How Do You Choose Where to Live?

April 8, 2014 at 8:05 am CDT

We get that what’s livable for one isn’t always what’s livable for everyone. Today we ran a story of a man who chose to relocate to Jupiter, Fla. , for his retirement because it is the spring training home of his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. One month a year, he can still be a hometown fan. As a Cubs loyalist, I understand the passion even if I feel it’s misguided, both because it’s the redbirds and because Florida is not where to live in my book.

A music fan browses the vinyl at Amoeba Records in Berkeley, Calif.

For me, a requirement of being a great place to live (or visit) has always entailed having access to great independent record stores. When choosing where to attend college, I turned down smaller-town schools for Northwestern University’s home in Evanston, Ill. Part of what sealed the deal – besides the outstanding journalism school, of course – was the presence of Rose Records, 2 nd Hand Tunes, Vintage Vinyl and Chicago Compact Disc. In my heart, nothing would ever replace Sam’s Jams in Ferndale, near where I grew up. But maybe some fresh “used” bins in which to spelunk for Lou Reed bootlegs would yield new fruits.

In hindsight it wasn’t just about records stores; it was that they were a great proxy. If a town had a good record store, you could assume it probably had a lot of other good things going on for a music-lover in his late teens and beyond.

As I’ve gotten older and travelled more, I have often hit stores big and small – Virgin in London, Newbury Comics in Boston, Tower in L.A. Recently, while reporting on the Top 100 Best Places to Live , I got to return to one of my favorites – Amoeba, the anchor of Berkeley, Calif. ’s iconic eclectic Telegraph Avenue.

I bought Arcade Fire’s latest on its first day of issue and then picked up the Palma Violets’ “Best of Friends” off the recommended rack based entirely off of the staff’s write-up. Years before that rack had served me well when I bought the Clean’s excellent “Anthology.” While I was there, perusing the library-like selection, I overhead someone prank call the store asking off-the-wall questions about David Bowie and watched a guy hang a poster for his local band. The store clerk helping him find space was a fan. Stores like these are community centers as well as merchants.

At Livability, we’re always looking for ways to measure the intangibles that make cities great places to live. Even if we could quantify all the little things like record stores, baseball enclaves, children’s libraries , or authentic sushi restaurants, it might not help. Growing up, I used record stores as a proxy, but now we use other measures – like the impact of an arts culture, or percent of creative class workers – that wind up instead being proxies for the presence of great record stores.

All of which leaves me curious. What’s the little thing you always look for when choosing a city, and would it really be a deal-breaker if your target town didn’t measure up in that small way? Let us know.

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