Amoeba Music opened its first store on November 17, 1990, in Berkeley, California, offering an eclectic palette of music that spanned everything from mainstream pop and hip-hop to obscure jazz, electronica, blues, and folk. The store’s location (at 2455 Telegraph Avenue, on the corner of Haste Street, just three blocks from the University of California) was only one of its many reasons for success. The former home of the Forum Coffee House, a legendary 1960s café where poetry rubbed elbows with politics, fueled by strong espresso and the revolutionary spirit of the day. On one side of the building is the famous People’s Park mural, painted by O’Brien Thiele and Osha Neumann, which portrays the shooting of James Rector by the police on May 15, 1969, after the cops and “the people” clashed over control of the three-and-a-half-acre park.
Amoeba Music soon launched additional new stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Crossing the Bay in 1997, they converted an old bowling alley, known as Park Bowl, into a mecca for music lovers, far and wide. Located at the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park, Amoeba fit perfectly into the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, with its history of music and free expression. Beyond its sprawling menu of underground, indie garage rock, and reggae, one could easily find Japanese pop when digging through the bins, as well as Stockhausen, Sun Ra, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn.
As with the Berkeley store, the new Amoeba turned into one of San Francisco’s best live music venues. Their free in-store performances have featured a slew of groups from Sonic Youth to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, in a setting resembling “a psychedelic Victorian living room.”
In November 2001, Amoeba Music opened their biggest store yet, a temple of modern culture that spanned an entire city block on Sunset Boulevard, in downtown Hollywood. Amoeba Los Angeles featured free in-store performances by everyone from Solomon Burke to Elvis Costello, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Black Flag, Los Lobos, the Roots, John Cale, PJ Harvey, and Nancy Sinatra.
At Amoeba’s helm since its inception is Marc Weinstein, a big ol’ bear of a guy, a warm daddy who prefers hugs to handshakes. You not only feel at ease in his presence, you pick up on his vibe that life is a gas, an adventure, filled with possibility and music. Lots and lots of music. Beyond his voracious passion for records, Weinstein loves to jam as well, whether playing drums, or on electric bass in his distinctive style (held upright on his lap or lying on a table).
Sweet and easy-going as Marc is, he’s remained steadfast and resilient during these challenging and uncertain times. An outspoken advocate for social change and improving his community through collective action—whether by recycling, supporting rainforest conservation, or raising money to help rebuild New Orleans in the wake of natural disaster, Weinstein continues to walk the walk. Due to the restrictions created by COVID, we spoke at length by phone, just days before Amoeba’s thirtieth anniversary.
How did you get started on this path, Marc?
Marc Weinstein: When I was in high school, I frequented record stores. The Record Boutique was a favorite, in my neighborhood. They had all the cool new prog records by King Crimson, ELP, Gentle Giant, and Jethro Tull. That was our thing in those days. Because I was an artist, the owner, Don, asked me to make some signs for him. So that was really my first record store job…in eleventh grade. It was great. Buffalo [New York] had a nice variety of record stores in the early ’70s, including the Record Co-Op at the University of Buffalo, while across the street was the Record Runner, a great store, whose logo was a cartoon of the Road Runner carrying a batch of LPs under his arm. There was also a small local chain called Cavages. My first “real” record store job was right outta high school, at the biggest record store in the world, called Record Theatre, a real institution in Buffalo. I started working there when it opened in 1976. It was a 20,000-square-foot record store with a full-on stereo department, LPs, 45s, and its own distributorship, Transcontinent Record Sales. The owner, Lenny Silver, was a rack-jobber from Rochester, which was sixty miles down the road. He was a couple years older than my dad. They knew each other as kids. When he was a teenager, Lenny used to sell 45s off his bicycle and racked the drug stores and discount stores around town. He was a real success story and wound up with his own distributorship in Buffalo and building a chain of stores that grew to about forty locations throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.
Your father had a high profile in the media around Buffalo. What did he do?
My dad, Irv, worked as a DJ and a news guy at WKBW, an amazing 50,000-watt Top Forty AM station. It was huge. He would bring home records that the station wasn’t using on their Top Forty format. So I had access to a lot of 45s as a kid. My parents had some nice records too. They were into pop vocals and jazz—early Miles, from the ’50s, Oscar Peterson, Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and a couple by Nina Simone.
