Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Contact Records
A Container Full Of Earth’s Music For “Everyone”
Contact Records occupies one small space of the shipping container complex called the MacArthur Annex in Oakland, California. San Francisco-natives and musicians, Hannah Lew and Andrew Kerwin, opened their record shop in this location in November of 2016, and have been living out their big dream in their sweet boxy space. They shared with us their musical stories, their store’s selection, their top album picks, and also about being native San Franciscans during this tech-surge that is rapidly changing their city.
―― Both of you are from San Francisco.
ANDREW: Yeah, my family is 5th generation.
HANNAH: I am actually second generation. We happened to grow up seven blocks away from each other in the Richmond district, and we have been together for 15 years, so we are kind of an anomaly.
―― Well, it is so rare these days!
HANNAH: Yeah, it is very rare. We've met playing shows together, actually. We didn't realize that we had grown up so close together, and when we did, we realized that our younger siblings knew each other... so, we are real San Franciscans. [Laughs.]
ANDREW: Yeah, we are a rare breed here in the Bay Area nowadays. But we get it, which is also why we didn't leave. It is an amazing city and it just makes sense that it attracts people from all over.
HANNAH: We are kind of like the cockroaches after the apocalypse! [Laughter.]
―― In a sense, it has really been an apocalypse in SF—and the arts and music suffer for it.
ANDREW: Yea, it's always the case. It's always the musicians and artists that can't afford things when the climate changes.
HANNAH: I remember in the '90s, when we were teenagers, it was kind of a seedy city, and it felt more like a small town. Some San Francisco natives that I grew up with are homeless now, living in tents—my best friend's little brother has been homeless in San Francisco for 14 years. There is just this huge divide with all of this money, and it's really weird to watch.
ANDREW: We are from San Francisco, but our shop is across the bridge in Oakland. I don't even think we would be able to do this just 30 minutes across the bridge, you know? I think that says a lot, too.
―― So how did this store happen?
ANDREW: I had been working in Amoeba Music in San Francisco for eight years, and then 1-2-3-4 Go! Records reached out to see if I was interested in helping open and run their San Francisco store. When I took that job on, I then would split my time between the San Francisco and Oakland shops, and the Oakland shop is just a handful of blocks away from Contact, here. So, I was spending more time over here, and just meeting more and more people, and this whole converted shipping container thing came up—there are like 30 of them stacked up.
“(Music is) one of the best formats for distilling emotional or cultural perspectives in a way where someone can gain access to a distant point of view.”
We had a friend who was constantly asking us, "You should open up a shop here on Clement Street in San Francisco," but we couldn't really afford to do it, and then this really corky scenario of a converted shipping container made the whole idea—starting a business and opening a record store—approachable. The overhead was low enough so that we could take the risk and go all in, and quit our other jobs… which was tricky... you know, quitting my last record store job to open up a new record store in the neighborhood! Even though it seems competitive, there are enough records to go around. When people go record shopping here in Oakland, they really make the rounds—one shop to the next. We just felt really lucky to be presented with the opportunity. I was hesitant at first, but Hannah was really encouraging to go for it.
HANNAH: We are San Francisco natives, so we are so used to seeing a new building and go: "Oh my god, it’s more condos!" So when we first saw this building, we thought: "This is so crazy, this new building….” But we just quickly checked ourselves—that is an aesthetic knee-jerk response—but in fact, this building is very cool, and it has enabled a lot of people to start something that they may have not been able to do otherwise. So we were the first people to move into the building. I guess things worked out and our landlord was surprised (he was skeptical at first). With a new business, people usually think of advertising, but with records, I mean, record people are such record hounds, that if there is a new record store, or if they hear a rumor, they are like, "We gotta go there!" [Laughs.]
―― You are both musicians. What were your musical inspirations growing up?
HANNAH: My older brother is 13 years older than me, and he was a musician and I always thought he was cool. So I think when I was really young, I wanted to play in bands like him.
ANDREW: I grew up hearing my father play his collection of old time music (between 1927-1934) on 78 records around the house. He also played fiddle and he played old time music, so at an early age, I was basically hearing the roots of rock 'n' roll and everything I eventually came to love. Also, my cousins gave us a mix tape when we were really young, and it was all oldies rock 'n' roll: Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and all of that stuff, and my brother and I just went bonkers for that—jumping around and playing air-guitar to it. By the time I was 14, I got into punk rock, and then I wanted to learn guitar, and because my dad played fiddle, he was totally encouraging. So listening and playing music has always been around since my earliest memories.
―― How did you start collecting vinyl?
ANDREW: When I was a teenager, I started collecting and wanted people's discographies, and when you are taking the collection seriously, it goes right along with record collecting. It is a whole other breed and mindset. That's just me, and how I got hooked.
―― How did you come up with the shop name?
HANNAH: Coming up with a shop name happened to coincide with the 40th anniversary of The Voyager Golden Record. So while brainstorming shop names we were also having discussions about NASA launching a record full of Earth's music and sounds into space. So the name Contact was in part chosen because we feel music has the ability to connect people from all over the world or even universe: one of the best formats for distilling emotional or cultural perspectives in a way where someone can gain access to a distant point of view. We also like to think that our tiny shop is really a portal to the whole planet and that if an alien was to shop at our store, they could learn everything they need to know about us.
―― How would you describe your selection?
HANNAH: Usually, a store this small would be more niche, but we just felt that we really wanted to provide something for everybody—to really serve the existing neighborhood—so we have rock, electronica, jazz, country, a lot of international stuff, soul, and hip hop... a little of everything, really. The only thing we don't have is dance music, because we don't have room for the 12-inches—the singles.
~José Ruíz, a renowned world music DJ of the Bay Area, walks into the store and picks up a record. We had him introduce himself and tells us about the album he had chosen~
José Ruíz: People know me as José Ruíz, and I go by MundoMuzik. Today, I picked up something from Mali, from the '70s more or less. There was a lot of Cuban music done by African groups during the '60s and '70s and this is one of them. I specialize in world music—a lot of them with roots in Africa. I have been doing many radio shows in the Bay Area since '84, so I like coming and supporting small record stores that really know how to treat their customers—he already had this ready for me [looks at Andrew] because he knows the stuff I like! You know the label Putumayo? I did their first five album compilations in Berkeley when they started there.
~José Ruíz makes his purchase and Andrew sends him off at the door~
―― Wow, José Ruíz just popped in your store!
ANDREW: Yeah, that was such great timing!
―― How do you stock inventory?
ANDREW: We carry a small amount of new records. We don’t carry all the major label artists, and instead, we carry reissues that we find interesting or we feel the folks who are coming in here on a regular basis aren't finding elsewhere. Used records is what makes every store unique. We are up early on the weekends hitting garage sales, estate sales, record swaps, and house calls. We also do real fair trade and cash value for records. There is nothing better than people trading records for records: they are moving stuff that they're not interested anymore for stuff that they love, and then we get new records in here—it works out for everybody.
Before opening the store, we travelled all over the country to find stock: used records. We went to different places and got local and regional specialties. Like in the Detroit area, we were buying tons of regional soul 45s that they have by the box full that no one has here in the West Coast. So people were really stoked for that when we opened. Minneapolis—cool stuff there. Chicago, the South, even on the East Coast—the salsa records we brought back from New York—people here flipped out. It's so regional.
Also, the size of the joint forces us to curate our stock. Huge stores are trying to keep the bins filled, and that could mean fill-er. We don’t even have room for fillers, so it all has to be killer. We are also trying to carry something for everybody, so, whether it's José who wants records from Mali with a Cuban influence, or it's the local beat-maker who wants some obscure drum break on a soul record... we are trying to have a little bit of everything, and within that—curate it. There is a weird art form to it but it's really fun. People appreciate that our shop is small and well curated. It makes the experience more enjoyable.
HANNAH: ...and friendly and homey. By far, the best record-buying trip we went on was to Japan.
ANDREW: Yea! We had always heard the crazy rumors about the records in Japan, and we spent 2 1/2 weeks over there as a vacation/record buying trip, our first vacation since before opening. All the rumors were true! We could not believe the quality of the records over there and we were finding stuff for our personal collection that we have been looking for over a decade—and it's just sitting there, you know? And then we probably hand picked 1,000 plus records for our store. It wasn’t just that we got back from Japan with Japanese artists and Japanese pressings, but we found really rare records from the UK, and from the US—you know the US ones, we are bringing them back home! [Laughs.] And guess what? There are Japanese collectors in our shop just taking them right back to Japan! It's pretty wild, this whole global record cycling, from hand to hand, and country to country—it's amazing.
―― Any announcements to our readers?
HANNAH: With our own musical projects, as it approaches baby time—we are actually expecting our first baby in December—we have just been recording like crazy. Andrew's band, Burning Curtains, is recording next weekend, and my band, Cold Beat, just recorded an album. It's been a very creative time. Who knew?
―― Will you press vinyl?
HANNAH: Oh yeah. We always press vinyl.
644 40th Street #104, Oakland, California 94609
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 12pm-8pm, Sundays: 12pm-7pm
Closed on Mondays
Tel: (510) 891-1536 USA
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii