Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Groove Yard
Digging for jazz gems in Oakland
Groove Yard, Oakland’s jazz specialty record shop operating since ‘87, has been celebrating decades of faithful support from music lovers around the globe. The reason why Groove Yard is a haven for good jazz finds is in the origin of the store that is a bit unique from other Bay Area record shops. Owner Rick Ballard (b. 1947), before opening his retail, was the only US distributor in the early ‘70s of American jazz recorded in Europe.
Upon entry, you will notice that Groove Yard overflows with records. “I have real space issues here,” laughs Rick, “I have more records than I have bins by a wide margin.” Great! More records for us! While well-sorted boutique record shops are trending in the Bay Area, Groove Yard has done it the same way for years—it’s where your refined digging skills can win you that gem, a receipt, and an overwhelming sense of triumph.
―― How did you start distributing jazz records, and how did that lead to a record store?
My first year of college, I went back to Seattle from the Bay Area and I was living in the dormitory. I was hanging out with a bunch of guys from the basketball team—Seattle University was a big basketball school at the time—and I was hanging out with these guys, and they had records but they didn't have a turntable. I had a turntable, so they started bringing records to my room, and that’s when I started listening to all of that stuff. That was 1967.
I left that school after one year and came back to the Bay Area and started working in record stores. This is the late '60s and early '70s, and once I graduated from UC Berkeley, I didn't want to go to graduate school and always wanted to be my own boss. That period of time was a bad period for jazz because Coltrane had died in '67; Blue Note, Prestige, and Pacific Jazz had all been sold; Riverside had gone out of business by then; and a lot of jazz musicians had to record, tour, and play over in Europe instead. I knew they were recording, but you could never find their records. Every once in a while you'd see a record come into a store that had been done in Europe on different labels. I wanted to get these records, but if you didn't get it the fist time it came through—you'd never see it again.
Distribution was so spotty back then. So I did a little bit of homework and I got some addresses of some labels in Europe that were issuing these records. I wrote to them and introduced myself and said: "I work in a record store in Oakland and we can't get your records. Do you have a distributor in the States?" A couple of guys wrote back to me and said: "Well, why don't you be our distributor?" So I took $250 and sent it to a guy in Paris, and he mailed me 100 records from his catalog, and I sent $250 to a guy in Munich, and he sent me 100 records from his catalog. (I had picked out the ones that I wanted, and the quantities and all.) They sent it by surface mail: 5-6 weeks to get here, [chuckles] and they would finally arrive at the post office and I went down there to pick them up. I opened the boxes and none of them were sealed. Turns out, in Europe at that time, records didn't have the plastic shrink-wrap on. They were sold at stores unsealed.
I knew that I couldn't sell them in the States that way, so I needed to find a place to get it shrink-wrapped—which was not that difficult—because basically every distributor had a shrink-wrap machine. So I found a place and got them shrink-wrapped and I took them to Leopold's on Durant Avenue, a block away from UC Berkeley—it was a big big store at the time—and I took them there, and they bought everything I had and paid me on the spot. That was one of those ‘light bulb’ moments for me. I took the money and sent it back over to Europe and said: "Send me more records!" I got really lucky in one sense, because the label in Munich was called ECM Records—headquartered in Munich—and they had just issued their first Keith Jarrett record that later became a big deal. They were also, at the same time, issuing records by Chick Corea, who was also becoming a big deal. This was 1972, right before he formed the group Return to Forever.
Because I had the ECM stuff, I had instant credibility. So I just kept sending money over to Germany and France and they would send me records. The guy in France kind of went dark after a couple of years, but I kept buying from ECM. ECM still exists today, and their catalog is well over a thousand titles. I was one of their first distributors in the States. Initially, I just sold in the Bay Area, but eventually I expanded to selling to stores in L.A., Seattle, and Portland, then all over the West Coast, and expanded further out.
――So how long did your distributing (and shrink-wrapping service) continue?
I eventually bought my own shrink-wrap machine. I couldn't schlep records around, so I just bought one. I started distributing records out of my bed room and eventually got a little commercial space and then expanded it, and then expanded it again and again… I did that throughout the ‘70s and the ‘80s. I was selling to an outfit in South San Francisco, and there was a buying agent from Disk Union of Japan, and I sold to them for years, because I eventually started carrying American labels, too—mostly out of New York, but some out of Chicago, and L.A.
By ‘87, the industry started to shift towards CDs. My inventory was LP-heavy and CD-lite—you get my drift? So I started selling some retail in '87 and sold retail and wholesale up until '97, and in '97 I went strictly retail.
――So you opened your first Groove Yard in your warehouse in Jack London Square in 1987?
Well, it wasn't Groove Yard then. It was Rick Ballard Imports, and I was there until 1992, and I moved to Telegraph Avenue, and that is when the name, Groove Yard, came into existence. I moved to this current location in Rockridge, Oakland in 2004.
―― Do you do any importing / exporting anymore?
Well, the only distribution I do is a little bit of exporting to Japan to Disk Union. I send them CDs from local Bay Area artists. If a Bay Area artist creates a CD, they will bring me a copy and I will send it over to Disk Union. If the buyer is interested, they will send me an order.
――This is strictly jazz?
Yes, strictly jazz. Although, it does seem to me that CD sales in Japan are in decline—that's the impression I get—so they don't actually buy that much from me anymore.
―― Are the San Franciscan artists pressing records?
There are a couple of people that have pressed vinyl. But it is very expensive now to press vinyl and there is a long wait time.
――I guess that's the deal breaker for something like that, for now at least.
―― So how did the name Groove Yard come about?
Well, when I was moving to a commercial location from Jack London Square, I was kind of kicking around names for the place. So, when I moved to Telegraph Avenue in '92, I had a ‘name the store’ contest. With all the people on my mailing list, you know, probably about 50 people submitting names... and this one guy in Minneapolis—every time he came in town, he always came and bought records—he submitted the name Groove Yard—that was one of the names I had thought of and had forgotten during the chaos of the move—so I knew the minute I saw it that that was the name. It's actually a name of a fairly well known jazz tune from the ‘50s that was written by a pianist called Carl Perkins, not the rockabilly guy, the piano player from the Los Angeles area. I believe the title was all one word, but I split it into two, because I thought it looked better.
―― So now you have this sweet storefront. Why did you make the last move here?
I knew the guy who owned the place—he had a record shop here—and he sold it to another guy. I was looking to move because I needed a bigger space, and I wanted the store that was closer to the freeway and to a BART station, and this location had both of those. I was on the phone with the building owner the minute I found out that guy was closing the store, and I had a lease by the end of the conversation.
―― So your store specializes in jazz, and some soul and rock. Do you personally specialize in more specific areas of jazz?
Well, I'd say, my wheelhouse is late 1940s on into 1970s. But I have jazz records from the '80s because I was still a distributor. When I first started retail, my initial retail stock were titles that I distributed. Over the years it expanded out from that.
―― How did you start getting in used records?
Basically, it was stuff that people brought into sell or trade, or occasionally a house-buy. People started dumping LPs in the later half of the '80s.
―― You have seen customers come into your store since ‘92. Do you see a change?
It's a fair amount of people in their late 20s to early 30s that are just getting into the vinyl, but I've also had the people that have been buying from me for decades since I first started selling retail in the late '80s. Some of those people still come in. Definitely, there are more new customers that are younger. But in terms of volume, I wouldn't say that's necessarily true. Different people have different price points—what they are willing to spend on records.
“I decided that everything that came into the store will go up for sale… I have never taken a record home of all the years I have been doing retail.”
―― So why vinyl?
I think there is the sound quality differentiation. I prefer analog sound to digital, and I like the tangible aspect to an LP versus a CD versus any digital format. I like the visual aspects of an album cover and there is certain nostalgia to it. I remember—when we would put on records as youngsters—you'd put the record on, sit down, and go over the album cover, liner notes, and the photographs—the visual aspects. CDs don't have that same impact.
―― You don't sell online?
No, I don't. I am considering doing some, again. I did eBay a number of years ago, and I did very well, but it’s very labor intensive. It only makes sense if you can sell a record for considerably more online than you can in the store. All of that packing, schlepping, shipping, and then sending an invoice. I get more satisfaction selling over the counter.
―― Do you have your own personal collection at home?
I do have a collection. I made it a point to keep one copy of every record I ever distributed. And that's by far the lion's share of my collection. Once I started distributing, I didn't really buy records. When I started doing retail, I started seeing records that I had distributed, and I also started seeing very rare records, and I said: "Ok, do I make the decision to take this home, or do I sell it?" For me, I didn't want to make a decision on every record that came into the store. I wanted to make one blanket decision to cover everything. So, I decided that everything that came into the store would go up for sale. So that was my strategy.
I want people to know: when I have good records in the store, and if they come in on the right day, they have a shot at it. Because, I know some shop owners—they take all the good stuff home—so, I decided to go the complete opposite direction. I have never taken a record home of all the years I have been doing retail.
―― Do you want to let our readers in on some records you are about to put out?
Well, I am actually in the process of putting out a ton of 45s. I have a collection I am going through right now—it was an American guy that lived in London for years and he DJed over there. So he has a lot of British 45s—the ones with a smaller hole—British pop from the early '80s: new wave, Euro-pop, synth-pop... I am putting it out little by little everyday. I have limited space here. [Laughs.]
5555 Claremont Ave, Oakland, CA 94618
Hours: 11am-6pm daily, Sundays: 12pm-5pm
Tel: (510) 655-8400 USA
Yelp page: https://www.yelp.com/biz/groove-yard-oakland
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii