Blake Wagner takes us to legendary Detroit record shop Peoples Records.
Walking around the sleepy edge of downtown Detroit, you might not realize you are standing at the center of the universe. However, take one step into Peoples Records, and you will immediately recognize that Detroit is the nucleus of a vast cultural landscape still vibrant, even after Motown and Elvin Jones have left the building. Peoples’ clientele is voracious, discussing and devouring music exuberantly while digging through crate after crate of hip-hop, rock, soul, and techno. In a world where music listening becomes an ever-more antisocial experience, Peoples Records reminds you that some places still understand that loving music means loving people.
At a hub like Peoples in a storied town like Detroit, you never know who you might meet. Celebrity status has no place in the city’s creative ecosystem – soul veterans, ascendant rappers, and dancefloor royalty are all Detroiters first. Meandering through the Jazz section, I notice a woman cleaning 45s behind the back counter. She is initially reluctant to tell me her name. Once I introduce myself, she warms up, and I discover why she is less than forthcoming with personal information. Her name is Caroline Crawford, a featured vocalist for Hamliton Bohannon who cut several solo singles of her own on Motown in the 60s. She’s tired of doing interviews about her career, especially when she’s not getting paid for them, but she’s happy to chat once she hears my enthusiasm for her hometown.
The mythology of Detroit makes Peoples Records an international destination. Fans from the U.K. have tracked Caroline down and made the pilgrimage to meet her. “Apparently one of my singles gained a little popularity over there,” she explains, “and now that my information is public, people come looking for me.” Unfortunately, the world of record collectors is rife with opportunists, a stark contrast to the culture and camaraderie of Detroit’s intimate music scene – but Caroline is a good sport. “During the pandemic,” she recalls, “some of my fans started streaming old soul records. They turned me onto all sorts of music that I had never heard before.” Peoples is the beating heart of a global music scene that revolves around the Motor City, a place where first-run techno records and floor-to-ceiling shelves of Motown 45s are both abundant and affordable.
At the listening station, I meet Jonathan Peters, a local historian and tour guide with an armful of records. “This guy is a Detroit encyclopedia,” Caroline says. She’s right. We talk about the differences between Detroit and pretty much everywhere else in the world. While it may not be the biggest or the shiniest, Detroit is a strong contender for the quintessential American city. Detroit’s rap, rock, jazz, and techno scenes have been continually exporting some of the country’s most significant cultural touchstones for decades. Locals know this, and they’re proud of it. “I’m never leaving Detroit,” Jonathan says. “In terms of music, culture, and people, Detroit is in the upper echelon of cities.” If Peoples is the best record store in Detroit, as Jonathan concludes, then it stands as a strong contender for one of the best record stores in the world.
As our conversation comes to an end, Caroline tells me about Bert’s on Russell, where Blues Lady Champagne will be performing later that evening. “If you decide to go, come find me,” she says. “It’s a great time – I’ll introduce you to everybody.” Detroit’s small-town sense of community betrays its big-city Friday nights, as exciting as any in New York or Chicago. If you’re a first-time traveler to the Motor City, then make a beeline for Peoples Records – you’ll find more than just local music in abundance. It’s a cozy storefront in a quietly explosive city that truly cares about American music, culture, and most importantly, people.
Special thanks to Brad at Peoples Records for letting me write this review and to Caroline Crawford for allowing me to quote her.