Michael Gaertner plays a 1969 A&M Records "Signs of the Zodiac" release called Virgo. Credit: Leor Galil

A week before Christmas, Michael Gaertner opened his new shop, Interstellar Space Used and Rare Records, for the first time. But he didn’t make a production of it: he just strolled over to his sparsely decorated Lincoln Square storefront, on Montrose just west of Damen. “I didn’t tell anyone,” he says. “I just opened the door, and people in the neighborhood started walking in. It was like a Field of Dreams kind of thing.”

A few days after Christmas, he got as close to making a formal announcement as he has so far: he posted a photo of the storefront on his Instagram account, which now bears the shop’s name. He’d previously used the handle “Vinyl Voyage” to share exquisitely clean photos of rare LPs and cassettes he found on record digs across the country, along with occasional photos of the shops he’s visited—Antone’s in Austin, Record City in Las Vegas, Planet Score Records in Saint Louis, Euclid Records in New Orleans. “Buying records is my passion,” Gaertner says. “I had to start selling records, ’cause I don’t want to stop buying records. Buying records is the fun part.”

Interstellar Space has a small listening lounge near its entrance.Credit: Leor Galil

About five years ago, Gaertner ran out of space for his collection on his home shelving units, and he began to stuff excess LPs into boxes. He doesn’t know anymore how much vinyl he has, but his conservative guess is 5,000 records. “When you’re a certain kind of record collector and you’ve run out of space to put your records, yet you can’t stop buying more, where do you go from there?” he asks, in what’s clearly a rhetorical question. “I’m not gonna stop buying records just ’cause I have nowhere to put them.”

He didn’t consider selling records till perhaps three more years had passed. Former Funk Trunk Records owner Quinn Cunningham invited him to set up a table at the Rogers Park Music Swap, a recurring vinyl show that Cunningham had organized—it’s since moved to Evanston, and it’s now known as C.R.A.T.E.S., which stands for Chicago Record and Turntable Enthusiast Swap. Gaertner sold at a few iterations of Cunningham’s show, and that’s the extent of his prior experience in the business. Interstellar’s storefront (2022 W. Montrose) is close to his home, and when it became available last summer, he saw an opportunity too good to pass up. “I only wanted to do this in a ‘best-case scenario’ type deal,” he says.

Third from left on the bottom shelf, you can see the distinctive cover of Oliver Nelson’s 1975 LP Skull Session. And second from left on the top shelf—if you can read through the glare—is the 1984 Carver High album Dealin’ With It. This south-side school released several albums of boogie, hip-hop, and funk in the 80s.Credit: Leor Galil

Gaertner makes his living as a freelance TV and video producer for music festivals. He’s directed live broadcasts of sets at Coachella, Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, and Pitchfork. He travels a lot over the summer, but the rest of the year he has a flexible schedule with ample free time. “If it’s a day when I’m not working, my kid’s in school, then I’m sitting at home, I’m listening to music and puttering around,” he says. “I’m doing the same thing here—people can come and go, buy things, and talk music.”

Interstellar Space has been a one-man operation from the start, and Gaertner has no firm plans to change that. He began setting up the space in July, painting walls and building shelves while juggling festival work and family time. “It was a serious labor of love,” he says. “I almost feel like this is still my rough draft—I’ve got records out, but there’s empty space in the bins. I have a lot of stuff I still want to price, and I’m constantly buying records.”

The inner gatefold of the Virgo LPCredit: Leor Galil

When I stopped by last week, Gaertner had four bins of priced records on the floor, each with three rows. One bin is jazz; another is rock and pop; the third is soul, funk, blues, and hip-hop; and the fourth is reggae and soundtracks. “I’m not trying to have a big store,” he says. “I’m coming at this too as a dad—I’ve got a little kid. When I’m going record shopping with my kid, I’m not trying to go to a store that necessarily has 10,000 records, where it’s gonna take me hours to look at everything. You can come in here and you can flip through every single record in 30 minutes, an hour, something like that.”

The jazz selections at Interstellar Space include Harold Alexander’s 1972 Are You Ready?, Charles Earland’s 1976 Odyssey, and Woody Shaw’s 1976 Love Dance.Credit: Leor Galil

Since Gaertner bought every record himself, he doesn’t have to do much extra research to offer customers insight into what they’re looking at. Some of his records have collected dust for years, and opening the store has pushed him to refamiliarize himself with the ones he’s willing to sell. “I’ve brought records here that I didn’t think I’d ever want to sell, but at the same time, it’s like, ‘Well, I haven’t listened to that in seven years,'” he says. “Since I brought it to the shop, I have this attitude of, ‘Well, if I’m gonna sell that, I’ve gotta play it.’ I’m actually listening to things that I’ve had and just, ‘Oh, I played it once when I got it.’ Now they’re getting in the rotation.”

Gaertner’s interests as a collector began 20 years ago with 60s and 70s rock. He later branched out into jazz, and more recently he’s developed a taste for 20th-century avant-garde composers. If the inventory I saw at Interstellar Space is anything to judge by, he prefers older fare. I flipped through LPs by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Pharoah Sanders, and Alice Coltrane; the newest release I found was Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, and that came out 14 years ago. The shop has plenty of collector’s favorites and an even greater number of lesser-known records; I bought Cerrone’s definitive 1976 disco album Love in C Minor and an obscure 1980s religious funk-rock LP by Illinois musician Sonny Burton called Jesus Help Me to Believe.

About a third of the shop is visible here—it’d be more, but Gaertner was having some ceiling repairs done in the back.Credit: Leor Galil

Gaertner hopes Interstellar Space can become a communal space, or at least a place where people feel comfortable discussing music. He seems prepared to lose money accomplishing that. “Some people love talking about music, and I love talking about music, and there have been days here already where my entire day is a series of one-hour conversations with perfect strangers, and I love that,” he says. “I’ve never sold records online and I don’t really want to, because where’s the fun in that? If I can have a day where I can pass six hours and it’s like, ‘What’d you do today?’ ‘Oh I just hung out with five strangers, and we talked about strange music,’ that’s really fun.”

At the moment, Interstellar Space only sells 12-inch records, though Gaertner plans to bring out cassettes and seven-inches. Since he’s the only one who works at the shop, though, it won’t happen till he figures out how. “I’m getting into this with no overhead, besides rent and bills and things like that,” he says. “I’m not paying an employee—it’s me. Maybe my wife will help out in the shop on weekends when I’m gone—I would like to find a friend or someone with a similarly flexible schedule who can help out sometimes. Worst-case scenario, I put a sign on the door that says ‘Closed ’cause I’m at Coachella.'”  v

Interstellar Space 2022 W. Montrose, open from noon to 6 PM, Wednesday through Sunday