Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Pyramid Records

Mika Anami

Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Pyramid Records
An Endearing Shop Daring The Record Store “Norm”

Pyramid Records, owned and operated by Bobby McCole, is located in the heart of the Mission: the Latinos and artist stronghold (or what’s left of it), and one of the few neighborhoods of San Francisco that is still reminiscent of how it used to be: a donut shop, nail salon, cafes, and jewelers—everyday retails lining the streets. Here, as one of the storefronts serving the local community, Bobby operates a record shop that’s a bit different from your typical.

— So, Bobby. How did it all begin?
Well, I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, in a really musical family, and I am the youngest of five kids. My siblings are all much older than me, so I grew up with teenagers in the house when I was a little kid. They were all into music, and my parents let them take over the stereo. Most of my friends grew up listening to classic rock and The Beatles. I listened to what teenagers were listening to in the '80s, so I kind of skipped the whole parent music thing—if that makes any sense.

Everyone in my family had different tastes: my oldest sister Julie was—to me so cool—a college radio DJ in the late '80s and in the early '90s. She just opened me up to a lot of things like goth and new wave: The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and she loved Kate Bush. My next sister, Mary, listened to all early hip hop and rap, my brother listened to show tunes, and the next sister listened to the Top 40s and radio hits. So, the radio and record player was always on. Always singing in the car. We also played piano growing up: my mom majored in piano and composition in college, and so, it was just a very natural thing—music was always around.

Also, my dad's family, he is from Ireland. So, it wasn't just America for us growing up. I listened to a lot of French, Brazilian, Japanese, German, and Swedish music. It never seemed weird to me until I was older, and I would play music at different jobs, and they would say: "Can we just listen to something in English, please?" It kind of drove me crazy. It may frustrate people to not understand the language. If I don't understand it, I just think of it as an instrument. I learn all of it phonetically, like how kids learn languages—I sing all the words of Takako Minekawa and I don't know what she is saying.

— We want to hear you sing Takako Minekawa!
No way!  [Laughter.]

— What was your motivation to open a record store and what does it mean to be a record store that welcomes women and queer people?
It’s a combination of things, and opening this shop just felt really good to me and natural. Things really don't change unless you change it yourself. You can complain about little things or you can just subtly try to take steps towards creating the thing that you envision. It's not like I thought I'd be changing music culture or the world by having a different type of store, but I realized, even after the first few weeks, that it was kind of working. I have many friends that have stores in all parts of the world, and I definitely have more women coming in here. I don't think I am doing any kind of specific advertising, do you know what I mean? It's never started as a thing to exploit a female customer base—it’s not like that.

“All the people who influenced me: they were women or gay, and they have the best taste than anyone I’ve known.”

I have been so aware—growing up working in record shops—how many stupid conversations will be going on. And I would be so hyper-aware: there will be one woman in the shop and these guys behind the counter would be saying really gross stuff, or they are talking about just general misogyny. In the music world sometimes there is this kind of sentiment that girls don't have good taste in music. I have three sisters and a gay brother, and I am gay, and it's like, that couldn't be further from the truth in my experience! All the people who influenced me: they were women or gay, and they have the best taste than anyone I’ve known. We don't really know where this stupidity started.... So, I quietly and subtly wanted to push the other side of it forward. You know, this is the underlying mission statement.

I don't want to sound like I am against my customers, because anyone that comes in, I feel like I have something in common with them, but, I found that in the beginning, there were people that would come in, and again, it was usually just kind of the bro-thing: guys would go through a couple of crates of records and they would point out—and there is no need for them to—but they'd say: “You have a lot of women in here.” The funny thing is, I wouldn't even describe the inventory as female-heavy—I think it's just equally divided among everything. I am all over the place, and I think that my interest is leaning especially towards female singers or bands, but I have never heard once in my life where a guy walks into a record store and says: "Oh, there are a lot of dudes in here," or "You got all men." No one ever says that. No woman would go into a shop and say that. It's just expected that a store has 90% male records—that is just crazy to me—so, gradually, that became my reputation, and now customers get that it's a different kind of place—it's the whole vibe of the store.

Also, from working in all kinds of stores, I’ve always wondered: "Why can't record stores be cuter?" [Laughter.] That was a trend that didn't really exist when I opened, so people acted like the store was something persnickety. Truly, why not have it be clean? [Laughs.]  On the spectrum of things, and I don't use terms like masculine or feminine, but I think I understand that this is not a very butch looking record store. [Laughter.] At the same time, I ran a woodshop for 14 years, and I built everything in the store here: all the tables and all. So, as much it may look like a little dollhouse or something, [chuckles] I did get my own hands dirty making this—it's a funny back and forth with me.

— Why do you prefer vinyl?
I started buying records for two really simple reasons. One: it was really cheap when I was young, and CDs at that point were $12-$18. I could find the same thing on a record for like $2. I was saving my lunch money in high school, and sneaking off and buying records after school. Two: not to be superficial, but the fact that the cover was big [laughter] and if you love the cover art, then you get a lot of bang for your buck—it was more exciting! I was buying records since I was 12 years-old.

— How do you present your selection in your store?
I don't do genres; only the alphabet. It's not that big of a store, so it doesn't take very long to go through everything. If I had thousands and thousands of records, it makes more sense that it's split up in sections. I don't really subscribe to the genre-thing anyway, not that I don't acknowledge it, but if you have someone like Nina Simone—I used to judge record stores by where they would put her—some put her in jazz, some put her in jazz-vocals; in soul; in pop vocals... all of that. To me, it's like: "Just put her in S!" [Laughs.]

The good side effect from that is that you may be looking for Nina Simone and you may discover the Silver Apples, The Slips, or you may discover Sonic Youth. There are a lot of people who only go to the rock-section or new age, and they will never see a Brazilian record! I don't carry filler records, so if it's in the bins here, it might be worth listening to. People kind of trust that now. I also have a listening station here, so you can just go sit down and see what it sounds like. The O-section has Sinead O'Connor and Yoko Ono. You can bump into both of them in the same place. Do you know what I mean? To me, that makes sense.

A customer walks in and asks: "Do you have CDs?"

“Sorry sweetie, we don't sell CDs. Just records. Go to Amoeba on Haight Street, that great big one. They sell CDs. It's on Haight and Stanyan by Golden Gate Park.”

"Ok. Thank you!" Customer leaves.

— That was such a San Francisco moment! “Go to Amoeba!

— That is probably also how Amoeba gets more business—other record shops sending customers over!
Oh, I know, and they’re the best. But there are a ton of record stores now. When I opened, there were maybe five record stores in the City (San Francisco). Now, in the Bay Area, there are like 40 stores—it's crazy.

— So, back to your selection. How many records do you carry?
Only about 2,500 records here. It sounds like a lot, but it's really not. There are only about 15 bins.

— And you curate the selection?
Yes. Well. One thing I would say—if you don't mind—I feel that what I am doing here, to me, isn't any different than what the person down the street at the corner store is doing. They are picking the thing that they think would sell and what their customers would like—everyone who owns a store curates, technically, but I think the term “curating” is kind of made to make young rich white kids feel good about what they're buying. I just own a store, and I handle it artistically, because I am artistic, but I am not trying to appeal only to upper class and I am not trying to appeal only to art communities.

— That leads to the next question: what does it mean to have a record store in San Francisco in this era?
I feel like San Francisco is so based on money now. I feel like it is very important to put it forward that you can have good taste and have nice things and build things yourself (without a lot of money). I only spent a couple hundred bucks, because this is plywood and I got the nice chairs from thrift stores. Some people, especially when I opened, thought it was backed by tech money or something—and there is nothing wrong with people getting to live up their dreams with the money they earn—but I also want to present the other side of it: it's only just been me all this time, and I had a job for so many years before this.

Nobody with a used record store is making money. Period! [Laughs.] I can't complain, I lucked out on the rent here and I live a fine life and it's just me. I don't have kids. But anyone that owns a bookstore and used record store—it's definitely a hustle. Anytime that I don't have enough money, I also can just think about how nice it is that I only do what I want to do: all of my decisions are my own, and I am living a lifelong dream. So it's fine. [Laughs.]

Also, people have tried to buy the store from me in the past, and they want to buy the brand, or something... but you can't buy the store, because I am the store. [Laughs.] All the stores in the Bay Area, we all have our personalities, and it's a funny idea to sell it to something bigger, because it's kind of based on our work and our ideas. I can't really imagine any of these places being what they were without the heart that comes with it: owner operated.

— How did the name Pyramid Records come about?
There are couple of songs that made me think of it, and one of them was a B-52's song, Mesopotamia, and I wanted to call it “Third Pyramid” from that song, they say: "I’ll meet you by the third pyramid." I wanted something that would have a graphic image that would go with it, having like a little triangle or a pyramid shape. I still like the name. But I am always thinking about other names, too. "Oh! I should have named it Bananas!" [Laughter.]

【Bobby’s Record Picks!】

Bobby’s top picks are coincidentally color coordinated!

Ahhh! It changes daily for me! The ones I picked today, I have been listening to a lot this week. I picked out a handful of records and they all are all kind of color coordinated, too. These coincidentally happen, and this is funny, because it is how I operate in general. Sometimes I realize that I have been listening to navy blue records all week. [Laughter.]

Heaven or Las Vegas by Cocteau Twins
Heaven or Las Vegas from 1990. I am obsessed with them. It's a very sweepy, washy, beautiful record.

Loveless by My Bloody Valentine
This is another one that is too good to be true. I have the original and reissue (remastered for vinyl). I don't like to DJ with original ones when I do events: it’s too sentimental for me to mess with, and I am horrified to lose it, so it feels better to leave the house with a reissue. The original one is like a $200 record now.

Flesh Balloon by Pale Saints
All of these are around the same time. This one has one of my favorite songs called Kinky Love—it's a Nancy Sinatra song and it's a pretty washy song again.

This 2017 album is by my friend Joseph Vorachack. He told me he had a record, but I didn't really expect that it would be this good! I put it on, and I almost died—it's like my favorite record now. It has a goofy name: RAW MOANS, a joke about the Ramones. Every time I put it on, people in the store just buy it immediately. It is really soft and pretty, electronic with lots of vocals. The whole album is dedicated to artists who died with AIDS or HIV-related causes and it is such a beautiful record.

Eating Pleasure by Sandii & the Sunsetz
We have Sandii & the Sunsetz here. She played with members of Yellow Magic Orchestra a lot. She is half Japanese, raised in Hawaii, and then she became a star in Japan in the '80s. It is just a very unusual sound. Again, you can hear (Yukihiro) Takahashi covers, and he is apart of the band sometimes, and she’s got Haruomi Hosono producing it. Everything in that world of music is my favorite stuff. She is queen of that world. This is her first album, and there is a song called Zoot Kook—it’s the coolest song I'd ever heard. She was so cool that all the coolest musicians wanted to be with her. Being a muse isn't a joke. If you are able to bring incredible stuff out of other people, that is its own important service in music. So, I don't take that lightly at all. Some of the songs in here are corny, but the good stuff in here—it's really good!

Pod by The Breeders
Can I introduce another one? [Brings out another record.] Here’s Pod by The Breeders. I love Kim Deal and I think she is the coolest person that's ever lived. The first album is just really one of the most perfect records. I bought it when it came out, and I was a really young kid at the time, and there's never been a month in my life where I haven't played it. And no matter what phase I've gone through, it's always been with me. It is probably the most listened to of all time. I could press play in my brain and just hear the whole thing. Oh, funny! This one is another washed out pink, too! [Laughter.]

Stay tuned for more Bay Area record shop interviews!

Pyramid Records

Pyramid Records
3174 24th St, San Francisco, CA 94110
Hours: 12pm - 8pm everyday
Tel: (US +1) (415) 578-0874

Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii

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