Rolling Stone Magazine

February 19, 1998

The World’s Greatest Record Store?

By William Hermes

"Music is most people’s connection to the spiritual. It’s how they get high. You have to respect that—whatever sort of music they’re into." So philosophizes Marc Weinstein, 40, a co-owner of Amoeba Music, perhaps the country’s best—not to mention biggest—independent record store. The original Amoeba was launched in Berkeley, Calif., in 1990 in a small storefront stocked with 6,000 CDs, and it expanded until it ran out of room. The new outlet, which opened in San Francisco on Nov. 15, is housed in an old bowling alley on Haight Street; across from a single sweeping 24,000-square-foot space, it stocks—between CDs and LPs, new and used—around 100,000 titles. That’s not counting cassettes, 45s, 78s, 8-tracks, videotapes and laserdiscs.

Compare this with an average Tower Records, which stocks around 60,000 titles. But, of course, it’s not just about size. Do you need a brand-new vinyl copy of The Heliocentric Worlds of Sun Ra, Volume I, which exists only as an Italian import? Amoeba has it. How about Pakistani Qawwalli singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s back catalog on the import label Oriental Star? Two racks’ worth.

At a time when the record industry is barely emerging from another of its periodic slumps, Amoeba’s success represents the triumph of a peculiar sort of religiosity—that of the hard-core record freak. Weinstein, a cherubic man with a mop of frizzy hair, fits the bill. A long-time record-store worker and drummer with the experimental rock band MX-80, he talks about his work with the quiet conviction of a missionary. "We were pretty idealistic when we started," Weinstein says. "We wanted to be a place where people come and learn about every kind of music. There are no real museums or libraries for recorded music—that’s partly what we’re trying to be."

It’s a job that only independent stores seem able to do. Chains may sell the hits for a few dollars less, but they are less willing to stock music that appeals to a smaller audience, be it classical, techno or indie rock. "All retail went through a buying crunch over the last two years," observes Patrick Amory, general manager of Matador Records. "Stores are making smaller initial orders, cutting down on reorders and stocking fewer titles. It affected everyone, but it was worse at the chain level." Chain stores, especially smaller ones, are gearing themselves toward the casual music consumer, not the dedicated fan. "Independent stores fill a niche that chains can’t fill," notes Thomas Meringolo, music manager of Border’s Books and Music in Maui, Hawaii, and longtime buyer for chain stores. "I don’t really view them as competition."

Because indie shops buy in small quantities, they can’t compete with chains on hit records, so the increasingly support themselves by selling used CDs, which have a higher profit margin. At Amoeba, used CDs run from $1 to $9.95, and the new store’s clearance section, a dizzying 400 racks wide, lets you explore alternative rock’s checkered past for between $1 and $4.95 a throw—buy three, get one free. Here, Soul Asylum’s Let Your Dim Light Shine and Urge Overkill’s Exit the Dragon are available for $2.95 each, and R.E.M.’s Monster is $3.95.

While chain stores use computer tracking programs to stock their racks, Amoeba relies on its buyers’ expertise. Buyer Randy Barnwell, who also runs a world-music label, shops globally via the Web for the store’s international sections. Amoeba’s hip-hop buyer, Frank Quattlebaum (a k a DJ Rasta Q-Tip), tracks down rare vinyl for customers like DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist. If individual sections look more like hand-picked libraries than retail racks, it’s because they are. "I had one directive when I was hired," says Barnwell. "That was: Make your section beautiful."

Amoeba also remains dedicated to vinyl at a time when retail stores mostly ignore its existence. According to Weinstein, the Berkeley shop has sold an average of 1,000 records daily since it opened. After work got out that the new store had acquired 40,000 jazz LPs from one obsessive collector, the store’s opening-day line went down the block. One customer ran up a $9,500 tab.

Of course, the staff can relate to this sort of behavior, which is why it appreciates the importance of this musical stock exchange as much as anyone. "As a buyer, I get first dibs on a lot of stuff, which is great," says Chris Detzer, Amoeba’s classical buyer, whose own record collection, like that of many staffers, tips into the five-figure range. "What can I say? I’m a music junkie. That’s why I’m here. That’s why most of us are here."