Lenny Kaye, Marc Weinstein, Patti Smith
"I can say that we have had well over 20 million paying customers in 20 years at the LA store and well over 100 million records sold in that time."
Hallowed Institution. Aladdin's Cave. Artistic destination. However you say it, Amoeba Records in the USA is the stuff of fairytales. Loved dearly by masses around the globe as a record store, which surrenders unadulterated joy in itself, but also a cultural hive with a rich and harmonious history.
The supportive, thoughtful platform for the industry declares its logo as an instant visual of its values. "As much as it was and is such an atypical shape and design, it has never looked very corporate, which is one reason we love it. No one can mistake us for a corporate chain, and that is important." Co-founder and owner Marc Weinstein proclaims as I had the sheer pleasure to get to know the Boss man.
He broadens, "The colours have always been the same since our artist friend designed the logo for us long before we opened. He was a friend of Dave, and happened to be Jimi Hendrix’s cousin who worked as a display artist at Tower Records in San Francisco."
Like many in his generation, the radio was a constant companion as a child for Marc. The bond glued stronger with his Dad, Irv, working at a hugely popular 50,000 watts Top 40 station, first as a DJ and later as a Newscaster. "He would bring occasional piles of 45s home that the station wasn’t using. My Mom, Elaine and Dad had some great records as well: Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, Ella, Sarah, and the like."
"My Mom and Aunts played piano, and I took up drums when I was nine years old and in a band by the time I was twelve." Live music by then was a dominant presence. "I got a Record Store job straight out of High School as it seemed like an obvious place for me. It really was there at my first such job that I took notice of how much music meant to each and every person and how very personal it was."
Conjuring up visions of the original shop in Berkeley, opening in 1990, nudges Marc to recollect a time when opportunity was his for the taking and anticipation was palatable. "It came about in a rather magical way. I had been planning on starting a store of my own someday- in my mind on a considerably smaller scale than what we ended up with!" While a manager at Streetlight Records in San Francisco, he met his partner Dave Prinz, his neighbour and a fellow avid record collector.
"It turned out we had a lot in common: he had attended university in my hometown of Buffalo, New York and actually knew my Dad from radio and TV and the store where I’d worked at, also record collecting, of course. Dave had recently sold his 17 store video rental business at the time and was looking for his next project. He was, and is, very good at scoping a business like this and had a very positive outlook once familiarised with all the key projected costs. My partner does many of the things I’m not so good at- namely, the business-side, all the leases, contracts, insurance, attornies, real estate, etc."
Amoeba San Francisco
"I am much more an artist type and a people person. We cover very different and crucial sides of the business and don’t tread much on each others territory; that is part of our success in staying together all these years. I defer to him on many matters, and he defers to me when it comes to the design issues the people and the culture." However, the respectful pair both melded on the inventory, buying every desirable collection they could find before they opened for example.
"Our idea was always to create an all-encompassing trading post with both new and used records- ideally about a 50/50 proportion. Large collections, estates and inventories were always our specialities. We brought in so many unique and out-of-print records daily that any regulars always knew that they would find more items that they want than they can afford!" He beams.
Lana Del Rey
Their empire was building and, along with Berkeley, stores are now housed in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but the fine spirit and values of Amoeba remained very much intact. Solid. Weinstein thinks of why this came to be. "The heart of Amoeba remained intact all along because we were always there. Or, if not, one of our partners or managers are there to be with our staff and to be on hand to help support the crucial vibe of the place."
When they opened, large volumes of dominant stores featured giant major label displays and placement on attention-grabbing videos screens and other eye-catching methods. "We have always been about supporting independent artists and helping artists we love find their audience, not about promoting huge artists on behalf of the major labels, that stuff happens anyway. So many artists told us how much they appreciated that we gave them their own bin card, for example, and that we feature so many up-and-coming artists on our stage."
He goes further, "We also promote harder-to-find artists by way of our Music-We-Like publications, which came out at least twice a year and afforded everyone on our staff the ability to wax about their favourite stuff on their terms." It overflows with personality and brings the team closer to their valued customers and community. "Then there is the What’s in My Bag video series of interviews with interesting artists of all stripes talking about their favourite records while shopping around the store."
In 2003, CDs were on the decline as digital means to access music grew. The sharp leader discusses a period of transition and the requirement to tend to the customer's needs and wants. "We flipped from selling 50% CDs and 25% LPs to the exact opposite within the ten years between 2005 and 2015. Vinyl is back in a big way, and that is exciting! When once customers would buy LPs because that was the cheap way to get a title, now they buy CDs to get a much more affordable copy of a record they want. We have always been 'the' place to find what you are looking for in a variety of formats; we sell cassettes, we even sell 8-tracks and 78 rpm discs," he proudly states.
San Francisco's (Haight-Ashbury) store opened, at 25,000 square feet, already the biggest indie store in the U.S., finding a large volume of customers made a 450-mile drive or flight up from Los Angeles to them. Marc recalls them commenting on how badly LA needed a place exactly like theirs. "We had no plans to further expand at that time, especially as we got that store up and running, but so may collectors encouraged us to come to LA we ended up going down there to do reconnaissance a few times and realised that this was no joke: LA had faceless big-box chain stores and many cool little neighbourhood shops and literally nothing in-between."
"The market in Los Angeles is as varied as it gets. The music business has always been there, so many collections and collectors live there! Everybody has/had records from their time in the business either on their living room wall or in boxes in their garage. We found a great building on Sunset Blvd. and opened our greatest-ever store- The biggest Indie record store that ever lived."
After 20 years, there are currently plans to construct a huge skyscraper on the original LA site. Thankfully for the Amoeba community they are poised to open a new store in an iconic spot of Hollywood Boulevard after the COVID nightmare settles down sufficiently. "We are so excited to get back to business in LA." You see, dreams do come true.
What's In My Bag is a titillating online show of cult status where artists indulge in a spot of retail therapy then share their treasures and finds with the curious viewers. It was an idea which floated around before they finally figured out how to get it off the ground. "It could not have happened without our amazing team who produce it regularly and make constant improvements to it, including upgrading to the latest technology when possible.”
"It works so well because it’s so very relaxed and the artists are doing something they are so very passionate about. Who doesn't love talking about their favourite music? To see artists in that mode where they are like a friend next to you in a record store, it just feels right- totally honest and unpretentious."
Our committed visionary has cherished memories from over the years, stratospheric in stature and too many to cover in only one chat. He tells of some that are particularly prominent. "One that sticks out and is quite recent is how our customers came through for us during this very challenging year. We had a GoFundMe campaign to help us defray the many losses we’d be suffering during COVID, launched in April 2020."
"Our customers chipped in over $280,000, which we used to cover all our staff’s benefits during all this. They posted the most appreciative and loving comments we could have ever imagined. The depth of love people have for our stores is such a measure of what we have been for people- especially music freaks," he adds virtual hug and kisses.
"Another, of course, would be having had Paul McCartney and his band do a 90+ minute live set in our store back in 2007. Maybe the best day of my life- well, other than the day I got married, and the day my daughter was born," he chuckles, "And the day Patti Smith played the store; there are so many others..."
Alas, our time came to an end, although I could and wish to listen to this all day and then some. Marc signs off with hopes of reopening and establishing a new, better normal. "Our big dream at the moment is to get our big L.A. store back open before too long! We may be the last people on earth to open a brand new giant record store catering to everybody; it is going to be beautiful."
Article by Beverley Knight