Vinyl records. Bands once poured their souls into cover art and inserts. Listeners reveled at authentic sound, yet cursed inevitable scratches. Compact discs and digital downloads rendered them musical fossils.

But in the face of music's digital downfall, brothers Jim and Darren Blase believed that one day, vinyl would rise again. Their store, Shake It Records in Northside, has been built from the ground up with vinyl, CDs, books and more, and recently was named by Rolling Stone as one of the top 25 record stores in the country.

Maybe the recognition was earned from the brothers' vast musical knowledge, the unparalleled user experience, or perhaps the treasure-at-your-fingertips sensation upon stepping in the store's basement full of vinyl.

Though something caught the eyes (and ears) of Rolling Stone staff members, they might as well be a broken record, repeating what Cincinnatians already know "” Shake It Records rocks.

A Musical Journey

As high schoolers on Cincinnati's West Side, Jim and Darren Blase couldn't wait to add to their record collections "” though at the time "record stores" were more like department store aisles.

"That's the first thing we did when we cashed our paychecks when we were in high school, is go to the music store," Jim remembers.

The Talking Heads, The Ramones and Blondie were practically unheard of in Cincinnati at the time, but they put the Blase brothers on a path that would change their lives. But if 1970s punk rock made an impression, it was nothing next to the first time Darren heard blues singer/guitarist Mississippi John Hurt.

"I had no points of reference for it, and it just opened the floodgates totally," he says.

Years later, the Blases decided to start a small Cincinnati record label, called Shake It. When both found themselves unhappy in jobs and ready to embark on something new, they decided to take the plunge and open a record store in their hometown of Northside, also named Shake It.

Without a business plan, hoping only to make enough money to eat, Jim and Darren opted to sell their prized record collections rather than take out a business loan. They call it the best decision they've ever made.

"When we opened our store [in 1999], it was the height of Napster, and it was the dooming of the music industry," says Darren, laughing. "Even with all the white noise of Napster and all that stuff, we knew that there were people like us who still wanted physical records. And we knew that we would be able to succeed just knowing that."

Fall and Rise of Vinyl

About five years ago, in an interview with a local newspaper, Darren was asked about the future of music. His response? Vinyl records.

The reporter scoffed, "Yeah, right," Darren recalls. Don't say the Blases didn't tell you so.

"It used to be 10 percent [of our business]," Jim explains. "I would say that probably by the middle of next year, the way things have been going, we'll sell more vinyl than we will CDs." Vinyl sales totaled $300,000 in 2010, up from less than $20,000 in 1999, now making up 30 percent of the business.

Some people who grew up with records would argue that the sound quality and delicate nature of vinyl make it impractical next to other music forms. But to others, while iPods make for great "background noise," records are the main event, projecting authentic sound.

"They get more. They connect with it when they put the needle on the record. It's a huge connection, and they have a piece of art," Jim says.

Darren puts it more bluntly: "An iPod is giving a shiny piece of metal to a monkey. It's just this fun, cool, sexy new thing, and they're great, they're awesome and everything," he says, but, "So many high school kids have come back to the "¢rights of passage records.' They're now coming back to this physical thing."

Finding records is a journey into the unknown for a generation that grew up never knowing the sultry, scratchy sounds of needle joining vinyl. Shake It sees teens searching for Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, complete with the iconic gatefold and posters, or Led Zeppelin III with the original pinwheel insert.

After all, sometimes album art is as important as the album itself. The Shake It label has put out more than 100 records, and often the last thing to get done is the artwork, the Blases say. The bands fight over it, because it's integral to the listener's experience.

Adults are hopping back on the vinyl wagon as well, re-investing in high-tech USB turntables and searching out remastered or rare albums. "It's their youth," Jim says. "They're not giving up The Pixies, or if they're a little bit older, they're not giving up The Beatles."

But unfortunately, only so many copies exist of vintage records, which run about $10-$25, depending on the condition. That's where Jim and Darren step in, recommending Thin Lizzy, Savoy Brown and Sun Ra to Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix fans, the Raspberries to Beatles devotees. New LPs cost about $16, while used ones retail for $4-$5. Shake It also offers thousands of records at just 99 cents.

Whereas large music chains might scan CDs, make halfhearted recommendations and whisk customers to the checkout lane, Jim and Darren are living music encyclopedias. And with their guidance, they hope to open customers' minds to new sounds.

"Once you get into vinyl, it sort of becomes a musical journey," Jim says. "At least it was for us."

All in the Experience

Getting recognized as one of the top 25 record stores in the nation by Rolling Stone was an honor for Shake It Records, increasing its mostly word-of-mouth reputation.

Cincinnati is a relatively small music market, with major record labels hightailing it to bigger cities years ago. Accordingly, getting national acts to come play in the store used to be challenging, but as Shake It's profile grows, it's easier for the store to bring in musicians. Visitors are impressed by the selection, but the service makes Shake It really stand out.

"You're changing gears 300 times a day. It's 300 different kinds of people walking through the door with 300 different kinds of personalities," Darren says. He and Jim are happy to let customers explore, but then there are the mothers coming in with sons who listen to black metal "” they might need some guidance. "Others know what they're doing. We're here if they need us."

Aside from Jim and Darren, other store employees are more than capable of helping. In fact, after 12 years of business, Shake It has never had to replace an employee "” they are all knowledgeable and enjoy their jobs, so no one has ever quit or been fired, the Blases say.

Acting as guides through bins of CDs and records, book shelves of cult classics and edgy coffee table reads, DVDs, magazines, toys and a ceiling of dangling T-shirts, Shake It employees can give something extra where the online megastores fall short.

"Certainly, you can get anything that we sell online if you want to pay the price to have it shipped. But people come here and leave with a smile on their face," Jim says.

"You get a really good feeling about coming here, and that's what we sell."