Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Groove Merchant Records (Part 1)
Coveting that Groove Shop in San Francisco
Take a walk down the hill along Haight Street from San Francisco’s renowned Ashbury Street—the historic hangouts of monumental bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. When you get to Divisadero, a street running down the middle of the peninsula, cross it, and stroll down for two more blocks. Congrats, you have now arrived at the treasure box of soul, funk, and hip hop on vinyl. Groove Merchant Records, also the birthplace of the Ubiquity Records label, was opened in 1987 by original owners Michael and Jody McFadin and has been a haven for DJs and collectors ever since. The current owner, Chris Veltri (b.1971), aka Cool Chris, started working at Groove Merchant in the mid ‘90s, after a long distance love affair with the place: his favorite destination to “go broke” during his visits to San Francisco.
――Tell us how you got to San Francisco initially?
I am originally from Los Angeles—Santa Monica, California to be exact; down by the beach. Some close friends from high school were living in Berkeley and San Francisco and I would visit them quite regularly. At the time I was living in L.A., I was DJing, and one of my favorite places to stop when I visited San Francisco was Groove Merchant Records. Since its inception, it was a really unique record store. I didn't have much money at the time, but I would just spend everything in my wallet on records— the second I got out of my car from L.A.—I would just eat whatever my friends had left in the refrigerator. [Laughs.]
――So even in L.A., Groove Merchant up in San Francisco was more attractive than anything you had around?
Yeah, at the time, and this is pre-internet, there was never a record store that I knew about or had ever been to that was anything like it. It was technically what you would call a rare groove shop, and it was kind of based on what the original owners thought one would look like. It pretty much started out as rare soul and jazz records, and things that hip hop producers were sampling, so there would be disco, Latin music, also some really obscure funk records.
I remember the first time I walked in there, they had this wall, kind of similar to how the store looks now, that displayed the higher profile and sought after records or records that they deemed special. There were things that I had heard about, but I had never seen: Oneness Of Juju, The Meters, hard to find James Brown productions, Cymande, and Gil Scott-Heron records. These were all things that were talked about back then, but you didn't really know what they looked like because there were no computers to reference things. Basically, the only thing you had back then were DJ lists: you had lists that you would make yourself based on things you heard at people's houses, a DJ playing it, or maybe something you heard on the radio. Sometimes there were DJ lists on magazines, like Straight No Chaser, which was hard to find back then because it was a British magazine. Of course, it was all word of mouth, and things were really kept secretive back then. Now everything is public knowledge…. So, to walk into a store where everything was there—just things that you heard about—it was a whole new world for anybody that walked in the door. It was like, “Wow, a pretty special place!”
“There were just hundreds of record stores back then.
It was also a very renegade time in the City and there were so many musical scenes that were rubbing elbows together…”
――What got you into music in the first place?
Well, growing up in Santa Monica, and in grammar school and Jr. high—it was very L.A. centric—you know, I was a skateboarder, so we were listening to Black Flag, Fishbone, and a lot of reggae: Steel Pulse, Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff—things like that. Then when rap hit around ‘85 in L.A., it just took over—my whole circle discovering Run-D.M.C. and Doug E. Fresh, Public Enemy, and Beastie Boys. That just opened up a whole new world. In 1989, around the time I graduated from high school, it was De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest: people that were really utilizing sampling and making music from records. They really changed my whole thinking and that's when I was really hit by the record bug. I started realizing that people were making records from records and the other thing that I realized, too, were like Q-tip and the guys from De La Soul—they were exactly my age—and making this music that sounded just so incredible to me. I just couldn't even believe it.
That was pretty much the seed. I am kind of what you would call a child of the sample generation. When that was coming and people were pioneering—making rap records from records—that was the fuel to the fire for me and it all took off from there.
――How did you get started as the owner of your favorite record store?
At the time I was writing for this magazine called URB Magazine and I used to review a lot of the records. In addition to Groove Merchant being a record store, there was also a label being run out of the store and I would play their records. So the owners were aware of me and I would talk to them when I visited. As fate would have it, right when I moved here in 1994, one of the guys left his job and a position opened up, and so I started working at Groove Merchant. Shortly after, the original owners sold the store and I managed it while there was another owner there for about two years. Then I bought the shop in 1997. I was really too young to afford buying it at the time. So, I was there through all the transitions.
――Tell us more about what you wrote for URB.
I had a rare groove column called Jazz Juice and I would interview people like The Beatnuts, a lot of hip hop production, and I would just talk about rare records. I would also review things that were coming out—like DJ Shadow's record—I was the first person in San Francisco to have it and also when he did this thing called What Does Your Soul Look Like, before his album came out. So, I was getting records and reviewing them for URB. It was kind of a fun “side thing” to begin with, but it eventually fizzled out, as those things do.
――What was the Bay Area scene like back then, and how is it now in comparison?
Back then the City (San Francisco) was, for one, a lot cheaper to live in; when I first moved up here it was dirt cheap to find an apartment. There were record stores everywhere. You know, it was so different, not to keep repeating myself, but it was pre-internet, and you would find out about stores just by driving around. There were just hundreds of record stores back then. It was also a very renegade time in the City and there were so many musical scenes that were rubbing elbows together, and you might not even have realized it because things were more segregated back then, because there weren't things like Facebook and social media, so you weren't really as aware as you are now. It was a really fun time. There was so much stuff happening at once, and the Bay Area has always had a strong music scene: whether it be psychedelic rock, soul, blues, there was always a punk scene, a heavy disco scene—the gay community—the house music scene, there was always a thriving rap scene—all of these scenes kind of coexisting at one time.
As far as things are now, it's still a pretty positive city as far as record stores go: there's still a number of them in the City, and the City itself is so culturally rich and there are always good records to find here.
――Soul, funk, and hip hop found in your store is more of your taste?
The store, from day one, was really heavy on soul, jazz, Latin music, Brazilian music, and disco, and those are the things that I still push to this day. I added a lot of rap, a lot of rock ‘n’ roll, obscure rock, folk, and things like that, but the store itself has pretty much remained the same for 30 years.
――And the clientele is still a lot of producers and DJs?
Yes, still a lot of that, and then the new generation of collectors that are pretty wide open to be turned on to anything interesting. I mean, those things really don't change. For better or for worse, we are kind of a niche shop and we are highly specialized in that regard. That mentality never really changes, but a lot of people come in the store out of curiosity, and we try to offer records that are cheap and I try to really make everything inclusive for anybody that walks in the door. It’s certainly not a store where you feel excluded when you walk in.
A lot of people come in and they trust my taste and they ask for recommendations. That is something we are really used to and something we encourage. We also, since day one, have really encouraged trade, so people from other countries bring us records to trade; something that might come from their country: Sweden, Japan, France, Italy.... They will bring me something from their neck of the woods, and want to trade for American records. So I get a lot of very unique records from other countries because I encourage trade. That is something that most record stores simply just don't do.
――So they pack records in their luggage to bring to you?
It's a good idea and ultimately it will save them money to bring interesting records.
――How else do you keep your store stocked?
I do travel quite a bit—locally in the States. I have three kids so I don't travel as much as I used to, but yeah, a lot of stuff comes to me, thankfully. Anywhere I might be, whether overseas, I am always hitting up record stores.... No matter where I am, I am going to look for records. I am pretty much at flea markets twice a week, so whatever state or country I am in, I am always at the flea market.
Groove Merchant Records
687 Haight St, San Francisco, CA 94117
Hours: Mon-Sat: 12pm-7pm
Tel (415) 252-5766 USA
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii