If you’re not looking for the shop, you might easily miss it. Nestled between a Latino market and a daycare center on Kennedy Street in Northwest Washington, D.C., you get the sense that the building has lived many lives and served many purposes. There’s no sign hanging over the door, just a chalk sandwich board: “HR Records - We Buy Records.”
Take a step inside and you’re greeted by the sound of a record on the platter, needle already in a deep groove. Record shelves make up islands for each genre—jazz in the middle, soul and funk against the main wall, rock with a smaller territory toward the back. An eleven-foot “record wall” presides over it all, showcasing rarities and gems by the likes of Sun Ra and John Coltrane. In the center of the shop sits the owner, Charvis Campbell, a disposable face mask half-concealing his broad smile.
About five years ago, back when Campbell made his living as an assistant dean at George Mason University, he got a phone call from Bill Coates, his record guy at East-West Records in Baltimore. Campbell was in the habit of making frequent trips from D.C. to get his soul and jazz fix, but always in small doses.
“In that last year, it seemed like he was only opening for me,” Campbell recalls. “I’d call to ask if he was open, and he’d always respond, ‘If you’re coming, I will be.’”
This time, Coates had something bigger in mind: more than a hundred boxes of records. It was the entirety of his collection plus the albums of a friend who had recently passed. He was getting out of the record game.
A hundred boxes comes out—conservatively—to about 5,000 records. That’s nearly 2,000 pounds of cardboard and plastic.
Campbell hesitated, mentally running through a laundry list of reasons why he shouldn’t buy the collection. None of them were compelling enough. “My first plan was just to buy the records,” Campbell recalls. “I’d figure the rest out.”
A few days later, an eighteen-wheeler’s worth of vinyl, complete with the shelves from East-West, showed up at Campbell’s Petworth home. Along with the records, Campbell recalls with a slight grin, he got a bit of advice: “Being the wise old man that he was, Bill told me, ‘You don’t want to go into the record business. It’s tough. Do a pop-up, put them online—don’t open a brick-and-mortar.’”
As an academic pursuing a PhD in education, Campbell’s love of music was intertwined with an eagerness to learn and share his knowledge with others. After a few weeks going through the collection himself, listening and cataloging, he knew he had to bring these records out of the dark. He needed a place for people to congregate, to listen to music and flip through records and talk about them. He needed—despite the warnings—a shop.
Campbell chose the name Home Rule Records—HR for short. It’s a name, he says, that’s directly inspired by the lack of autonomy of D.C.’s residents.
“Our taxes are too high. We have no representation. We love Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she can’t do everything. So, home rule is just that, right? D.C. needs home rule.”
Beyond the two letters that make up its name, the identity of D.C. courses through the shop’s record stacks.
“When I think about my shop, I want to be about the music of D.C. and supporting local musicians. The history of music in D.C. is about jazz, soul, funk, and obviously go-go. The fact that my shop specializes in these genres, that makes it more special to me.”
HR Records is one of just a few dozen Black-owned record stores nationwide. Considering the contributions of Black musicians and the importance of music as a piece of D.C.’s cultural heritage, Campbell feels a particular sense of responsibility.
“I want more record shops, and I want more Black-owned record shops,” he emphasizes. “I don’t want this to just be me, but the reality is—it is. And from the shop perspective, we’re located on the streets of Brightwood Park. Historically, this is a Black neighborhood. So the music that’s coming into the shop and that I’m then selling, it represents this community.”
“Community” is a term Campbell brings up frequently when talking about the shop, but for him it has two meanings. The first is the neighborhood and the people on Kennedy Street—“the folks who live amongst us, the kids hanging out on the block, and the people who support us and give us their records,” as he puts it. The other is a community connected through music, growing every day. There are the shop regulars—“jazzheads”—from the area, but there are also people who seek out the shop on a trip to the city or through online sales, and the folks who follow the shop’s Instagram page for an education in jazz, soul, funk, and go-go.
For Campbell, what began as a need to fill a physical space with music has opened up to a larger purpose, one that is inclusive and built upon commonalities. The shop has become a powerful tool in converging the two communities, providing a place to hang out and learn, buy and sell, and, above all, listen.
“I liken the best record shops to barbershops,” says John Murph, a local DJ, music journalist, and shop regular. “They’re social places where people linger and can just be themselves. They embed themselves in the community, and HR Records has that. Charvis has something for everyone—deep cuts, hits, really good regional music from this area—and this is a shop that’s in Black hands, selling Black music in a Black neighborhood. I can dig without feeling like there’s someone on my heels or doing surveillance.”
But in Brightwood Park, the shop’s D.C. neighborhood, gentrification is rapidly changing the physical and cultural landscape. New businesses are moving in, and teardowns and new condos increasingly dot the shop’s block, creating what Campbell describes as a “double-edged sword.”
“As a business owner, I see some change going through this neighborhood, and I also recognize the opportunity here,” Campbell says. “But at the same time, what about the people who are being pushed out and priced out? How do we help them and get them support? I don’t have all the answers, but there’s a balance that needs to happen.”
For Campbell, HR Records plays a part in this balance. He sees buying and selling records as a way to preserve and share the area’s cultural heritage pressed into vinyl.
“When you think of jazz and soul and a lot of these types of music, and when you hear this music, it’s like a timeline of our people in the United States. And here in D.C., Chocolate City isn’t so chocolate anymore. So to keep reminding people of that history here, it’s important, and I want to be the one to do so.”
Among the stacks of vinyl, HR Records houses a small corner devoted to clothing and home goods: “Miss Lois’s area.”
“Miss Lois has been hugely helpful in connecting us with a lot of older churchgoing families in the community—that’s actually where a lot of our collections come from—and she’s also got a friend who sells hats, and her kids make their own candles, so that’s her space there,” Campbell says. “And then we’ve got Cory and his wife. They’re muralists, and they’ve done a lot of stuff around the city. So, Cory sells his spray paint and tips and cans, and it’s cool to see these guys who go out and tag the city come here, to my shop, to get their supplies.”
Mix these patrons in with the music fanatics, add the occasional kid from the block charging his phone, and you start to see a picture of who HR Records is for.
Only a few months after opening in the spring of 2018, HR Records opened its first beat night—called Press Play—to bring the live go-go sound into the shop.
“We welcomed in the guys on the block who love music and love making beats. For us, it was an opportunity to connect with people, just giving them the space to come and do their thing. And that’s when the light switch went on.”
From then on, after record collectors got their fill, the shop floor turned into a stage and event space. HR Records brought in DJs and local jazz bands and did eight follow-ups to the original Press Play, partnering with ANXO Cidery and other local restaurants.
The goal was to offer a variety of events not only to further engage with local musicians, but also to bring people of different backgrounds and interests into the shop. For Campbell, it was a pragmatic approach to a business with infamously thin profit margins.
“We knew if we got people in here, they’d fall in love with something and leave with some records,” Campbell remembers.
But when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, Campbell says his reaction boiled down to two words: “Oh, sh*t.”
The pandemic shuttered the shop for the foreseeable future, and Campbell scrambled to get as much of his inventory as possible online. But as months went by and the length of the pandemic became increasingly apparent, he couldn’t get live music and his idle shop out of his head.
“I was realizing that there were so many D.C. artists who were struggling, really struggling for an opportunity to play and perform, and I realized we could give them that space, provide that energy, and hear some great music.” With a push from his wife, Briana, Campbell set out to bring live music back. “I was realizing that there were so many D.C. artists who were struggling, really struggling for an opportunity to play and perform, and I realized we could give them that space, provide that energy, and hear some great music.”
Photographer and former HR Records employee Nick Moreland booked the musicians, set up lighting and a soundboard, and got his cameras rolling. Playing on NPR’s popular Tiny Desk concerts, Campbell and company dubbed the series Tiny Stage: Sounds of the DMV, promoting music of the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region.
From August to December, Tiny Stage brought fifteen bands and musicians onto the shop floor for a professionally and safely live-streamed set, followed by interviews with the artists and discussions about influences, favorite records, and everything music related. The lineup was chosen to reflect the diversity of D.C.’s scene, with groups like jazz and go-go fusion ensemble JoGo Project, reggae- and psych-influenced rock band Higher Education, futuristic funk band Nag Champa, and traditional Andean group WAYTA all taking HR Records’ Tiny Stage throughout the series.
When asked about particularly memorable moments from Tiny Stage, Campbell doesn’t hesitate.
“We had this jazz band, Permanent Sigh, in the shop for a set. They’d been playing for a little, and we looked out the shop windows and saw that a group of people had gathered right outside to listen to the music. It was either that loud or that good. Probably both. We couldn’t invite anyone in because of COVID restrictions, but seeing all of them out there just listening and enjoying some live music again was pretty special.”
Despite the difficulties of this past year, HR Records has actually grown in its reach and sales. Its Instagram page now boasts more than 6,000 followers, and they can still rely on a steady stream of walk-ins, albeit with a current four-person capacity. It’s a testament, Campbell says, to the support of HR Records’ communities, both in Brightwood Park and all over the world.
“It’s a sense that people are excited about our shop and about the way we present the shop, trying to educate and showcase music you need to know about. We made a few lists this past summer and got some promotion as one of the country’s only Black-owned shops, so that gave us recognition and caused more people to support us.”
Campbell is looking forward to the day when the shop can fill up again. Once public health guidelines permit, he plans to throw a block party to thank neighbors and music lovers for sticking by them. Until then, you can find Campbell providing a musical education through Instagram and keeping the record stacks fresh.
A few months back, right before one of our first conversations in the shop, Campbell secured a big collection, one he’d hoped to score for a while. Flipping through boxes of Blue Note, Verve, Motown, and some smaller labels, he stopped at a record pressed on a self-distributed D.C. label: ASHA Recording Co.
It was a copy of Washington Suite, a spiritual Jazz album from 1970 by D.C. legend Lloyd McNeill and his quartet. Campbell dropped the needle on side one, and McNeill’s flute sprang out from the shop speakers. Printed on the back side of the record sleeve was the name of the opening track: “Home Rule.”
HR Records has graciously put together a playlist highlighting jazz, funk, soul, and go-go from Washington, D.C. Take a listen.
This Saturday, June 12, is Record Store Day. Bring a mask and stop by HR Records at 702 Kennedy St. NW for a shop sale and joint event with Black Fire Culture. The event will feature a DJ set, Q&A with Black Fire co-founder and D.C. jazz legend J. Plunky Branch hosted by Luke Stewart of Capital Bop, and a performance by Nag Champa Art Ensemble.
Tommy Gartman is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. This fall, he will pursue a master’s degree in American studies and material culture at George Washington University.