Vintage Vinyl makes grooves in Evanston for 42 years


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Steve Kay, the owner of Vintage Vinyl, opened the shop in 1979 to deviate from the mainstream titles and give the younger generation a taste of out-of-print records.

Henry Roach, Reporter

The “King of Rock and Roll” launched Steve Kay’s interest in music at the age of five. Several decades later, pink and black — Elvis’s favorite colors — adorn the walls of Kay’s record store, Evanston shop Vintage Vinyl.

“I had an aunt who got me my first record player and my first 45s, and that was it,” Kay said. “They were records by Elvis Presley. And that just changed the world.”

 A New York native and avid music lover, Kay came to Chicago in the 1970s to complete his master’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1979, he opened Vintage Vinyl in Evanston because he felt the city lacked a business that served a “specialized” community of record collectors. 

The store sells records from the 1950s through the present, with an emphasis on the music of the 1960s, Kay said. Vintage Vinyl has also operated a mail-order service, VVMO, since 1998.

“We’ve always specialized in looking for records that are long out of print, but also in top condition,” Kay said. “We’ve never tried to appeal to mainstream taste.”

While he focuses on catering to collectors, Kay said the shop has also received rave reviews from casual listeners, especially as records have become more popular in recent years. A few years ago, Kay bought an adjacent storefront to sell budget records around $5 apiece, compared to the collector’s item records in the main store that are priced at $25 and up. 

The store has been closed for in-person shopping since March 2020, but plans to reopen by Thanksgiving for Record Store Day, an event celebrating independent record stores on Black Friday. Until then, Kay is utilizing the space to process the large number of records the store has acquired during the pandemic. 

Kay noted that in recent months, many record collectors with large collections have passed away, while others have moved or downsized. Meanwhile, Kay said, many older collectors who previously drove the market are realizing they no longer have a connection to their records.

“People have been selling their record collections in unprecedented amounts more in this one-and-a-half year period of time than in the last 40 years that we’ve been here,” Kay said. 

Kay said it has been difficult for the store to keep up with its day-to-day tasks while managing the influx of material. Vintage Vinyl initiated a curbside pickup service as mail orders accelerated during the height of the pandemic. Kay said both of these programs have helped maintain business. 

Over the last four decades, Kay said he’s developed deep ties with the NU and Evanston communities. In the 80s and early 90s, Kay said, Vintage Vinyl sponsored WNUR, the University’s student radio station, by giving student DJs records that had just arrived from overseas.  

The store’s long history has also meant it’s won many devoted customers. Store manager Tim Breitberg said he started as a regular at Vintage Vinyl in the 1990s. After finishing his overnight shift around 10 a.m. at an Evanston bank in the 1990s, he said he would kill time downtown until Kay opened Vintage Vinyl at 11 a.m.

“Steve was getting me stuff that nobody else in town could get me for my weird taste in music and collection,” Breitberg said. “I walked in one day and he’s like, ‘Hey, you know anything about computers?’”

Helping Kay troubleshoot his technology landed Breitberg a job. He’s now one of two employees that help Kay manage data entry for the website and mail service orders. Breitberg said he’s “living the dream” being a record store clerk.

Along with new visitors, Kay estimates around 15-20 regular customers have consistently purchased from Vintage Vinyl since the store’s inception. Over the years, Kay said he developed an understanding of regulars’ music taste and began suggesting new records to them. This rapport has sustained the business, he said. 

Laura Sulkin, a former Evanston resident who has been a Vintage Vinyl customer for 13 years, said she appreciates Kay’s engagement with his customers and music knowledge. 

“You could name a band, and he knows who is in it, when it was recorded, where it was recorded at, if they’re still alive, if they’re still touring,” Sulkin said. “He has a wealth of knowledge.” 


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Twitter: @ItsHenryRoach

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