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Shape-Shifting Amoeba

By Jesse Hamlin

Amoeba, the world’s largest indie record store, opened on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in 1990, later expanding to SF and Hollywood.

Despite turbulence in the music industry, Marc Weinstein’s indie record stores manage to stay alive — for now

About 30 years ago, Marc Weinstein was sitting in a car with his friend Dave Prinz outside Streetlight Records on 24th Street in San Francisco, smoking a joint of prime Hawaii pot and laying plans for a new kind of music store.

They envisioned an emporium on a big-box scale but with the friendly vibe of a small record shop. They would sell, buy and trade music of all sorts, new and used recordings stocked in depth in various formats, and expertly curated by record geeks who could hip you to some rare Sex Pistols or Sinatra disc but not look down their noses when you asked for Britney Spears.

Amoeba Music would become a haven for music lovers and musicians on both sides of the counter, whether they dug Patti Smith or Patsy Cline, Maria Callas, Muddy Waters or Thelonious Monk.

“We’ve always had this credo to celebrate all kinds of music, and never judge anybody for the music they love,” says Weinstein, a Buffalo-bred drummer whose own passions run to Coltrane and psychedelic rock. They never imagined when Amoeba opened on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in 1990 it would expand to include enormous stores in San Francisco and Hollywood and become what it is today: the world’s largest independent record store, drawing visitors from around the globe.

 Marc Weinstein with some groovy finds.

Amoeba, which eschewed big-label marketing displays and placed discs by independent artists in bins alongside major names, has outlived Tower, Virgin Megastore and other chains killed off by the advent of digital downloading — copyrighted music provided free at first by internet pirates, then sold on iTunes for 99 cents a song —and other changes.

Downloading revenue has tanked in recent years with the rise of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, which the Recording Industry Association of America reports accounted for 75 percent of the $9.8 billion its members took in last year. That’s $1 billion more than 2017 but far from 1999’s $14.6 billion peak. Those figures don’t include used recordings, an Amoeba specialty.

“Part of the reason why we’ve been able to stay in business, when all these other stories didn’t, is because we’re just known as the destination for finding things that are hard to find,” says Weinstein, 62, a wry, forthright and modest man with long wavy brown hair and a graying moustache-less Buffalo Bill goatee.

“People come from all over the country with their little lists, because they don’t have record stores anymore, or hardly any access to them.There’s a decent chance that they’ll find what they’re looking for here. That’s really what we have going for us and why we stay afloat. We’re a rare destination for stuff people need. They’re very romantic about it.”

He’s talking in the huge Haight Street store, formerly a bowling alley, that opened in ’97. The scene of free “in-store” performances by rising artists and stars like Elvis Costello, it’s packed with vinyl LPs (back in vogue and selling briskly), CDs, singles and cassettes in myriad genres, T-shirts and turntables. The mélange of posters blanketing the walls offers unexpected juxtapositions and connections. The famous 1938 police mug shot of young Frank Sinatra hangs next to an album-cover portrait of the Wu-Tang Clan.

“This is a world of serendipity,” says Weinstein, who studied art at Goddard College in Vermont and has always worked in record shops, except for a stint in a New York bookstore when he couldn’t get a record store job. (He later mastered the craft of buying and selling used records at Rasputin’s in Berkeley and worked at Streetlight.)

Dave Prinz with the band Basement UK after an in-store performance at the San Francisco store in 2018.

“You walk in and see somebody you know, or something that draws you. Not as much of that happens anymore. Everything is fed to you by algorithms. You’re constantly being spoon-fed shit. I love watching people shop, seeing what they love, what’s going on in their heads. Look,” he says, motioning to a customer.“She’s getting a Dolly Parton record. Everybody is a cultural filter. They walk in the store and don’t know what they’re going to find. It always blows my mind on busy days when thousands of people come into the stores, and there’s a million items, and they find their two items.

Creating a gathering place for music lovers was key for Weinstein and Amoeba co-founder Prinz, an avid record collector who’d owned the 17-store Captain Video chain. That social aspect is one reason San Francisco Chronicle pop music critic Aidin Vaziri prizes Amoeba.

“You want to hang out there because you’re in a space with people who love music as much as you do,” Vaziri says, conjuring a High Fidelity-esque scene in which experts, not amateurs, run the store. “Streaming is convenient, you can listen to whatever you want, but you don’t have that sense of community. Amoeba has everything, and it’s so well-curated. You go into the death metal section and can have a half-hour conversation with a death metal expert who will find what you’re looking for and give you five other things you didn’t even know you needed.”

Matt De Mello is a young Washington High School history teacher who tries to hit the Haight Street store weekly. He bought a stack of used LPs the other day, classics such as Van Morrison’s Moondance.

“I stream in the car. When I’m home, I listen to albums,” says De Mello, who likes hearing the songs in the order the artist intended, appreciating the objects and what they embody.

Weinstein and Amoeba Music co-founder Dave Prinz opened the massive Haight Street store, formerly a bowling alley, in 1997. It remains a big draw for SF locals, tourists and Instagram hipsters alike.

Amoeba was high on Jenny Radakovich’s list when she arrived in San Francisco on vacation from Milwaukee. She picked up a new copy of the four-LP Best of the Grateful Dead with her brother in mind.

“He just passed away, and he was big Dead fan,” Radakovich says. “I’m channeling him today.”

Weinstein, who plays rock, jazz and experimental music with various groups in the area, listens to LPs at home in Orinda, CDs in the car. He himself doesn’t download or stream but understands why people do.

“It’s a very convenient way to get your music. It certainly hurt the record business in a big way, including our store,” he concedes. Revenues at Amoeba’s Bay Area stores have dropped 25 to 40 percent since the company’s 2005 peak, he says, when sales for all three locations topped $50 million, but they haven’t dipped at the vast store on Sunset in Los Angeles, the heart of the recording industry.

“That’s a world mecca for record collectors and geeks. The L.A. store has legs,” Weinstein says. The Berkeley shop is getting a slight boost from the Hi Fidelity cannabis dispensary Amoeba opened next door, and they may tweak the mix at Haight Street, maybe adding a café and other attractions to stay vital.

“We’ve had at least 1,000 people work for us, and they’ve all been interesting and passionate about music,” Weinstein says proudly. “For them to be in a place where they can feel at home, be themselves and share their passion — that’s everything for me.

What’s in our bag

Members of the Gazette team went on an Amoeba treasure hunt to find items that piqued our interest — meaningful records from childhood, favorite artists, interesting cover art and iconic albums that have stood the test of time. Take a spin through our eclectic shopping bag and see who picked what — and why.

Clint Reilly: The amazing thing about Sgt. Pepper is that it’s just as relevant and impressive today as it was when it came out. It resonates with my daughters in 2019 the same way it did with me in 1967. That’s amazing.

Erin Carlson: A lot of interpersonal drama brewed behind the scenes in the making of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (recorded at Sausalito’s Record Plant in 1976), but the music was nothing short of sublime —notably Steve Nicks’ rich butterscotch vocals. And that album cover? Still fashion #goals.

Phil Spiegel: When my older brother would bring home a positive report card, he got to go to the record shop and pick something out. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap was one of his selections, and it became our favorite home karaoke album. It has three of my favorite AC/DC songs on it, but the entire album is incredible.

Jill Pietrowiak: I consider The Best of U2 1980-1990 my number one choice because it takes me back to amazing memories. The perfect setting for listening to this album is on top of a mountain peak or walking on a beach. The music is freeing, uplifting and good for my soul. I can listen to it over and over again.

Janet Reilly: Everyone has a playlist for their youth and for me, Purple Rain was the soundtrack for my college years at UCLA. It’s so much more than a great album — whenever I listen to it, I’m transported back in time. That’s the power of music!

Terry Forte: Jazz guitar is always my jam, especially when it’s a master like Wes Montgomery doing his six-string thing with his brothers backing him up. His signature warm tone, smooth modal runs and thumb-picked octaves were already more than enough for me, but the picture-frame-worthy cover photo on this reissue is icing on the cake.

Matthew Petty: Last year I went into San Quentin to play a baseball game with the inmates. It was an eye-opening experience, one that I now share with the great Johnny Cash. This album was recorded the year after his classic Live at Folsom Prison as apart of his live prison series.

Frank Holland: There are so many reasons to love Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, a concept album that rivals Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours for sheer impact on its genre. Nelson’s earnest vocals and brilliant guitar riffs bring emotional weight to a story that unfolds track by track without ever feeling contrived or gimmicky. It’s an American music legend at the height of his powers. Whenever I listen to the album, I think of my dad playing it on cassette when I was a kid; it’s impossible not to smile.

Karen Fraser: Best of Chris Isaak — every single song. But especially “Wicked Game.”

Natasha Chalenko: Holding On For Life from the After the Disco album by Broken Bells instantly popped into my head when I visited Amoeba. The song opens cosmic and dreamy, but then unexpectedly turns into a bright and lighthearted dance composition with a sound reminiscent of the Bee Gees. A bridge in time, perhaps?

Spencer Brown: I look for albums in the form they were originally released. [From the] 1980s and earlier, give me the LP any day. This Dio album jacket [by Holy Diver] was pretty thrashed which says to me it was loved, and at two bucks, easily worth the gamble. Turns out it rocks! Excellent Amoeba find.

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