especially for those trying to build a nascent collection quickly. The vast majority of the titles in these confines go for just 50¢ and are often prevalent titles in good condition. Lots of old standards like Linda Rondstadt, Seals & Crofts and CSN&Y abound, but there are gems if you're willing to dig. Yes, you'll have to wade through the murky seas of Lawrence Welk and Ferrante & Teicher, but loads of goodies can be found. On one trip, I managed to pick up 24 titles for just $14. You may find some blind buys or even snag a record that isn't what you'd hoped for, but you can take a lot of buying risks when the wager only sets you back a half of a dollar.
The rest of the pricing at Satellite seems to be on the high side of fair. Most used titles in the standard bins don't go any lower than $4.99, and some of those records really ought to be just $2.00 or $3.00. While the pricing is probably a tad higher than it should be in some cases, every title in the used bins is kept in a plastic sleeve and the organization is excellent. There is care and time put into the work of displaying them and that is something worth paying a bit extra for.
In addition to just labeling the used LPs with a price tag, many titles have a description or brief background information. A tag might include a year's release, an RIYL (Recommended If You Like) or a connection to other bands or artists. This is a great feature for learning more about titles you have little to no info about previously.
A turntable is available for demoing your selections along with a solid pair of headphones. This is a must for nearly any shop you visit. Of course, this is more than a way to tell if you are interested in how the music is on the record, but also a way to gauge the quality of the discs.
On the quality front, Satellite does a fantastic job. Virtually all of the standard bin items are very clean and playable. Many of the bargain bin items are great titles that just have some dings and dents. On my last trip, I snagged a copy of King Crimson's In The Court Of The Crimson King for $2.00 that had a few blemishes on the disc. Sure, there is some surface noise and it is not a perfect copy, but it's playable and was at least $10 less than if I had purchased it elsewhere. I was also able to grab a fairly clean mono copy of Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited for just $3.00.
Satellite Records really knows what they're doing. The 50¢ bin is worth going by itself, but the comfortable atmosphere, the friendly staff and the quality of presentation make this is a must-stop for any vinyl hunter or crate digger who is visiting Southwest Michigan. And be sure to make a stop at Bell's after you finish shopping. You can sip a beer or two and inspect your haul.