We couldn't think of a better way to continue celebrating our 20th Anniversary this month than with an interview with Marc Weinstein, one of our founding owners, about Amoeba's inception, opening our first shop in Berkeley, what makes Amoeba special, some of his favorite memories thusfar, and more! Scattered throughout are some little-seen images of the Berkeley store before it opened as well as in its very early days!
Read on and check back for more additions over the next few weeks! To read our first Anniversary post, with testimonials from some of our favorite customers, click here! To get info about the Anniversary Events scheduled at the Berkeley store on Nov 13 & 14 with DJs, live performances from Foxtails Brigade, and Lyrics Born and prize giveaways, click here! You can also get involved by entering our contest -- share your own Amoeba story for a chance to win a shopping spree and more! Read about it here.
How did Amoeba music start? Where did the spark of the concept come from, what inspired the owners to take the plunge and why at that particular moment?
Marc: Amoeba started because Dave Prinz & I both wanted to open a record store -- I'd always wanted to do it, since high school, though in my mind, it was more on the scale of a neighborhood store. Dave had already owned a chain of video stores and had a good sense of how to scale it so it could support both of us and grow. We jammed on the idea for several months, going through several legal pads worth of notes & numbers before we decided to take "the plunge." At that time, I'd been working in record stores for 15 years already and there still didn't seem to be anybody out there doing it right -- most stores were either sterile corporate chain stores or indie club-house style stores that were narrow in scope. Our idea was always to bring everything under one roof -- a comprehensive, one-stop music destination for everybody. Long before opening, we were joined by Kent Randolph, who I'd worked with in the early 80's, and is/was one of the greatest used LP/collectible LP pricers in the universe. We hit garage sales, estate sales, etc. buying everything worthwhile we could possibly get our hands on. We secured our current space on Telegraph Avenue, an area historically known as a mecca for record collectors. We priced 10,000 LPs and 6,000 CDs in Kent's garage, built out the storefront, designed & built our fixtures from June 1990 until we opened on November 17th of that year.
What do you remember about the weeks leading up to the Berkeley store opening? How did it all come together?
Marc: Our original target opening date was November 10th, but as we got close, we realized we needed that crucial extra week to get everything in place. We were all working 100 hour weeks leading up to opening. As it would happen, the old "Berkeley Inn" on our corner, a 5 story brick building dating from the early century, burnt to the ground on November 10th!! We were up on our roof extinguishing ashes falling on our building one week before opening!! Besides the 3 of us, and Dave's wife, Yvonne, we had hired all of 3 staff to open with. An army of friends helped us the last couple days before opening -- at least 20 of my best friends showed up to help for free, to sort & alphabetize & clean all the "product." The "night" before opening, we went home at 4:00 am, with hopes so high & so much nervous energy, I know none of us slept.
Tell us all about the day the store opened -- what the feeling was like, who was there, and how it all happened.
Marc: We returned at 9:00 am to find a significant line already in place for our 10:30 opening. Because our building had been sitting empty for several years before we opened, Mayor Loni Hancock & Councilwoman Carla Woodworth joined us to cut the ribbon. Hundreds of people filed in those first few hours, and we had a fabulously successful first day, not only selling tons of our initial stock, but also buying even more at the front counter, settling our initial fears of not being able to replenish our inventory after the "initial hit...." We all slept well that night....
Over the first few weeks and months we were open, we hired numerous staff, mostly friends who were all-stars at other area record stores -- and that phenomenon continued for years -- we had all the greatest record store staff come our way when they became "free agents" for the rest of our amazing evolution.
What are some of your favorite Amoeba moments over the past 20 years?
Marc: Well, now that it has been 20 years & I leaf through the old photos & articles, I realize how many of those stories are already lost to the tides of time -- all the amazing staff people, regular customers, street characters, contractors, city officials, buying trips, instore performances, what a 20 years it has been!!
A few stand out memories:
Just before we opened, we went to make a bid on a collection in Oakland, owned by an interesting fellow by the name of Bozo Miller. He was quite a personality, friends with many TV personalities, the "Rat Pack," etc, and he'd amassed quite a collection. Bozo's biggest claim to fame was that he held the record for eating the most chickens at one sitting (27 2lb. chickens!) but, also 63 apple pies (1961), 324 raviolis (1961) and 1000 bags of potato chips in one sitting back in the 60's, too. The guy had a great record collection, accumulated over 50 years in "the Business." There were thousands of LPs, hundreds of mint 10" records, picture sleeve EPs and 45s, and some 78s -- the only thing Bozo did not want us to take were his beloved 8-tracks. Those were for his retirement.
One regular customer in the early days, like many people, decided to bring in all his LPs to trade for CDs, even placing his turntable on the top of the pile. He and his girlfriend proceeded to shop around the store while we looked at his collection. Just a few LPs in, we hit the "notorious" gatefold double LP Live at the Fillmore by the Allman Brothers -- we OFTEN find evidence of marijuana & cocaine use inside that record.... only this time, not ONLY did we find stems and seed, but DEEP inside, we found a certain group of photographs that featured this said customer with no clothes on and his topless girlfriend performing interesting acts together at their favorite picnic spot up in the hills... After we all got a good look at them, the question became "what do we do?" Do we give them back, thereby informing them we had just seen said customers "actual size," or just drop the matter...
By now, we have had so many magnificent instore performances, it would be hard to call one particular favorite. The Black Flag performance with BOTH original singers & a store packed with fans gesturing every word? The Patti Smith visit where we got to shop around the store with Lenny Kaye? The many visits by John Zorn, Elvis Costello, Thurston Moore & Kim Gordon, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant, Richard Thompson, Iggy Pop, Robyn Hitchcock, Mike Patton, John Waters, and all the rest?? Oh yeah, then there was the Paul McCartney instore in LA where I spent almost the entire time with tears rolling down my face?
One great time was when our friends from Music Millennium up in Portland stopped by to do their Garth Brooks CD Barbecue in front of our store -- what fun!! We had numerous customers bring in their Garth CDs by, and, of course, we had PLENTY of "used" copies of his stuff, WHAT A DELIGHTFUL BBQ!! You see, Garth, the super-rich guy, coming out on behalf of the mega-corporations and his big label buddies -- those CDs cooked up REAL NICE, and they looked so nice on a burger bun!!
I could go on & on about the collections I've seen along the way -- the 12 bedroom house in Atlantic City filled with records all filed in label & numerical order, 75% of which were destroyed by mildew from the sea air & leaky walls.... Or the perfectly intact collections a sweet family in suburban Detroit had saved in a climate controlled vault for 12 years until they were finally able to consider selling. Their sick son/brother had traveled the world buying records -- Beatles, Stones, Bowie, etc,... every issue of every single & LP from virtually every country...Or the woman in Sherman Oaks, CA who had her uncle's pristine 10,000 piece Jazz collection scattered around her crack house/S&M parlor (every wall painted black). We bought a thousand at a time; each time we arrived, she'd be "waking up" in her sleeping bag in the middle of her dark living room -- first thing that she'd do is light her blowtorch & take a hit, & then begin her routine of "wheeling & dealing" with us. Then, of course, there was the time Steve C & I got caught in a garage filled with absolute junk LPs, WAY in the back of a huge yard filled with Rotweilers, while the gun-totin' owner waited up front in his house for us to come up with a good offer. Amongst the junk in the garage, we came across a coffin with what appeared to be an actual human skeleton inside....
Certainly, the most fun we've had, AND the hardest we worked along the way, was getting each of the stores open. "Opening Day" is a most exhilarating feeling -- especially when there are hundreds or thousands of people waiting in line... Like every day, only even more so, those record geeks who are utterly fascinated by what people find amongst a million choices got a real thrill watching the store get "picked...." That amazing realization that the store takes on a life of its own the moment you open -- and each of the 3 stores has had QUITE a life, so far....
How do you feel when you think back on the fact that it's been 20 years? What does the Amoeba family mean to you and what do the stores mean to you?
Marc: For 20 years, Amoeba has been attracting the most passionate music and record enthusiasts as staff and customers. The love that courses through the stores each day makes Amoeba such a unique place in this society!! Record store lovers are generally filled with passion, are very creative, and very sensitive -- put hundreds of them together, working & shopping side-by-side, with the mission of spreading the love that IS music, and you get a cultural "critical mass" that produces a feeling like no other. The connection most have who have been here for years feel to each other is very strong and family-like. In the beautiful state of California, where we are all blessed with the freedom to be exactly who we want to be, that familial feeling is especially intense -- we so understand where each other is coming from, as music fanatics, as art lovers always on a quest for something new and exciting to take us to the "next level," and as unique personalities, that the bond between us is unlike most work environments. This "work environment" is what we "owners" are most proud of -- a place where people can express themselves & be themselves. Sure, there's always some "stupid" work to do in the mix, but the wealth of music, friends, personalities, creativity & love make it all worth it. Music IS love and you can buy some of that love for a few bucks at your local record sore -- a much better deal that what most stores offer...think about it....Amoeba has sold over 50 million records and every one of those records brought love & inspiration into the lives of those who brought that music home. Every staff person who has changed a cassette or CD case, received a box of records, made a bin card, or answered the phone at Amoeba has helped in that process. Over a thousand people have worked here over the years & each of them will continue to spread the love one way or another....
Thanks so much for your time, Marc!