Amoeba Takes L.A.

What the legendary Berkeley store’s move to Hollywood really means

Perhaps you saw the hand-written full-page ads, with their high-school-math-class caliber doodlings, in the L.A. Weekly last winter. They looked low budget yet were anything but: “The Biggest and Best Indie Record Store Is Coming to L.A. … The Highest Prices Paid Ever for Good Collections … We Have over $1 Million to Spend … We Are Only Buying Now—The Faster You Get Us Your Stuff, the Faster We Will Open.”

Or perhaps on your way home from the Hollywood farmers’ market, you saw, on Cahuenga just below Sunset, a remarkable line of people. Goth kids clutching black backpacks. Graying gay couples hovering over immaculately packed crates. BMOCs and CEOs uneasily eyeing their idling SUVs, wondering if they should just unload their cardboard boxes right here, right now, in front of all these … these weirdos. And of course the odd junkie.

Or perhaps you neither saw the ads or the lines nor heard the buzz. In which case you probably live under a freeway in a Frigidaire box—which is to say you probably lead a perfectly normal life, unencumbered by the ebb and flow of rarefied pop subculture. Either way, the upshot is this: There’s good news and bad news. The good news is: Amoeba’s coming.

And the bad news is: Amoeba’s coming.

It’s good news because Amoeba Music is arguably the best record store on earth, or at least in America. This is mostly due to the Bay Area-based company’s absolutely sick collection of sought-after used vinyl, from obligatory high-end pieces like first editions of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and a couple Beatles “butcher” covers to the obscure type of stuff—sealed copies, say, of Whole Lalo Schifrin Going On, with cover art depicting a hypodermic needle injecting a mushroom into the South American soundtrack composers skull—that makes pigs like me giggle. But it is also due to their imposing catalog of brand-new product: CDs that the chains would never have in stock, DVDs and videos, the latest 45s from Jamaica, the rarest posters from overseas.

Which of course is bad news for the Virgins, Towers, and Borders of our town, who not only don’t have as cool a stock but also don’t have as cool a kid behind the counter, offering actual helpful advice. It may be even worse news for local independent record stores, which probably quaked in their boots when Amoeba’s ads first appeared—institutions like Rhino, Aron’s, Rockaway, Moby Disc, and Penny Lane.

Susan and John Polifronio have owned and operated Counterpoint Records and Books on Franklin for 22 years. It’s a friendly, quiet place that’s open till late in a very Greenwich Village way. They’re not about to close up shop now. “This is a problem that’s as old as the big fish eating the little fish,” John sighs good-naturedly. “We’re a mom-and-pop,” Susan adds. “So we can offer a lot of personal service.”

But it’s not so much the doing-just-fine dusty, musty, creepy, you know, charming holes-in-the-wall that should be worrying. It’s the fitter, sassier retailers who may have to start smiling at customers, answering questions, lowering prices, and offering more money for used product—a lot more, if in fact this upstart interloper (from Frisco, no less!) really does have a million dollars burning a hole in its pocket. And it does.

Actually, when all was said and done, Amoeba spent closer to $2 million on 300,000 used records, 300,000 used CDs, and 300,000 of everything else—videos, posters, Hollywood memorabilia.

In addition to the weekend buys held over four months at their Sunset and Cahuenga location, Amoeba made house calls to “punk rock crash pads, record executives’ homes in the hills, and everything in between,” says Marc Weinstein, one of the store’s four co-owners. He canvassed the Southland in a van, from beach towns to Crenshaw to the Valley, where “it seems there’s a disproportionate number of people who once were part of the scene.”

One woman in Sherman Oaks had inherited a 9,000-piece jazz collection that contained a lot of “mid ’60s progressive,” as Weinstein puts it. “Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Sun Ra, and just a lot of really unplayed records. Records I’ve never even seen.” He chuckles guiltily, then adds, “And I’ve been doing this for 22 years.” Amoeba bought the whole shebang for $90,000.

Historically, Weinstein points out, “L.A.’s been filled with treasures because the industry’s here, and there’s so many distributors, warehouses, and deals being made.” But Amoeba’s owners searched nationwide to find stock for their local store. They bought an entire punk rock store in Chicago, took the Country Music Hall of Fame’s LPs off its hands in Nashville, snarled up a jazz stash in a New York suburb, and convinced the descendants of some departed soul in Detroit to relinquish his 30,000 rock albums, which, among other things, included every record the Beatles ever released. In every country.

All this suggests that buying and selling vinyl is not just some reactionary pastime or the preoccupation of a few crazy kids trying to make it as deejays. It is in some ways the way of the moment, if not the wave of the future.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, 2.2 million new vinyl LPs and EPs were sold in 2000, resulting in total sales of $27.7 million. That amounts to only .002 percent of total music sales last year.

It may not seem like all that much. But such stats can be explained, says Amoeba co-owner Karen Pearson, by the fact that customers can’t buy what isn’t readily available. If more vinyl was pressed and distributed, perhaps more would sell. Perhaps. According to Pearson, their used-vinyl sales have gone up every one of the 11 years Amoeba’s been around. Which makes sense, since the rise of Amoeba coincides with the institutionalization of “vinyl culture.” There’s the Beastie Boys’ and Pearl Jam’s insistence on pressing albums on vinyl as well as CD, the lounge and cocktail craze for old exotica records, the triumph of hip-hop and techno turntable culture, plus the specialization of record collecting into an infinite number of genres, like Krautrock, Indian soundtracks, and now lite psyche. Come to think of it, vinyl has become so hip as to be almost, well, square.

