Amoeba Music is the music lover's wet dream...as far as music stores go, this is (in my opinion) the daddy of them all!
(If you can think of a rival, please leave a comment and let me know...I'd be keen to check it out if I'm ever in the vicinity).
The first store was opened on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley, California in 1990 (this one is particularly good for vinyl), with two further stores joining in on the fun since then: San Francisco (since 1997) and Hollywood (Sunset Boulevard, since 2001 – which claims to be the world's largest independent music store at 31,000 square feet – and which is the only one I haven't been to). This blog will mostly be about the San Francisco outlet, which is at the top of Haight Street, just before Golden Gate Park.
The store: A massive 24,000 square feet (2,200 square metres for all you metric kids) of converted bowling alley...seriously, it's like an aircraft hangar or something it's so humongous...and it is stocked to the brim with goodies! It really does feel like a treasure hunt. This place seriously blows my mind!
The staff...are everything I want to be; they are the ultimate music geeks. They really know their stuff, their knowledge immense and seemingly endless. And I know that, like me, these are people that simply wet themselves over making the perfect mix-tape (or cd in these modern times!), and introducing friends to music they love and are super-excited about. I found the staff to be really helpful; I was specifically looking for a copy of Iron Horse Fade To Bluegrass, a great album of Metallica songs covered in a bluegrass style, which I had heard in a local diner, and simply had to have! So they are definitely capable of helping you to find that obscure or limited-release title (and I'm sure they come much more obscure than that too!). They have a computer to look it up on, as with anywhere nowadays, but they also have a glint in their eyes, a genuine enthusiasm, and a remarkable, encyclopaedic ability to converse about any of it...and make suggestions if you ask for them too. While I was there I also picked up a great in-store magazine/zine/bible chock full of the (informed and insightful...and passionate) recommendations of people working in all three outlets.
And, most importantly, the stock: This is like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory for the music afficionado...except without such a creepy man running the show (did Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka, give anyone else the willies?). It really is endless...there is (almost) every release you could ever want...and so much stuff that you didn't even know you wanted! They stock vinyl, cds, cassettes, new and used (as well as dvds, although I didn't allow myself to peruse this bit of the shop!) - a very eclectic range, including hard to find bounty. They even have listening posts where you can scan the bar code of a cd you fancy having a listen to, which then shows up on a screen where you can select the track etc. Or you can just search their extensive database for inspiration...although that might take some of the fun out of the experience of rummaging, trying to find a bargain or hidden gem. There are swathes of clearance racks, offering used cds from about $1.99 (with some sort of 'buy lots and we'll give you a discount' schtick on top of that, as if necessary...something like 'get every fourth one free' if I recall correctly). And it's not all just dross, as with many bargain bins...I got Geraldine Fibbers, Natalie Merchant and Elvis Costello albums (as well as quite a few others!) from the cheapo-cheapo section...why is it that this always feels like such an accomplishment...like you've pulled a swift one on them?
The atmosphere is of a community record store, despite the size...you are surrounded by tonnes of other music nerds with sweaty palms, nimble fingers (for rifling through the racks) and wide eyes. Have you read (or seen) High Fidelity? These (me included) are those people!
And if this wasn't enough, they also host live in-stores shows...I shall list some of those that personally would interest me, but if you click on the link to their website you can have a squizz for your good selves.
Past performances have included: Datarock, Kristin Hersh, Aimee Mann, Solomon Burke, Smoosh, The Dears, Saul Williams, Rilo Kiley, Gossip, Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie, Broken Social Scene, Ladytron and The White Stripes.
Oh, did I mention that this (small selection from the whopping big list as a whole) only covers the San Francisco joint?
(Hollywood have had, amongst others: Patti Smith, Erin McKeown, Tegan and Sara, Jolie Holland, Neko Case, Ben Harper, Wanda Jackson (!! Belated happy birthday by the way Ms Jackson...she turned 70 on October 20th), Nickel Creek, Elvis Costello, Old Crow Medicine Show, PJ Harvey, Camera Obscura, Amp Fiddler, Po Girl, Throwing Muses, Lucinda Williams and The Melvins.)
And all for free folks!
Apparently they even have their own record label now...although from the looks of things this is still quite young.
Ok, so just to balance this review out a bit...the negatives. It is hugely overwhelming as there is just so much stock! Seriously, you could get lost in this place for days and still not touch the sides. It's like your eyes are too big for your stomach...make that your wallet and the amount of time it is humanly possible to spend in a record store in one go. The temptation is so great you are also likely to come out (blinking at the sunlight) a whole lot poorer, with more arm loads than you can carry, and with that gnawing anxiety that you just missed THE cd/lp you simply can't live without (even though you've managed ok so far, thank you very much). But these are hardly real criticisms.
You are, however, likely to be offered any number of illegal substances in the street outside (this is Haight-Ashbury, after all), so if that offends your sensibilities...
If it eases your conscience at all, Amoeba (a prime example of the kind of word I hate, never mind how much I love the stores...the whole 'oe' vowel pronunciation bit...yuck!) donates some of its profits to Rainforest Action Network. It also, in the Hollywood store, has a 'Big Green Box' in which to deposit your unused/broken/faulty electrical items and batteries, for them to be recycled rather than sent to landfill. If you think about it, even a lot of the music is recycled...bought used (for cash, or more in in-store credit).
Oh, and finally, there's a great pizza shop, with daily 'slice' specials (I opted for the veggie options that they were proffering that day...I think it was a slice each of 'You Say Potato' and 'Elementary My Dear Watsonville' that I had, going by the menu) called Escape From New York, just a few doors away. Pop in, stock up on calories to see you through the next several hours of browsing/hunting.
Whilst I'm on a food (and San Francisco) tip I shall mention a taqueria that I dream about...El Farolito (nowhere near Amoeba at 24th and Mission). It is grotty, grubby, in a bad(ish) part of town, but boy is it yummy! And very very cheap indeed. Their veggie burritos are to die for, and are enough to keep you flup (full up) all day! You should also check out the pico de gallo (or whatever the green salsa they make is called there...you can serve yourself pots of it for free...great if you buy a basket of tortilla chips for something ludicrous like 50 cents). I crave burritos in the UK...there aren't any Mexican take-aways round here, which I think is sacrilege. Any Mexican peeps out there in Gateshead or Newcastle reading this? ;o)
As for Amoeba Music...don't just take my word for it...here is what some other people have to say: Amoeba San Francisco.