Sounds like an auspicious start!
Yeah! I got to hang out around the station and see the studios. Then my dad moved on to TV. I’ve never been a techy kind of person, and I’m still not, but I got to see how the station worked, and it got in my blood. The idea that you could play records for the world from this little console was exciting. I always had a spiritual connection with the mutual experience of sharing music. It was the biggest turn-on for me, and I had a couple of heavy years of doing college radio. The minute I started working for Record Theatre in ’76, I realized this was my goal.
It’s funny, ’cause you don’t strike me as a record geek.
[laughs] No, I’m not…
How many records would you estimate you have in your personal collection?
I have about six thousand LPs and maybe ten thousand CDs. My LPs are my treasure, as they represent all my years in the business and collecting. But collecting is such a different experience for everyone. I don’t collect for their rarity or value. I collect records ’cause I’m looking for music that will make me high! That’s my goal. My collection represents everything I like. Sometimes, the copies aren’t in the greatest shape. I’m not too persnickety about caring for my records. I keep them clean, but I don’t put ’em in plastic sleeves or spend a lot of time cleaning them. I’m not a slob. I just like them in their natural state. I have two partners that I work with who have very large collections. My partner Joe has a really well-curated collection, in the neighborhood of thirty thousand LPs. Everything is really, really rare and well organized. It makes mine look like nothing special.
I know you’re a huge Sun Ra fan and have a lot of his recordings.
I love Sun Ra to my very core. He is one of my heroes, for all kinds of good reasons. When I discovered him in high school, it was a mindblower. So I started collecting him really early on, by 1974. I would see him live whenever possible, over twenty times, I’d guess. In the early days, I would buy as many records as I could afford at every show. They would sell them at the side of the stage during the breaks. That was a real thrill. A lot of the records were hand-made, which they would draw on. They were unique and cool, like individual pieces of art—each one of them. I have over two hundred Sun Ra records. Some of them are hand-made, on the El Saturn label, which were mostly in editions of about five hundred. You knew when you bought it, you were getting something unique. But, as I said, I never bought records for how rare they were. There was something very special about Sun Ra and the way he operated that inspired me. My interest in him led me into all kinds of abstract and avant-garde jazz. I collected a lot of Coltrane, Miles, and Cecil [Taylor]. I also love Ornette [Coleman] and [Anthony] Braxton. During the ’80s, there were so many records on small labels from Europe that came through the used record stores in Berkeley.
It was a great scene at the time. When did you move there?
It was a unique culture when I arrived in California in February of 1980. Berkeley already had a big history of buying and selling books and records along with vintage clothing on Telegraph Avenue. There were around ten record stores at the time in Berkeley. Each one was cool and interesting. Rasputin’s, on Telegraph, was one of the bigger ones, and I started working there the first day I arrived. I had both record-store and art experience. So the owner, Ken Sarachan, hired me to make signs and displays when I first started, but within a month, I learned how to buy records at the front counter. It might have been the first place in the country where large volumes of records were bought and sold like that. There were so many records floating around the [University of California] Berkeley campus. We would get all kinds of amazing stuff, used, on Actuel and all these labels that you’d never see. We’d sell them for four bucks, but as staff we could buy ’em at a discount. Everyone who worked at Rasputin’s was a collector of some sort. I worked there for a year, and then I moved back East, ’cause I was antsy. I always thought I’d live in New York City, my whole life. I came to California after I got outta college, ’cause I wanted to see what it was like. I was kinda sold on it at the time—the palm trees and mountains. But after a year, I felt it was too easy-going. It wasn’t hard-core enough. I had to move to New York. I didn’t care if I had a good job, I’m leavin’!
Well, it was the ’80s, and New York was pretty wild.
Yeah… So I moved back East for a while and lived in a 4,000-square-foot loft in Park Slope, in Brooklyn. There were eight of us. We paid a hundred dollars each. It was great, but I couldn’t find a record store job for some reason. Everything was like a little clubhouse. I worked for a while in a bookstore on Sixth Avenue in Midtown [Manhattan]. After three months, Ken from Rasputin’s located and hired me to start buying records all around the East Coast. He had this idea called Record Roundup, which he’d already started in California. He’d go to cities and set up in hotel conference rooms and buy records, nonstop, for a week to ten days. So I started running this thing for him, from 1981 to ’82. There were three buyers and one guy who handled all the money. We would go to Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester [New York]; New Haven and Hartford, Connecticut, and set up at hotels and buy records like crazy—maybe thirty thousand in two weeks’ time. Then we’d ship them back to Rasputin’s in Berkeley. Ken couldn’t get enough records! He could feed the beast as much as he wanted to, as long we supplied him with used records. He realized no one was doing it back East. We’d buy them up, and nobody thought they’re worth anything. In late ’82, we went to New Orleans for another Record Roundup. I had never been there before. We held it in the back of a Peaches chain record store that, until then, had only sold new vinyl. A very charming fellow named Lee Rae, who owned like four stores, had his mind blown by what we were doing. He couldn’t believe how many records we bought for so little money. Right off the bat, he offered me a job. He said he’d pay me more than I was already making if I moved down and showed him how to do this. So, in October of ’82, Lee paid my way to New Orleans. I got an apartment and started showing all the managers and buyers at Peaches how to buy and price used records. I did all the merchandizing and set up used record departments in their stores and had a really great experience there.
How did you like life in the Crescent City?
As much as I loved it, I never really felt at home in New Orleans. There’s many sweet people there, and it’s got a really nice vibe, but it just wasn’t my kinda place. Even though New Orleans is a wonderful island of its own, it was still the South and people used the “N” word, which really got to me.
Things can get kinda slow in NOLA.
In those days, I was way too impatient to live there. My rusty old Toyota still had New York plates on it, and there were numerous occasions where someone might be crossing the street, slowly, and I’d be sitting there waiting, and they’d say, “Hey! Slow down, Mr. New York!” I was dying to get back to California, and the day I returned, I got a job at Streetlight Records on Twenty-Fourth Street in San Francisco. I worked there for about six and a half years. Streetlight is like a smaller neighborhood version of Rasputin’s, not as big as the Berkeley scene, about eighty percent used and twenty percent new releases.
The fellow who owns that store, Bob Fallon, was really in the business of buying and selling used stuff. He wasn’t a music guy. He saw there was business there, and he did a good job of putting a cool, funky record store together. Everyone working for Bob knew what they were doing, but he didn’t know much about music. Working there really got my chops together. I love retail and I love records. I love the look on people’s faces when they shop for records… What other kind of store can you go into where people have that look and vibe while they’re looking at products? Sewing machines? Hardware? They don’t get that excited. Records are incredible ephemera. They evoke places and moments in time that represent different things to them individually. I constantly improved that store every which way I could, improving its appearance with new signage. I really enjoyed being there. But when I turned thirty, I realized I can’t do this my whole life. I’m never gonna make a real living. The manager of Streetlight had bought a new car. And I thought, Jesus Christ, I’ll never be able to do that if I keep doing this. Bob had a nice house and art studio in Big Sur, where he’d invite me down to talk about business and strategy. We’d sit there eating pistachios, flipping the shells off the edge of the cliff, and chat. The last time I went there in 1989, I was thirty-two. At that point, I decided on the drive home, that I had to open my own store! I can’t keep fuckin’ around. Bob’s making all this money off my efforts.
So the Bolsheviks finally revolted!
[laughs] Yeah… I was pretty determined to figure it out, and it wasn’t too long, within a couple of months, that I met my [future] partner Dave Prinz. Interestingly, Dave was an avid record collector who had recently closed a chain of video rental stores called Captain Video. Dave was an astute retailer who had owned seventeen stores. He started Captain Video early in the game. It was one of the first places where you could rent videos. It was a whole different time—before Blockbuster came into the market. Dave saw the writing on the wall and knew he could never survive. So he sold the chain. He had just sold his business when I met him and was temporarily semi-retired, living in the neighborhood where Streetlight was. We had this connection. Dave was from New York City and had gone to the University of Buffalo. He remembered my father as a newscaster. We went to all the same record stores in Buffalo.
So one night in the summer of ’89, after closing up Streetlight, he invited me out to his car to smoke real Hawaiian weed, which was extremely rare at that point. We sat and talked, and smoked, and it wasn’t long before he said, “Would you ever consider opening a store?” I said, “Yeah! I’m all about it, but I haven’t quite got there yet.” He said, “Let’s discuss some numbers.” We went over to his house, and he sat down with a pencil and yellow pad of paper and started asking all the right questions: “How much do you pay for a record? How much do you get for a record?” How do you do this? How do you do that? He wanted to know all the costs. How much for the insurance, for the phone… He jotted it all down on his yellow pad, all the expenses it took to open—the stuff that I didn’t have that much sense of. We looked at the figures and decided it was a good idea to open a store together.
It was a rough, difficult environment for our customers at first.
Perfect! So Amoeba was born out of your passion combined with Dave’s practicality. It seems charmed!
I agree! [laughs] It really was meant to be! Here’s this guy who lived in the neighborhood. We had all this shared history. He loved record collecting and was a savvy retailer but had never been in the record business. He always wanted to do it but didn’t have that hook.
Like you were each other’s missing piece of the puzzle.
Part of why our partnership has worked so well for thirty years is that we’re so different from each other. While we’re both merchants, we come at it from different angles. Dave was way into Billie Holiday, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, and Elvis Presley. He’s a fan of the Stray Cats, Stevie Ray Vaughan, stuff that I liked but wasn’t necessarily my favorite music. Dave loves 78s. He has hundreds of ’em and some of the greatest 78 players I’ve ever seen or heard. I’ve had some of my most ecstatic listening experiences with him listening to his 78 collection.
So you guys started putting it all together.
We took out our lease on the first store in January 1990. It took until November of that year to open our doors on Telegraph Avenue. We were amidst a whole bunch of other record stores. Berkeley was already like the record row of the Bay Area. And, at first, a lot of people wondered, “Why would you open another record store here? There already are so many in the neighborhood.” We said, “Well, this is gonna be different!”
How did the name Amoeba come about?
We had a brainstorming session where we just started writing down names. Because of the time, we didn’t want to call it a “record” store. It wouldn’t make sense, as it was the dawn of the CD era. So we decided to call it such and such “Music.” We wanted the name to sound good with the word “music.” Dave came up with it. He said, “It’s gotta start with the letter ‘A,’ so it will be at the beginning of the alphabet and be the first store you see when you look in the Yellow Pages.” When he said “Amoeba,” it just sounded so good with “Music.” I think it’s a wonderful metaphor. Little did we know, we would spawn other Amoeba stores.
What’s the story behind Amoeba’s iconic logo?
Dave was friends with one of the guys at Tower Two [Tower Records on Columbus and Bay] in San Francisco, who was making their signage. His name was Shepherd Hendrix, who was closely related to Jimi [and who has in recent years illustrated books by Douglas Adams and Derek McCulloch]. Dave told him we were opening our own store in Berkeley and asked if he’d design a logo for us. We only had a few hundred bucks. But he did it. It was like, “Dude! That looks great! Thanks!”
How was the location? Wasn’t Berkeley kind of funky at the time?
Everything was really decrepit. There were drug dealers hanging out everywhere. Telegraph looked like absolute shit in those days. We’d found a spot that no one was really looking at. A totally derelict building that had been empty for two years, filled with homeless people.
The street scene in Berkeley was pretty scary then, thanks to the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who cut social programming and set the homeless and mentally ill “free” to live on the streets all over California.
Telegraph was so beat in those days, and we were at the epicenter. It was so derelict that no one would pay good money for it. That’s why we ended up there, and we were able to get such a large amount of space for not too much money. It was a rough, difficult environment for our customers at first. The building was built in 1927 for Lucky Supermarkets, an old California chain. It was a cool, big, wide-open space without any posts or pillars, just perfect for our purposes. Initially, we rented half of it and opened our store with a total inventory of about six thousand used CDs, and five thousand new CDs, but not that many new records, because they weren’t making that many at the time. We also had about ten to fifteen thousand used records. Within one year’s time, we doubled in size and rented the whole building, a total of eight thousand square feet. Then we busted through the wall and rented the building next door and added another four thousand feet.
How many people did you have on staff?
About eighty, at its height. That store was really cookin’! We became a destination for music lovers around the country, the world. There were lines around the corner the day we opened [November 17, 1990].
So many great destinations across America have disappeared in the last few years. Our culture seems to be on the verge of vanishing.
That’s why it’s so important to keep Amoeba going. One dynamic that people don’t realize is that Berkeley is a big college town, which draws students from all around the state. It became a focal point for people from San Francisco and the L.A. area to mix and mingle together in one place. The most amazing weirdos, all shopping for records! That’s part of what made the energy so intense. There were like ten stores in Berkeley at the time, with aisles of 45s and music magazines. There was Universal, a great punk rock shop, with all the indie stuff and 45s. There was an all-reggae store and some cool used shops like Rasputin’s, and Leopold’s, which catered to a large community of culturally active African Americans. They had the most amazing collection of soul and jazz and blues, like no other store in the West. Way deeper than Tower. Their manager, Karen Pearson, became our partner, and she is one of two people who has fundamentally run Amoeba in L.A. all these years. She initially managed the Haight Street store for a year, a year and a half, before we started having eyes on opening in L.A., at which point she moved to L.A. and has been there ever since. Unlike anyone I have ever met, Karen is the ultimate personnel manager and record store mama of all time! She carries our ethic to a whole new level. She interviews and knows every single person in that store. She goes so deep with people, not just knowing their names, but what their favorite records are, and what’s going on at home. She’s just so warm and fuzzy. Every day, she gives everybody a “hi,” a “bye,” and a hug. The love is just intense. Dave and I have really promoted that sense of community. Not just at the Berkeley store. We wanted to bring that feeling to the Haight Street store as well when we opened in ’97. My job has always been a social one. I get to know as many of my staff as I can, Karen even more so, especially in L.A. She’s been instrumental in helping us grow as big as we did. Otherwise, we couldn’t have possibly managed it all.
At the same time, we brought in Jim Henderson, who came to work for us when he was just sixteen or seventeen, as a security guy initially doing odd jobs like shrink-wrapping. He worked his way up to becoming a partner and general manager of the L.A. store. He didn’t have the money to buy his partnership, he earned it through working with such loyalty and such heart. He has a real genius for organization and calls all the meetings. So Karen and Jimmy essentially run the L.A. store. If it wasn’t for those two, we never would have opened in L.A.
Okay, so Amoeba kept replicating! One became two and two became three!
Ha! Yeah… The San Francisco store opened to a tremendous amount of fanfare. We discovered in the first few months that a lot of customers were coming up from L.A. to shop at Amoeba. They told us repeatedly, “There’s nothing like this in L.A. You guys are crazy if you don’t open a store down there!” We never had the first thought of going to another city to open a record store. We were New Yorkers who had moved to San Francisco, because it was free and easy and hippie-dippy in every way that we appreciated. We’d never given L.A. much of a thought. I had been there a few times to visit, but never got a great impression of the place. But in those days, L.A. was not what it is today. So Dave and I, and our friend Greg, went down to L.A. to do some reconnaissance, look around, and feel it out. Dave has a way of extracting information from the newspaper, and back then, there was a lot of alternative press—the L.A. Weekly and the L.A. Reader. I had some friends there, some really cool weirdos, and I asked their opinions, trying to glean what the scene was. We looked at Third Street in Santa Monica, which was a big destination. Culturally, it was like Berkeley and what we were used to in the Bay Area. But our friends warned us, “Dude, ya don’t wanna go out there, ’cause nobody from the Eastside is gonna go there—ever!” They explained a very simple equation, which has stuck with me, that I think is so true. Westsiders will never go east of La Brea [Avenue], and Eastsiders will never go west of La Brea.
Understandable. The traffic is a nightmare.
La Brea, being in the dead middle, is the cut-off point. Dave always said the San Francisco store had the greatest location. Not only because it’s on Haight Street, but if you look at a map of San Francisco and find the center, you’ll see what’s there—our building! Look at a map of Los Angeles. It’s fucking huge! But Hollywood is the middle, and all the freeways go through there. So that’s where we had to be, if we were gonna be accessible to the whole metro area. We started looking around Hollywood. There was a famous record store everyone knew and waxed about called Wallichs Music City on the corner of Sunset and Vine before Tower was anything. One of the features of Wallichs Music City was they had listening booths all along the windows. So if you were driving down Vine or Sunset, you’d see all these people in the windows with headphones on, boppin’ to their favorite song.
It was! They also sold stereo equipment. Sunset and Vine seemed like the perfect spot for us. We looked at about ten locations around there. We even tried to buy the Palladium, which, at the time, was derelict and closed. It was ridiculously cheap! But it was so big, we were scared by it. It needed so much work. The roof alone needed $200,000 in repairs. We had offers in on a few places. There was a camera store called Freestyle Camera who bought the lot at 6400 Sunset and was in the process of building their new location. But as they were finishing it, the market was changing, and they were running out of money.
Sounds like more kismet in the making.
There was magic like you wouldn’t believe. Dave used to stand in front of 6400 Sunset and say, “I want this building! It would be perfect for us.” And I’d say, “C’mon man, let’s go! We can’t have that building! That’s gonna be a camera store!” It was a pipe dream of his. But sure enough, while we were in contract for another space, we got a call from this real estate agent who represented the owners of 6400 Sunset and said he’d heard through the grapevine that we were looking for a location; and they had a building for sale, that was unfinished. We realized, oh my God, it’s the building! It just came out of the thin air. Like, the Lord had come down and handed it to us on a silver platter! They built our building!
It was expensive. It was a very big leap for us, but we managed to buy it and get in there.
So why did you have to leave 6400? Did you buy or lease the building?
That’s such a long, involved, and convoluted story. Essentially, the [financial market] crash of ’08 caused us to go underwater on that building in ’09. We had to sell it and then lease it back to survive at that time. We then managed to buy it back for a few years after the market went back up, only to have to sell it again to survive in 2015.
Our lease was for $240,000 a month after that. Quite a burden, especially when COVID hit and the owners wanted us to continue to pay every penny of rent despite not being able to be open at all. That would have buried us, so we were forced to move out and put our inventory into storage in the second month of this crisis.
What challenges are you currently facing in opening the new Amoeba store in L.A.?
So we just spent the last eight months closed, while spending a lot of money so our staff [mostly comprised of musicians, artists, DJs, and writers] could keep their benefits. With a big layoff like that, everyone is on furlough and not entitled to keep their benefits unless the employer pays out of pocket to keep them going.
How many employees are you talking about between the three stores?
About two hundred and fifty. But the real issue is that the government didn’t offer to help us. Whatever it cost us to stay in business has come out of our own pockets. The government offered us PPP loans. But they are just that—loans that we have to pay back. We got about two million dollars’ worth of loans, but that’s what it has cost us just to stay alive. Instead of doing anything to try and help us stay alive, they offered us this loan. But I have to mention the overwhelming response to the GoFundMe campaign we started back in late April in which our amazing customers and fans kicked in almost $300,000 to help us survive, which was all used to help keep all our staff’s benefits alive during this mess.
Sweet! When did you originally plan to open the new store in L.A.?
We were supposed to open on Hollywood Boulevard at the beginning of November. The unforeseen circumstances with COVID—and a COVID-infested L.A. [Department of Building and Safety]—has caused us numerous delays that will mean we are at least a month or two late getting open. Our outdoor signs may well not be up by the time we open—we may have to rely on temporary banners and the like. We’re hoping by December , but it may go into January 2021, and we’ll see where the virus numbers are at. It has to be a safer time.
On a personal level, Marc, how have you been able to remain sane?
[laughs] Well, we don’t wanna talk about how much I like to smoke weed. That’s part of how I’ve managed to survive. But in general, I feel so grateful for having had this amazing ride with Amoeba for the last thirty years. Whatever happens is gonna happen, and the incredible experiences we’ve had adds up to feeling grateful and being hopeful that we can stay alive and keep everybody working. We’re working hard to try and keep these businesses alive for our staff and communities. Dave and I are both in our sixties. Were we a “publicly traded” corporation, we would’ve been closed years ago. We don’t make the money we once did. But we keep it going because we love it so much and because the people who work for us are so wonderful. We wanna keep this culture alive as best we can for L.A. and the world. Each day, thousands of people come into Amoeba in L.A., and each one of them finds something they want, maybe four LPs and a CD and a cassette or a poster, and they leave with a big smile on their face. What more could you ask for? It’s a gold mine! It’s a treasure chest! We’re a mecca for people who enjoy searching for new sounds or want to reminisce about another time. Or maybe they are looking for something for a friend that will be meaningful. People come in with so many different agendas. Everywhere you look, there’s something to think about and enjoy. It’s a spiritual experience that has social ramifications. I’ve spent so much time watching people shop, and I love it so much. It’s one of the main reasons I did this, because I love the look on people’s faces, and creating that experience for people is really a big part of it for us.
Whenever I’m in California, I always have to make the pilgrimage to Amoeba, whether in the Bay Area or in L.A. It’s a real destination, like City Lights Books in San Francisco, or Strand Books in New York. No visit seems complete without it.
It’s true! We are a real destination. People come from all over the world. Without Amoeba, the world is definitely not as rich. Amoeba reminds me of why I enjoy being a human on this planet at a time when it’s not as obvious as it used to be. There’s nothing like what we do anywhere. There’s a lot of cool small stores all over the U.S., but none of them compare in the sheer depth or scale of Amoeba. That’s what we built and developed.
Yeah, it’s like a great trading post in what has, sadly, become America’s cultural wasteland. Dave Travis—who recently closed his club, the Cafe NELA, a former bastion of punk and experimental music in Northeast L.A.—said: “[It] was not just music, it was also about community. It was where people could interact face to face, not over the internet. Where you could meet someone at random and have a meaningful conversation. The opposite of social media narrowcasting. We did lots of benefits and lots of memorials, even a wedding. Now when someone needs help or dies, I feel helpless because I cannot do a benefit or memorial. NELA showed that people of all different backgrounds could unite, because it was not about identity, it was about punk, or jazz, or smoking and drinking and kibitzing. People could learn from each other’s differences because if everybody is the same there is much less to learn.”
We humans have lost so much serendipity, which you can’t find on the internet! The magical connections that happen on the internet are only due to logarithms keeping track of our tastes and purchases for marketing their purposes. The powers that be are watching our every moves. There used to be a world where no one knew what you were doing. You just did your thing. No one knew where you were, where you went. We had privacy. Nobody read your postcards. It’s incredible how much privacy we’ve given up. People love the social atmosphere at Amoeba. No one feels obliged to have to talk to anyone, but they’re around a lot of people who are into music. There are so few, if any, museums devoted to learning about music. So record stores hold a very special place for music geeks. You can always ask questions, or meet somebody in the aisle, looking at something. That kind of living education used to be part of our daily lives.
No matter which Amoeba you walk into, the store always has a good atmosphere. No matter how you try, you can’t always create that kind of feel. It either happens or it doesn’t. What do you think ultimately creates the good vibe at Amoeba?
The Berkeley store is a magic room. It had been a radical café called the Forum that opened in 1957. In the ’70s, the building was occupied by an honest-to-God ’60s-style new-age cult of long-haired freaks called the One World Family who lived there. They ran a restaurant, called the One World Family [Natural Foods Restaurant] that I’m pretty sure was all vegetarian. It was allegedly the first place in America to make their own wheat bread and use sprouts on sandwiches. They were considered edgy and out there and believed that aliens had visited the Earth, to enlighten the hippies. They had this whole narrative, which they painted on the walls of their commune with images of long-haired freaks in spaceships and all these creatures flying around. When we built Amoeba, we had to cover up all those walls. We built our walls in front of them, keeping everything intact. There were lots of other artifacts that we found as well. They’d been there for years and did all kinds of weird events there. Just one month after we opened the Berkeley store, a guy walked in, looking for me. He said, “Somebody told me you really like Sun Ra.” I said, “Absolutely! I Love Sun Ra.” He said, “I thought you might be interested in this. I’ve been hanging onto it for a long time and figured I had to come in and give it to you.” It was a manila envelope containing black-and-white pictures of Sun Ra and the Arkestra playing in front of the murals when he did a week-long residency there in the ’70s! So the feeling is in the walls! About eight years later, a lady came in the store who heard that I loved Sun Ra. She had a box of Sunny’s records, mostly 78s, that he left in her living room. She said, “I just want you to have this box.” There was a [Thelonious] Monk 78 in there too! It was just magical, like alchemy.