Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Amoeba Music (Part 1)
An Interview with Founder and Owner Marc Weinstein
I am crazy about music, but I didn’t grow up with a rock star as the neighborhood role model or a successful person assuring me that rock ‘n’ roll is the way. It felt more like something that I should stay away from if I wanted an uncomplicated life. When I interviewed Marc Weinstein, the owner and founder of the most thriving record shop in the world, Amoeba Music, he affirmed my love for music—I was right all along! “I think the real power of music can help forward and even save humanity down the road. It's just going unnoticed,” he said, oozing with passion. I picture three bunkers that I can choose to run to when apocalypse hits—the Amoeba Music stores in Berkeley, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. But let’s not get carried away—Marc is not really talking about the end of the world per se, but rather that music has already been saving us, and once we collectively realize this is true, there is hope for us humans.
In this interview Marc shared with us the progress of how Amoeba Music was conceived (between marijuana tokes), expanded, and how they sustained their business model through and through—by staying true to music and following their hearts.
――You grew up in the Buffalo area of New York, but not everyone from Buffalo became the owner of Amoeba Music. How did your relationship to music begin?
My father, who worked at a television station, earlier in his career was also a DJ on the radio, so we had a lot of promo 45s and LPs at the house, and my dad had a couple hundred records. So my earliest exposure obviously was his Miles Davis records, Oscar Peterson and such. When he saw I was interested in music, he would bring some 45s home. I had a little record player and 45s that were instead of being the latest pop hits, promos that the radio station was getting rid of. So I had kind of an interesting variety of 45s—I don't really remember much of that, but I know it had an influence.
My deep interest started when I was in junior high school and when we had a really great record store in my little town of Kenmore, NY, which is immediately north of Buffalo. I started playing drums when I was nine years old and I had already had opportunities to play in bands by that time. So I was really into the idea of making music and listening—we got into progressive rock like Jethro Tull and The Moody Blues—it was sort of a time when everyone was.
Where it really kicked in hard was when I was in high school, I worked at a place called the Mighty Taco in Buffalo, and the owners had a particular passion for strange rock music, so I would go to their house after work and listen to Soft Machine and all of these British prog type stuff, and CAN, Frank Zappa, and Captain Beefheart. As a drummer, the confluence of extremely complicated compositions and free improvisation is where I live—it's what I love. The love for that pretty much formed when I was in high school and it never left me.
―― What was the very first vinyl you bought?
I bought Are You Experienced by The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Sounds like a cliché, but... my friend played it for me when I was at camp when I was 14, and as soon as I got back from camp I bought it. It was the first record I bought with my own money.
――What is Amoeba? When you opened another record store in Berkeley in 1990, what was the missing piece that you were bringing as a new concept to the already bustling record store scene?
Both my partner, David Prinz, and I are record collectors and we met at record stores, so we wanted to create an ultimate trading post for record collectors: an ultimate venue for people who wanted to trade stuff, buy stuff, you know, the whole idea was bring your stuff in, get some credit, or get something else—you didn't have to spend cash, necessarily. Also, to take the idea of an independent record store and kind of blow it up into a place that everyone can be happy. It's not like a little clubhouse where it's just somebody's favorite records; it’s a clubhouse where it's a lot of different people's favorite records in different sections. We curated all of our sections with experts in each of those areas, the reggae section was curated by a guy who had Bob Marley tattooed across his back, and the punk rock section, likewise, the metal section, classical and jazz—all of those were bought and curated by people who were deeply into those subjects. So we had an opportunity to create a place for everybody in our store.
~ Amoeba Music Berkeley Store (1990) ~
That was one side of it, the other side was: new and used. It was essential that we have as much catalog as we possibly can, and the only way to do that is to buy collections: to buy used. Frankly, that was my favorite thing—used records—and always has been. I have bought many collections over the years leading up to the time before Amoeba, and knew how to buy large collections.
Dave was a retailer for many years and so was I, we both come from back East, and we both love California and California culture. Berkeley, California, where we first opened, is a place that the new and used concept, in other words, stores that bought and sold used stuff, had been going on since the '60s and early '70s and was a mecca for that kind of stuff. Where we opened Amoeba in the first place, there were seven other record stores right near us, and we went right into that zone where all the other record stores were, and we opened a large store, which at the time was only 3,500 ft2. The store grew to be almost 13, 000 ft2 after several large expansions, but that store started off big enough, and we hyped it up amongst our friends. We had a very busy first day with a line down the road that we didn't even expect! The first day we opened, we did $10,000 in sales out of this little store, which I thought was an unbelievable feat. I had never imagined that we will be so busy from day one, and it just took off from there. The minute it opened, it opened the doors to many more opportunities to buy large collections, and we started travelling around California, and then to the rest of the country. Just buying and buying like crazy.
Our biggest attraction was that we constantly had new records in every single day. This was obviously long before there were any kinds of computers: no other way to listen to what you wanted. So we had so many feverish record collectors coming in regularly, looking at our new arrivals and going through our bins. So it was constantly turning over. We had collections from other parts of the country, like Nashville or New Orleans—we’d hype it up and sometimes put it out all at once—and everybody would come, waiting in line and pushing and shoving around the record bins.
~ Amoeba Music San Francisco Store (1997) ~
We had an incredible buzz going around our store, and for the first 6 years we just grew and grew and grew into two other buildings, and we got to be 13,000 ft2. Around that time, our friend Gilbert managed Park Bowl in San Francisco, where Amoeba is located now. That bowling alley, known for its “Rock & Bowl,” was rather old and decrepit. Gilbert basically lost his lease and he was deciding to move on in his life, and he tipped us to the fact that this place was going to become available, and so we negotiated with the owners without it ever going on the market. At first, we were trying to rent the building. The owner was an older gentleman, and at the end, he wanted us to buy it. So, it was a bit of a stretch for us, but we were basically able to buy that building. Still the only building we own.
So, we got this amazing opportunity to open this store in San Francisco, and we were ripe and ready for that: we had such a busy store in Berkeley and a lot of records, and we were growing! We really thought it was a great idea—let's go over to the Haight! The two most alternative strips in the Bay Area, historically, are Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and the Haight in San Francisco, so just the two best possible places for a record store.
We opened in November of 1997 (right around the time my daughter was born). That was an exciting day, and put us at a much higher platform where we were instantly doing more than twice the numbers of the Berkeley store—the sheer number of people and the amount of space we had made it an incredible opportunity to do everything we wanted to do. It was basically the greatest record store on earth—at least until we opened the L.A. store.
~ Amoeba Hollywood Store (2001) ~
The L.A. store, by the way, is very much a product of the San Francisco store, because our customers included many people from Los Angeles, and they would come in and say: "Man, why don't you have something like this down in L.A.? There are no stores like this in L.A.!" We were like, "Really?" I had been to Los Angeles a few times, and had a few friends, but I didn't really know anything about the record store scene down there. So our customers kind of clued us into that and it very much inspired us to go take a look. We would have never really considered it part of our paths to go down to L.A. and spreading ourselves that thin. Then we went down there, and looked at the best stores, the layout of the city, looked at the map, talked to friends, and we thought: "Man! This place really needs us!" [Laughs.] It opened in 2001. It is our last and greatest achievement. It has a lot of parallel to the San Francisco store, which is 25,000 ft2. This gave us an opportunity to take a brand new 43,000 ft2 space right on Sunset Boulevard, right in the heart of L.A., and do it the way we want it with even more resources than we had when we opened San Francisco.
When we decided to open the L.A. store, we were buying so many records from all over the US as ravenously as we could. We were opening this giant store in the middle of L.A., and we had a reason to buy buy buy buy buy. We had literally five or more times the number of LPs we needed to open that store when we opened. Also, this was the later period when people were converting to CDs and they just didn't want to deal with LPs anymore—we saw a lot of people bringing in their LPs with a turntable on top of the pile to our buy counter, literally, and just saying: "Here you go, take it away!" At that time, I think it was the richest inventory any record shop ever had. We really saved all of our best stuff for that opening. Believe me, the SF store didn't suffer, that's how rich we were in beautiful used records at that time.
Part of why the L.A. store remains the busiest is because of the history of the music business being there. There are a lot of people in L.A. that still have piles and piles of records in their garage. We were just buying incredible collections from people who worked in the business, from radio DJs, collectors... we were kind of a buzz around town. We literally spent a year in L.A. advertising that we were buying, and that we were trying to build the greatest inventory that ever existed. So, we kind of got our customers involved in building the store to that extent, and that was really cool, too. It was a fantastic time. We opened into an era where records, CDs, videos were selling at a huge rate, and we were right in the middle of it all in L.A. So, that upped our game even more.
―― How did the name "Amoeba Music" come about?
My partner, Dave, interestingly, among many other talents that he has, was literally the world champion Scrabble player in 1975 and 1976. He is a wordsmith. He's also a stoner like me, so we loved to smoke pot. [Laughs.] In the beginning, Dave was a customer of mine when I was managing Streetlight Records in San Francisco, and we used to wheel and deal and then we go outside and smoke this amazing Hawaiian pot he had. He got interested in opening a record store, shortly after we met, because he had just sold his video business. He was an avid record collector and he was curious enough to ask me about the numbers at the store I was working at, and we spent time scheming on paper what could we do here. So, we had obviously decided: "Let's do this! We need a name!" We figured we had to name it Such and Such Music, because we don't want people to think we are just a record store: we are selling records, CDs and more, and it's all about music.
Dave, who is good at alliterating stuff, was thinking about being in the beginning of the phonebook. It has to start with "A," and it has to sound good with "Music." When he said “Amoeba Music”—it was obvious—That's great! Because Amoeba is not so specific, you can see it so many different ways, it's sort of a cute little thing, and what is music after all but a mystery, right? So it just felt right from day one. Shortly after that, we were trying to design a logo, and Dave kind of knew this guy, Shepherd Hendrix, who was the artist at the Bay Street Tower Records. Not only that, we found out that he was Jimi Hendrix's nephew! So, that was exciting in itself. So we asked him, "Shepherd, would you consider designing our logo? Here's our name. We are trying to make something unique, interesting, and something funky—like a cartoon—just go ahead and see what you can do!" Our logo is his first attempt at creating a logo for us. We loved it! I don't even remember if we paid him, or what happened there [chuckles] but it was all magic. All magic!
―― How do you and Dave Prinz work together? If you were to describe your roles in the beginning.
We opened with only eight staff total. I was in charge of buying and personnel stuff, because I knew so many people in the record biz. Dave is a natural business guy—the guy with a yellow pad figuring things out—he was adding up all the numbers, and he's the guy that does the contracts and negotiating. I am the one out on the floor, and Dave is more in the office, he doesn't interact as much socially with that world. So, we have very different roles. Over the years it has worked out pretty well because we have different areas of responsibility.
―― You two are still operating that way?
Yeah, like right now, we are talking about moving the L.A. store, believe it or not, and I am working on the design for all the shelves, bins, facades, and the signage, because my degree is in Fine Arts. I do the visionary stuff, and Dave does the business stuff.
―― When so many record stores closed all around the world during that big lull—Amoeba stood strong. What do you think kept you all going?
Well, we survived because we had built ourselves up as a mecca for collectors, and our customer base were so much stronger and more focused. At that time, Tower and Virgin were these big generic stores and the big-box models were just swallowing up the small chains and independents. We just came in and filled this whole space that was in the middle between the big-box stores and the little independents. We remained, very much, with an independent spirit, and we never did Co-Op advertising. We never allowed record labels to play stuff in our store, we never had videos—there was no sales pitch going on when you walked into Amoeba, ever—we were adamant: that's never going to happen. All those other stores went totally in that direction: they were selling their wall space, bin space, and they had videos promoting all of these new records. You know, our customers want to walk in and be left alone to figure out what they want in this wonderful Garden of Eden soaked in vinyl. [Laughter.]
“Love and passion is what people come to my store for: they see the love and passion in everyone's eyes—on both sides of the counter—all the customers, all the staff... when can you walk into a big store and have everyone loving the product as much as Amoeba, I mean, it doesn't happen!”
I think our style really carried us all along. I think people feel comfortable, they feel like they are appreciated, even our staff are the same. We have our original staff with us and we have staff that has been there for decades. We have managed to be big enough to survive all of these different changes, and still be kind of a mecca in the Bay Area and in L.A. in a way that somehow makes us an anomaly. Not that we don't have some of the same issues that we are struggling to deal with, but we have a little more resources, a lot of great people, we are constantly moving things around, and making things make more sense. Unlike a big chain that has a board of directors and incorporation and all of that stuff, we can turn on a dime unlike those guys. So, I think we were able to survive by just being who we were.
―― So the L.A. store is moving. What is the current status?
We are inches away from having a finalized lease on a space that is really big and beautiful, and it's about five blocks away from our current location. It's literally on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, on the east end of it, so it's more accessible to everybody. The actual floor space of the store will be about 75% as big as the one we have now, and pretty similar in size to our San Francisco store, so it's pretty huge. It's an exciting prospect.
Right now we are dealing with the challenge of making it look and feel like Amoeba. It's kind of a semi-generic new building, and a lot of restriction on what we can do with the facade. We are going to have a humongous blade sign that will be very prominent right on Hollywood Boulevard and above our store, so that will give us a lot of visibility. Unfortunately, it won't have that ultra-standalone-feeling that our current store has. You know, we are not going to be able to paint it up with our murals and stuff, [laughs] but we will do everything we can to make it look great.
―― So the current store is getting sold for redevelopment?
Yeah, a developer owns it, and he is building a 28-story yuppie tower right there. Once he has all his permits in the next couple of years, he is going to knock our building down!
―― So, what was the story about a possible Amoeba Tokyo?
A team of entrepreneurs related to Tsutaya from Japan came and started negotiation with us to try to open a store under our name in Tokyo. That lasted for a whole year, until they couldn't get sufficient funding to do it properly, or whatever the story was. They were really great guys and it was really exciting, because they wanted to take our brand and open an Amoeba in Tokyo! I mean, people opened Tower Records in Tokyo, but, Amoeba's a much more complicated business, because buying used records is really not easy.
Japanese dealers, though, are really good at buying records. If we have any competition in the US for product, it's the Japanese buyers. All that said, I think our model and brand will do so well in Japan, because we have a great brand, so many Japanese tourists come directly to our store when they hit L.A. or San Francisco, and we would love if we could somehow open a store over there, but otherwise on our own, I think we don't have the wherewithal to do that.
―― Tell us more about your trip to Tokyo.
One of my great longings in life, right now, since I was in Japan three years ago, is to go back and do more record shopping—to go back to a place that has a level of appreciation for records, for vinyl, and for CDs that I share. When I was in Tokyo with my wife and daughter, they are not record collectors but they appreciate it, and they let me go record shopping a little bit. I stood inside of Tower and I almost cried my eyes out—as crappy as that store is—it just made me so happy! [Laughs.] Disk Union in Shimokitazawa was the favorite of all, because it represented a cross section of interest and it reminded me of the first Amoeba store—so much love and passion in it—and the customers! The level of interest everybody in the store has for the product—that is what just gets me. Japanese people really get it! [Laughs.]
Amoeba gets a lot of Japanese collectors and dealers. When they come into my stores, I, because I am such a weirdo [chuckles], I absolutely marvel at how they handle records, how they look at records... I can see it in their eyes—how much it means to them—and it totally turns me on! I love it!
Amoeba Music Berkeley
2455 Telegraph Ave. Berkeley, CA 94704
Sunday-Thursday: 11am-8pm, Friday-Saturday: 11am-10pm
(Trade Counter Hours - Open to 8pm)
Tel: (+1) 510-549-1125
Amoeba Music San Francisco
1855 Haight St. San Francisco, CA 94117
(Trade Counter remains open during store hours)
Tel: (+1) 415-831-1200
Amoeba Music Hollywood
6400 Sunset Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90028
Monday-Saturday: 10:30am-11pm Sunday: 11am-10pm
(Trade Counter Hours Monday-Saturday: 10:30am-8pm, Sunday: 11am-8pm)
Tel: (+1) 323-245-6400
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii
Stay tuned for more record shop interviews!