Personally, I prefer LPs for the ritual of it all: carefully taking the platter with the palms of your hands and setting it on the turntable; placing the needle down into the groove, then waiting, after the initial snaps, crackles, and pops subside, in that instant of silence, for the first chord to strike; sitting there, cross-legged if necessary, holding the sleeve, preferably a gatefold, and spacing out on the cover art; and finally, turning over the record once it stops, which literally gives you pause, forces you to think about what you’ve just heard before beginning the cycle once again by placing the needle down and waiting, in delicious anticipation, for side 2 to kick in.

Weinstein was raised in Buffalo, New York, where in 1975 he got his first job at a shag-carpeted superstore called Record Theatre. He was the 8, track buyer. He was also instantly smitten. “It was a culture that I appreciated from day one,” he says.“It’s a great place in the community to be. I can’t think of another product I’d rather sell. And I don’t care if people are shopping for Dolly Parton, Wagner, or Sun Ra—they have that same look on their face. They’re looking for that buzz.”

In 1979 Weinstein moved to San Francisco because of the music scene, dominated by art bands like the Residents, Chrome, and MX-80 (whom he still drums for). For several years he was a buyer for Rasputin’s in Berkeley.

After a year in New Orleans helping the Peaches chain open used-record departments in their outlets, he moved back to San Francisco and managed Streetlight Records for seven years. Then in 1990, he opened the first Amoeba Music, on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, with two buddies, Dave Prinz and Mike Boyder.

It was Prinz who came up with “Amoeba”: slightly psychedelic, definitely at the front of the phone book, and internally alliterative with “Music.” “For years,” says Weinstein,“people have had all kinds of interpretations as to why we’re named Amoeba. But it is really just a good metaphor for who we are.” It is also not a bad symbol of their scary growth.“Right. Yeah, that too! Absolutely.”

Indeed, the Berkeley outlet (originally 3,500 square feet, now about 12,000) was such a success that expanding to a second one on the Haight was inevitable.“A few stores did end up getting their businesses, uh, negatively impacted,” Weinstein concedes, “but basically because they weren’t very good stores to begin with.”

Pearson, who became a co-owner when the 24,000-square-foot Haight Street store opened in November of ’97, is a Berkeley native who was raised with the notion, as she puts it, that “profit is theft.”

But no matter how you slice it, and regardless of whether they reveal themselves to be ruthless corporate swine, the bottom line is: What Ben and Jerry’s is to tooth decay and Tom’s of Maine is to prevention of tooth decay, Amoeba has become to dusty, scratchy platters of black plastic. Namely, they practice hippie capitalism that is more hip than pie (as in “in the sky”)—although it was hard not to sigh upon reading the agitprop posted in the front window of the new store, which said that buying and selling used records is, yes, good for the planet.

The Los Angeles store, which will have 28,000 square feet of clean, well-lighted retail space and 120,000 carefully categorized, strategically sealed used records, opens this month. And if opening day on Haight Street is any indication, it will be the Event of the fall season, at least as far as Los Angeles-based snobs, jokers, Luddites, halfhearted bohemians, part-time service employees, and perma-students are concerned.

“We had people camping out overnight and wrapped all the way around the block,” Weinstein recalls of the San Francisco opening. “Collectors were looking in the windows with binoculars, trying to figure out where everything was.” That day Amoeba did $150,000 in business. “We expect a similar thing here,” says Weinstein, who isn’t too concerned about a full-scale nerd riot breaking out. “There’s a lot of rabid collectors who are gonna be very excited, shoulder to shoulder. Hopefully no one will get carried away.”
And while shoplifting is “definitely a problem,” it is “very difficult to get out of here with records”—not just because of the off-duty cops who’ll be lurking about but also because of all the watchful, preternaturally cheery employees who, believe it or not, actually enjoy their work, belying the stereotype of the record-store clerk/jerk who, after all these years, was immortalized on the big screen by Jack Black in High Fidelity.

“That’s a really important distinction between us and a lot of the big chains—and a lot of the small independents,” Weinstein almost warns. “We go way out of our way.”

Exactly what they’re willing to go way out of their way to do remains to be seen. In other words, has Amoeba come to town with the express purpose of putting, say, Aron’s on Highland—and all our other record retailers—out of business?

Aron’s, which started in 1965 as a 626-square-foot classical music store, is now up to 9,000 square feet. Owner Jesse Klempner’s “gut feeling” is that new and used vinyl accounts for 10 to 15 percent of his total sales. So, is he quaking in his boots? Not as much as when the rumor was that Amoeba was going to set up shop across the street. “I’d say we’re aware and slightly concerned,” says Klempner. “Any collector is gonna go to every store. And this is a collector’s town.”

“There’s a lot of really great stores in the L.A. area, like Rhino, for example, that are really strong and’ll do fine,” says Weinstein, “because they can do a lot of the things we can’t do, like play records for people and just stand at the counter and chat.”

But he also can’t help stating the obvious. “There are a few that have been particularly weak for years that may have reason to worry, or not. I’m not trying to be judgmental, and we certainly don’t come in here to specifically compete with anybody, but there are a couple of stores in the Hollywood area—you can figure out who they are—that are particularly nervous about our coming. And as I understand it, they’ve already gone to great lengths to improve their systems. They’re actually putting in bin cards so that customers can find product! And that’s all good, because that’s what they should’ve done years ago.”