Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Rooky Ricardo's Records
Be Open To Something New (From the Past)!
Rooky Ricardo’s Records is located in the Lower Haight of San Francisco and it has been on the same block for 32 years, despite an earthquake retrofit that caused the store to move across the street. The owner Dick Vivian, who people also call Rooky or Viv, is a charismatic persona on the block that charmingly interacts with the neighbors and regulars that come by his store to check out his vinyl specialties: soul 45s. The interior, reminiscent of the ‘50s, is decorated with posters, signs and album art that welcome music lovers into a haven of analog warmth and great music. Dick shared with us his journey, the music he loves, and the change of scenery; as well as how newer San Franciscans are not quite jiving with record culture.
――Where are you from and what made you move to San Francisco?
I was born in 1947 in Walnut Creek, California — 30 minutes away from San Francisco — and grew up there. I moved to San Jose when I was twenty for ten years. Then I moved to the City (San Francisco) around 1980; I just wanted to be closer to the action.
――How did that lead to you becoming a record shop owner?
So, I moved to San Francisco in 1980, and a few years later the opportunity to buy 35,000 45s for about $5,000 arose. It was another record shop in Berkeley called Down Home Music, and they had gotten these warehouse stock, but they weren't interested in them. I happened to have enough money to buy it, and that was what, down the road, started my record store. It was bulk, 1,000 James Brown 45s and such. It had been a distributor ship, so there were multiple copies of lots of stuff. It was predominantly soul and there were a lot of jazz 45s in it too, which I didn't want at the time, but it wound up selling pretty quickly.
I didn't buy it with the intention of opening a record store; I bought it to fill my own collection. So I wanted to find some place that I could open for a few months to maybe get rid of a lot of them. At one point the guy who gave me the space didn't want to be there anymore, and the landlord asked me if I wanted to keep going and the rent was really really cheap then, so without any thought I said "Yeah, I’ll keep doing it." Then one thing lead to another and now I’ve been open since 1987, for 32 years.
――How did the name of the store come about?
Five years before I opened the record store, I was out with a friend of mine for lunch, and being as my name is Dick which is Ricardo in Spanish, I said: “Boy if I had a shop, I would name it Rooky Ricardo's; kind of a play on Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy.” I had no idea that I would open a shop. It is actually a fabulous name. Everybody reacts to that name.
――So you had a great store name, and then what?
I became kind of well known because I had a lot of really really expensive soul records, like probably $500 records, and I was selling them for five bucks. I didn't know at the time because we didn't have the ways to know the value. So I had a huge following, not so much in San Francisco, but from all over the world: mainly England. English people came over here and bought so many records so cheaply (because we didn't know how valuable they were). San Francisco people bought a lot of the James Brown and the funk that I had, so I had about 1,000 James Brown 45s, for instance, and I was selling everything for $2 each. It wasn't until I had a computer and all these various websites like Discogs and such that allowed everybody to know what the value was for something. To every collector’s disappointment, record shops now don't give records away; they still can make mistakes, but they know the value now. The English people still come over here and I don't have any of those records anymore… If I had them now, I'd be happy.
――So let’s go back to the beginning: how did you get into music? What were the first encounters that inspired you?
I’ve always loved music. I went to sleep to music. It started at home when I was about 10 years old. That was when the Top 40s were all I got to hear, and there was a lot of R&B; soul hadn't been created yet. I always kept up with music, and there were two songs that made a difference in my life. One of them was called Whispering Bells by the Del-Vikings that was from 1958, a pretty big hit. The beginning of that song just drove me wild; it was a very long instrumental beginning and horns came in — and I loved that. There were many others in between that I loved, but the next song that really changed my life was Please Mr. Postman by The Marvelettes. When I heard that on the radio, we had limited radio in Walnut Creek due to the poor connection, and I only heard about half of that song and I thought it was the best thing that I had ever heard in my whole life! So that went deeper inside of me than any song had ever gone before or after and that is what set the tone for my true love for music.
――And where did your famed dancing skills come from?
It's all part of it. I was in 6th grade, and the girls taught me how to dance, so when I moved to a new school in 7th grade, I was the only boy that could dance. That made all the difference in the world, socially. The girls loved me and I was the only kid in high school that could do the mashed potato. It was magical, is what it was. Fortunately for me, you got five other record stores in the neighborhood. There is Originals Vinyl and Groove Merchant, and they do jazz. They do better jazz, and higher-end stuff. I can better route people and get them out of my store immediately. [Laughs.] I am still a popular store in people's minds, it's just, how often are they coming in anymore.
――And you took that love and now have a record shop. Tell us more about your selection. How do you maintain the store inventory? Do you ever travel to find records, for instance?
I used to be in a bigger space and then they did an earthquake retrofit and I had to move across the street. So basically right now I have half the space I used to have and at twice the price. So that eliminated a lot of racks of LPs, and I had to cut down on categories, so basically all I have are 45s, soul LPs, R&B and oldies LPs, classic rock and a little bit of jazz… and I don't travel. I am old. I don't go out looking. Say there is an estate sale or a garage sale: I won't do that because not only am I too old, I’ve done it before. Getting on the ground fighting for records… no, that's not for me. Anything that I get, majority of the records come from the neighborhood or other record stores. If I sell a $10 or $20 Marvin Gaye album, I am happy as a clam!
“The minute anyone says I love Aretha Franklin, I say,
‘Have you ever heard of Denise LaSalle? Nellie Jackson?
Gwen McCrae? Betty Wright? Ann Peebles?’”
――Do you ever ship online?
No. Well, the only thing I will ship is an expensive 45, but I don't have the temperament or desire to deal with customers that want perfection and a prestige Blue Note.
――What makes your store stand out; what’s your specialty?
I am the only one doing a huge selection of 45s, at least in this part of the world. My main specialty used to be my knowledge.
――How has your clientele changed over the 32 years you have been here?
People used to come in and say: "I like so and so and so and so, who do you recommend?" That doesn't happen anymore. The minute anyone says I love Aretha Franklin, I say, “Have you ever heard of Denise LaSalle? Nellie Jackson? Gwen McCrae? Betty Wright? Ann Peebles?” So those are the ones I can still find for $5 or $10, and double my money because they are not relatively desirable. People today have 20 things on their list and if it's not on that list they don't want them. What people want nowadays doesn't really fit into my knowledge, because the new record buyers, all they want is the same records that everybody else wants; they are buying what they think they should have because it’s cool. It's frustrating for me because there is such good stuff out there and you have a store full of great merchandise but people are not buying so many of them.
They would rather have a new copy of Rumors or Thriller or Songs In The Key of Life than an original one. You can get a new one cheaper than you can get a reissued one, but a lot of those, and not necessarily of those particular albums, are off CD masters. So they are not even getting the real album and they are paying 30 bucks to get a CD that looks like an album. They want Nina Simone, Sam Cook, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Etta James and Irma Thomas. I could have a store with just those people and make more than I would make having all the other real stuff. John Coltrane and Miles Davis are also the ones that are wanted by everybody that walks in. I was told by somebody that 40% of the people that actually buy records, don't have a record player and they buy records just to put them on their shelf, just to show off like a bachelor pad…
People who know nothing (about music) think they know everything. If somebody asks me for a record that I have never heard of, I have three things that I ask them: “Did you hear it on Youtube? Did it ever come out on vinyl? Is it over $500?”
I still get young music lovers in here, but people loving music for themselves, in the store that I have, is going away. So, that is where I am not helpful anymore; my knowledge is no longer that useful. I can't refer people to other stuff, because they don't care.
――So you are saying that your old clientele was more open?
Yeah. There is no discovering anymore. Youtube and Spotify have killed that — it is horrible. Talk about the digital age; I have four listening stations. I have always had these, and now people don't use the listening stations; they listen to the album that they’re holding in hand on their phone while they are standing in front of the listening stations! I politely try to say: "You know that that would be defeating the whole purpose of buying a record, right?" Because they are hearing a digital version of it... it drives me nuts.
――What happened to the artsy crowd of San Francisco?
They have all moved away. My customers are either coming from Oakland or L.A.
――Sounds excruciating... so what are the rewards of having a record shop these days?
I still love my clientele, I may not sound like it; there are days when people come in and the place is hopping, and we play cards in the back. It's a real social scene here.
――And finally, what's playing at your store right now?
I have over 100 CDs I make that is my little way of sharing with the world of musical people. Girl groups are my specialty. I do soul pop and R&B, all ‘60s. I have a 45 recorder at home on the turntable that connects to a CD recorder. I do about 30 songs in one CD, and my mixes are very popular all over the world. Especially, in France and Germany, in cafés. The majority of songs on them are not out on CD format, and I do not equalize or anything. Some of the new CDs they put out, they alter them to sound more modern: they eliminate the background vocals sometimes, they mute it, they add bass, but my CDs sound just like 45s. A different sound that people aren't used to. These are not your typical Northern soul hits, they are really what was on radio at the time. So you actually heard all of these on the radio. I didn't know what was on the Chicago radio or New York or Pittsburgh... because I grew up here. Sometimes they’re plot oriented.They are playlists that makes sense—a 28 to 30 song playlist and they introduce people to singers they have never heard. My most popular one is called the Foolish Dreamer and that is R&B girls from the early ‘60s and people love that.
【Dick’s three vinyl picks!】
I am not going to pick expensive albums. Here are three different soul albums; they are different music that I love having at my store, and I can always sell because I am really good at suggesting when someone says something that’s $100, I say no, but I have this $10 one that's great, too. So I have three albums that have very different examples of what I do here.
■ People Hold On by Eddie Kendricks (LP)
The first one, I just picked up the other day, is Eddie Kendricks’ People Hold On. I brought this one out because I charge $40 for it, which is a big deal. It has a number of samples on it; other people come in here to create samples from other samples, which I don't understand... but this has a couple of great songs on it: Girl You Need To Change Your Mind, and one called Date With The Rain. This is an album that will belong on the wall at any shop; at hipster shops and my kind of shop. I am a soul shop, so this is a great album for me to have.
■ A Package of 16 Big Hits (LP)
The second one is A Package of 16 Big Hits and it’s Motown’s first 16 greatest hits and it's the original cover, so pretty collectable. It's pretty cool looking.
■ Hold Your Horses by First Choice (LP)
The third one, because I get a lot of people asking for disco and crossover modern soul. My favorite disco album in the world is Hold Your Horses by First Choice, and every song on this, top to bottom, first to last, and of all the disco albums that came out in the mid to late ‘70s, this is my absolute favorite album; it’s perfect from beginning to end.
419 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117
Hours: 12pm - 6pm everyday
(415) 864-7526 USA
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii