Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Open Mind Music (Part 1)
Music Love Champions The Tides of Change
Let’s talk about the hurdles we face in life. All the ways in which your dreams can be blocked or burned to a crisp, and yet some of us will keep those dreams alive somehow and hold on to those lifelong commitments. Here is an interview with Henry Wimmer a.k.a. the Merry Hankster, a DJ at KXSF, a longtime record collector (30,000 alone in his home!), and the unbreakable record shop owner that has persisted through many changes: opening a world-renowned shop in San Francisco, unsympathetic landlords, selling at a collective, experiencing a fire, riding out the digital era and music streaming, and finally, making a new location in Oakland, where he seems cosily settled in. His reward: he lives and breathes vinyl, he DJs a radio show on air, and being that guy that cheerfully opens a door to a record shop everyday and can say: “Vinyl sales are on the up!”
――Tell us how it all began, Henry.
I was born in New York City and I lived there until I was six. When I was a small child my parents played jazz around the house and we lived in an apartment building that also housed the king of swing: Benny Goodman, the clarinetist. I remember meeting him in the elevator with my parents when I was very young. They had an element of nervousness, because of his celebrity, I guess. I remember enjoying Duke Ellington, Stan Getz and Herb Alpert when I was small, and then I discovered The Beatles through Sesame Street: Yellow Submarine, I think was the gateway. When I was seven years old I discovered Bob Dylan in a music class where Blowing In The Wind was featured as a poem and the song really made an impact on me; it was provocative, and taught me how words could be used with music. That opened me to songwriters.
――Benny Goodman was your neighbor! You weren't even ten yet before all of these encounters and influences took a hold of you.
Yes, very early; seminal, formative events in my early years. When I was maybe 18 or so? I started to DJ a little bit for friends at small gatherings. Then I started working at a Chicago news radio station in 1987. I even incorporated my love for music at the news stations by sending one of my co-workers out to a press conference with Jimmy Cliff in Chicago and got him to do a station identification where he said: "When I am in Chicago, for the best in Reggae Music, I listen to WNPR!" Which was a news station, but I thought: “Let's have some fun!” [Laughter.]
I started working for a music station after I moved out to California. I worked at different record stores before I opened my own shop in 1994. April, 1994 — the day after Kurt Cobain died — we opened our doors. The dark question at that point was, “are you going to raise your price on Nirvana?” and I said: “No! We are just opening and we are not going to manipulate someone's demise for profit.”
Open Mind Music started in 1994 on Divisadero Street in the middle of San Francisco. I quickly became world-renowned in a few years. I bought a large collection that belong to noted DJ, Tom "Big Daddy" Donahue, who worked at KSAN for years; he was credited for being one of the guys that started playing album tracks on FM radio. He was a very famous radio DJ who was also the man behind Autumn Records that had The Beau Brummels, and he worked with Sly Stone who had been a DJ in San Francisco. So to acquire Tom's collection from his girlfriend was an excellent acquisition. We followed that by buying 15,000 reggae records from a gentleman who had lived in southern Florida and was a huge collector of mostly Jamaican music: reggae, rocksteady, dub, and all the flavors of the Caribbean. So we quickly had people coming up from L.A. to buy 7" dub plates from us. Yeah. So that was a major part of our growth. I was always buying from customers, always out in the field looking for records; wherever I went in bookstores, thrift stores, other record stores. When I travel I always seek out records both for building my personal archive and for the growth of the store. So the shop in San Francisco got a reputation worldwide and people like Metallica, Fred Schneider from B-52’s, DJ Shadow, Aphex Twin, and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp, various record fiends among musicians and otherwise, would come to the store. We also had a very solid DJ element to our store: a lot of techno, downtempo, all sorts of abstract beats, and hip hop. Every local or traveling DJ and any musical talent would come into the store. Kruder and Dorfmeister, Madlib, Peanut Butter Wolf, Pete Rock, and all sorts of notable people.
――This was in the mid to late ‘90s.
Yes, that is when I was really growing the store and having a heyday before the tech implosion: the first bubble burst, and then the landlord passed away and things changed. I had a handshake agreement with her after the lease had ended, and unfortunately her children ended up selling the store to someone who did not value what I was doing; gave me a 30 day eviction notice without any warning... So after 13 years of business, I was pushed out, as a lot of people were in San Francisco. Then I was in limbo for a while before I moved to Market Street near Cafe Du Nord nightclub where I was there from May of 2007 until Halloween of 2008. About a year and a half at the second location and that landlord broke an oral agreement and I was pushed out again. So, at that point, I decided to take a break from brick and mortar store ownership and sold at co-ops and record fairs, and I kept my collection in a warehouse.
"My dining room is a record room, my living room is a record room.
I have a long hallway that is about 20 ft. long with
seven rows of records going up it. Yes, a lot of records."
――Tell us about joining the collective in 2008.
On my old block on Divisadero there was a collective called the Other Shop, and there were maybe 18 different dealers and I was the one that sold records. People sold furniture, art, clothing, and collectables, and my focus was of course, vinyl. So people in the neighborhood could still find me, but I had downsized from 25 record bins down to 5.
――As somebody that was tied to brick and mortar since 1994, what was that like? Did you spend time collecting more vinyl? Or was there some break?
Well, certainly, when you do retail for 15 years, actually 18 years including the years I worked at other stores, I needed a break and I did some traveling. I still looked for records but I took advantage of not having to be somewhere everyday or pay someone to be there in my place. Yeah, It was stressful, and San Francisco became a very expensive place to live.
――Can we talk about the fire that happened in 2014?
Yeah. I can talk about that. The Other Shop, the collective, had an electric fire in December that year and I lost about $50,000 worth of records uninsured. That was a tremendous loss, and so I have been building back my business since then. Thankfully, having more records in storage, my reputation, kindness of long-time customers, and people who understood the value in the independent record dealer, helped me recover.
――You had lost some treasured items in that fire?
Yes, but it wasn't just the monetary value, it was all the time it had taken to acquire, to clean, to sleeve and price all the records — hundreds of hours of labor — beyond the financial loss. So that was disheartening… but I am resilient and I persevered. So, it's very helpful when people decide to buy a record or more from my shop, because all of that helps in my recovery from this traumatic event.
――I can not imagine... You re-opened in Oakland in 2017, correct?
Yes - well, I still live in San Francisco, but an opportunity to open a shop happened last year in the beautiful neighborhood of Rockridge, close to the BART station at 5517 College Avenue. Right next door to a bar called RIC (Rockridge Improvement Club). The two bar owners originally had a nail salon in the small space next to their bar under their lease and they wanted something more appropriate for their business. One of them is a producer who worked with The Killers and Green Day; his name is Jeff Saltzman and the other owner Scott Ayers had been in a band called The Lovemakers. So they both love music and they welcomed an opportunity to work with me, to give me a platform, to give me a location to have a business that will bring them business. They were very accommodating and fair, and we have a symbiotic relationship: where people can come for records and then can have a drink later, or have a few drinks and come buy records.
――How did the name “OPEN MIND MUSIC” originally come about?
In March of 1994, I went on a buying trip. I had an Econoline: same kind that Neil Young sang about. I drove from San Francisco to L.A. with a bunch of records and I sold them at the Pasadena Record Swap and then I drove east through Albuquerque and through Texas and ended up doing four record swap meets in Oklahoma City, Dallas, Wichita, and Tulsa. So lots of miles in a very short time, a lot of record selling, and at the end of everyday, I would reinvest all of my money into buying more records. I was using the trip to have a platform for opening my store, and so I ended up driving to Austin, Texas; put everything in storage and then flew back to San Francisco. I took down some interior walls of my space, put in carpeting, painted, brought in record bins, and then flew back to Austin and attended the SXSW music festival. On the drive back from Austin, I was listening to a mix of psychedelic music which included a band called the Open Minds and their song Magic Potion. It was excellent and I was riffing on what to name my store, and it dawned on me: Open Mind. I liked the ring of Open Mind Music. That popped into my head and I also liked the idea of being open to different styles of music, different genres, as well as the idea of music opening your mind: music assisting in having a sound mind, a clearer head.
――So, here you are in Oakland. What are you most proud of about your store.
There are a few things. I am proud that we have a very well curated shop. With quality in several genres, we are very strong in rock ‘n’ roll of various kinds, indie rock, psychedelic rock, and classic rock. Also in jazz and in American roots music: country, folk, blues, and soul music. We really try to get anything of quality and we try to represent as best as we can, be it reggae music or African music or hip hop. It is rich with quality. Our records are all cleaned except for some bargain records that we may not have time to work on, but the majority of the records are well cared for, we put them all in protective sleeves, and we treat each record with respect. We want to present a record store that we ourselves would want to walk into. It is a very clean store. Some record stores are difficult to shop in because they are dirty or too crowded, but ours is easy to shop in with double-decker bins. We play records to people. We are getting ready to set up our listening stations, like the old store, so people can preview our used records and we also have over 1,000 new records that are carefully selected; not to stay in step with the latest fad, but rather, to represent quality: long-lasting classics. So we are a record store for not only the experienced long-time collector, but also the neophyte, who also wants to build a collection; starting with a classic Miles Davis, Coltrane, some Beatles, Bob Marley or what have you and then dig deeper into Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Kaleidoscope, Syd Barrett and Townes Van Zandt, etc.
――You also sell turntables.
Yes. We sell vintage turntables that have been cleaned and thoroughly inspected and repaired if necessary by a very experienced and dedicated gentleman that I work with and we offer turntables with speakers and receivers, so people who are looking to get into listening to records have a one-stop-shop where they can buy their equipment and go home and play their records.
――What are the rewards of running this place? Obviously, there is a lot passion…
Well, the rewards for me personally, is I do find records for myself. I have a radio program that's on KXSF.fm, and also to have the joy in recommending good records to people and meeting like-minded folks who love music — the first week we were open, a young man came in, he looked like a skateboarder and he was looking around for records, and it turned out to be Beck. It was 1994 before Odelay. So we feel happy when musicians come in and all kinds of record enthusiasts, be it DJs or regular record buyers. My shop is for a wide range of record lovers.
――Do you still have some of that reggae, the collection of Jamaican music?
Some of that was lost, a lot was sold. Some remains: I still have a lot of records in my warehouse that I am gradually uncovering. After moving my store twice, I had to avoid breaking my back. [ Laughs.] I need to leave some boxes tucked away for a while, but I am gradually digging into the thousands of records that are in storage, so gems appear in the shop regularly.
――Please tell us more about your radio show!
Well, we have been streaming for 7 and 1/2 years and are just getting back on the airways KXSF.FM. My show is The OPEN MIND MUSIC EXPERIENCE: traversing the sonic soundscape from ABBA to ZAPPA. Yeah, that is every week Pacific Standard Time zone: 10am - 2pm. https://www.kxsf.fm/shows/henrys-open-mind
――Do you grab a bunch of records from your store and take it to play at the radio?
No, I draw from home. I have about 30,000 records at home. So I leave the store as it is.
――Wow! Did you have to have custom made shelves?
Yes! Lots of custom floor to ceiling shelves. My dining room is a record room, my living room is a record room. I have a long hallway that is about 20 ft. long with seven rows of records going up it. Yes, a lot of records.
――So you literally live and breathe records.
Yep, pretty much.
Open Mind Music
5517 College Ave, Oakland CA 94618
Hours: 2pm-8pm everyday
Tel: (415) 864-7526 USA
Listen to Henry every Wednesdays from 10am-2pm PST, San Francisco time!
KXSF.fm or 102.5 FM (Bay Area) LISTEN HERE
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii