Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Originals Vinyl
A Record Store Sans Junk Sans Gunk
Originals Vinyl record shop is located on the corner of Fillmore and Hayes, down one block from the historic Alamo Square; in the same square block as the Painted Ladies: San Francisco’s most cherished postcard view of a row of Victorian houses with downtown San Francisco looming in the background. Brothers Dominic and Matthew Siracusa, natives of the South Bay and owners of Originals Vinyl, have made quick strides and adjustments in their business model in its four short years in operation: from a record cleaning service in their kitchen in Pacifica to an incubator space in the Mission, and finally to its current home in Alamo Square; finding their true niche as a brick and mortar record shop that offers cutting-edge record cleaning services. Furthermore, they are one of the top record shops in San Francisco according to SF Weekly (Best New Record Store 2017), San Francisco Magazine (The Best Places to Shop in SF in 2017 / Hobby / Records), and a recent mention in Stereophile of New York.
We visited Dominic and Matthew at their shop and had them share with us their story.
Just one block up the hill from Originals Vinyl: tourists enjoy taking photos in Alamo Square in front of the row of Painted Ladies (Victorian homes) with downtown San Francisco in the background.
— So how did your musical journey begin?
DOMINIC: We didn't really come from a musical household, but when I was in high school, I went to a Rage Against The Machine concert and The Roots was opening up for them. That was my first exposure to hip hop, and what drew me to it the most was the live hip hop instrumentation. From there, I started listening to hip hop in all its forms as much as I could. There wasn't a lot of hip hop where we were living in Chico at the time, so the access was limited to like Yo! MTV Raps and friends who worked at Tower Records that could put us onto things.
I bought turntables in 2001 and started scratching and DJing hip hop out and about, and that's when Matt got into it too, being a little brother. [Both of them chuckle.] And so we both started going out and buying music together at flea markets and record shops. When we’d come back and visit our family in the Bay, we would go to all the record shops—Amoeba and Rasputin—and just gobble up records. Hip hop was our musical foundation, so naturally we wanted to know where all the samples came from. That led us into every other genre of music, and so we started collecting a lot of jazz, blues, and world music; African and Brazilian—anything with a groove to it that could be sampled or had already been sampled—that is how our knowledge of music expanded.
— How did the love for hip hop turn into a record store?
Well, actually the idea for a store was originally attached to our first idea of a record cleaning service. We thought it would be great for a record lover that there was a service that they could have their records cleaned and flattened: a vinyl restoration service. So originally we started out with that and that we would have a small selection of records for people to browse through while they were having their records cleaned.
We started out in our kitchen in Pacifica, which is a small town just south of San Francisco, and we were cleaning people's records in our kitchen and were going to record swaps around the Bay Area. People were kind of leery to hand off records to us in parking lots and at swaps, so we got the sense that, okay, we need to open up a small store; something a little bit more professional that people could come into.
We wanted to start small and found this incubator space in the Mission called Active Space. The rent was extremely cheap and it was small enough to where we could get started and dip our toes in the water. After we opened though, the business model changed quite significantly because the sale of used vinyl quickly took the forefront, and the cleaning service went into the background. We do clean a lot of records and it is still part of our main business, but buying of used records became more popular at our space.
— How did you decide to move from the Mission to Alamo Square?
It was sort of a combination of things. We felt that we weren't getting a whole lot of exposure in the Mission location and my wife and I happened to be walking up to Alamo Square one day and came upon this shop with the for rent sign in the window. We called the landlord right away and decided to make the move. It's been one of the best decisions we've ever made.
— And a corner store record shop to boot!
It's a beautiful store front and it's in a great neighborhood. The neighbors have been so nice, and being on two major bus lines helps. We went from pretty much no exposure at all to so many people walking around—a lot of foot traffic.
— How did you start cleaning records?
We were always buying so much at flea markets, antique shops, and garage sales, that we thought it would be great if there was a place that you could bring all of those records and have them cleaned. Because you would have to be a serious serious collector with a lot of money in order to buy one of these machines and just use it at home. I’d much rather spend money on more records and then have them cleaned by somebody else! [Laughs.]
We started out with a VPI record cleaner, which is a typical mainstream record cleaning machine that a lot of people have in their homes. We started experimenting cleaning our record collection with our VPI: using different fluids and brushes, three-part treatments, enzyme bathes, and all of these different things, and while we were performing that research, we came across KLAUDiO’s Ultrasonic Record Cleaner, which had only been around for about a year and we read articles praising that this is becoming the new way of cleaning records. We thought if we were going to do this as a business, we should be on the cutting-edge as far as technology goes. So we bit the bullet and invested in one of these expensive machines. After cleaning everything on the VPI, then cleaning the same records on the Ultrasonic, we found that there was quite a significant audible difference in how the music sounded. So I said: “Okay, this is the way to go!”
We started out with the one machine and as it took and people recognized that it was the way to clean records, we got a second machine so we could clean not only our customers' records but our own store stock as well.
Two Ultrasonic Record Cleaners in noise dampeners with choices of different sleeves in the middle.
These machines are in a dampener as you can see; they're super loud if you don't. When we were running this in the kitchen, we didn't have this case for it, and we felt like our brains were being fried by the end of the day. It emits something like an electronic pulse.
What's great about these machines is they are completely touch-less; a deep cleaning without any sort of contact. All they use is distilled water and ultrasonic, so you are not using any brushes or vacuums that could sometimes damage the groove of the record. We have two of them and we still keep the VPI for cleaning stuff that might be super moldy. We do a pre-bath on the VPI with a brush and then throw the records into these Ultrasonic machines. We have our different sleeve choices in the middle there that come with the cleaning.
“We basically take all the junk out of a record shop
and just have the good stuff.”
— Seems like you offer a really great price.
It is a good price for a 10-minute cleaning and new sleeves. It's a deal and we offer bulk discounts, too, so when people bring in a lot of records it becomes even cheaper.
Originals Vinyl owners and brothers Matthew (left) and Dominic Siracusa (right).
— Seems like you two are the only ones doing this service in the Bay?
I think so. There is one gentleman that has an operation on the East Coast, I think he just travels around to record swaps and cleans records. I don't think he has an actual storefront where people can bring things in.
— Do you clean records for other stores?
Well, the logistics of it is complicated; we have definitely looked into it, but we have de-warped records for Amoeba Music for sure.
— De-warping: how does that work?
It's basically two big metal plates—anybody can purchase this thing—but the trick of it is knowing how long to put a record on, and knowing the weight and composition of records. We have a couple of customers that have their own and they are constantly cooking their records by adding too much heat! So Matt and I have taken all the guesswork out of it; we know how long it would take to de-warp a record. That was another trial and error process for us. We ruined a few of our own records in that trial phase, but it's part of the process.
— As brothers and partners in this business, how do you work together?
It just works. I guess maybe because we are brothers. [Laughs.] We both do a little bit of everything. We are 50/50 in the business and we run it together as a pair. It's just the two of us—we don't have any employees—so you will always catch one of us at the shop.
— Do you curate your selection?
We are rather picky about the condition of our records and it’s heavily curated. The stock that we have out is just good stuff; the stuff that is free of any scratches or condition issues. We don't put those out, or if we do, we put them out immediately in the bargain bin. So our customers like our bargain bin where they might find a jazz record for just $8 and it just might have a little nick: a good starter copy. We basically take all the junk out of a record shop and just have the good stuff.
— Do you have a genre you have more of?
We try to carry everything, but we try to stock heavy on hip hop and jazz. We also carry a lot of blues and rock music, too. That's a staple for a record shop; the most appealing genre to people is rock. But being hip hop heads, for example, hip hop is the only genre that we carry new releases in the shop. So Matt and I make it a point to keep current with what's happening with hip hop. We carry a lot of instrumental hip hop from all over the world. From a lot of German and British producers, some producers from Japan, to producers that are put out on German labels that are from all over the place.
We carry some new hip hop with lyrics as well. It's a cool moment for hip hop because a lot of things that never came out on vinyl are being unearthed and pressed to vinyl; groups from the mid '90s or early 2000s, you know, that had a tape or CD and they never came out with vinyl, so that's the thing—I think we turn a lot of customers onto hip hop.
— Who are your clientele?
We get everybody. We get from novices to people who travel around the world digging for records. We have the guys from Disc Union and HMV in Japan come in and buy stuff, we have collectors from Russia, and record store owners from the UK who come in. So I guess it spans the whole gamut.
— Do you have any notable people who come into your shop?
It's great when we have our hip hop idols come in—when DJ Spinna comes in when he is in town—he is one of our icons from when we started listening to hip hop and he is such a down to earth guy. We just talk music and it's great just to connect with somebody on that level: just out of your love for music. There are no errors, there is no I’ve been doing it this long, or you know, it's all about the music, the samples and the love—so that's great.
— Why the name Originals Vinyl?
Well, when we were starting out, we thought we would just carry original pressings of things, because it was tied to the idea of offering the Ultrasonic cleaning service and then carrying a very small selection of original pressings of records. We sort of realized as the business model changed that it's best to be a used record shop, because you alienate a lot of customers if you only carry high end things. We didn't want to be that record shop, so we kept the name and the business model changed.
— Finally, what’s playing on the turntable?
Currently, what we are spinning a lot in the shop is this 45 that just came out from a record label in Florida, Mango Hill. Jason Joshua and the Beholders — Neo Sweet Soul.
【 Dominic and Matthew’s record picks 】
■ Beats for Days 2 by Mr Brown
It's so hard to choose records because each record we have in our collection is special. This record was our introduction to reaching out to different labels across the world and wanting to carry something special in the hip hop realm. So this guy Mr Brown is from the UK and he runs his own label. This album is amazing because of the beats that he uses or the machines that he uses, like the SP-1200 which is a very influential beat machine used in all of hip hop, so we came across this about two years ago and yeah, it gave us the idea to start carrying stuff from all over the world and reaching out to labels and getting them well-known in California, and turning our customers onto them. This came out about two years ago. It's a throwback style instrumental hip hop. It's a really jazzy production style—reminiscent of something from '94 or '95—you can have Nas or Q-Tip rhyming over this guy’s beats. So, yeah.
■ The Quest by Mal Waldron With Eric Dolphy And Booker Ervin
We wanted to have a jazz record, so this is one of our favorite composers Mal Waldron. The guy had an enormous output and wrote music for so many famous jazz sessions and this is a special one with Eric Dolphy. It's just one of those jazz records that was important for me in learning more about jazz and specifically the composition structures of it, and going down the rabbit hole with his work, because I think he probably has about 60 to 100 records. He was Billie Holiday's pianist later on in her career and he went on to record here in the United States, then he lived all over Europe, and then he lived in Japan. In fact, a lot of his stuff from the late '70s and early '80s were recorded in Japan and released only in Japan. He's this prolific and beautiful figure who has played with people from all around the world and they all played his compositions with him.
Stay tuned for more Bay Area record shop interviews!
701 Fillmore Street, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA
(Fillmore @ Hayes)
Hours: 12pm - 7pm everyday, except 12pm - 6pm on Sundays
Tel: +1 415-660-8779
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii