The Last Record Store in America.Posted: February 1, 2009
A country of 300 million people deserves more than one record store. On the other hand, the last one left standing, Amoeba Records, is a doozy.
Let me define my terms. By “record store,” I mean a store that physically exists someplace, selling recorded physical discs of music (CDs and/or LPs) across all genres, with deep selection in each genre. The kind of store Tower Records used to be, or Rose Records in Chicago, or the original Sam Goody’s in New York. It takes a lot of real estate to be such a store. You can’t hope to have great selection in every style of music without a lot of square footage at your disposal. On the other hand, square footage isn’t enough. You need store buyers for the various departments who really know their genres — what’s been released, what’s going to be released, what’s barely been released somewhere else in the world — and who know what will turn on enthusiasts of those genres. You can’t get there if the buyer for the hip hop department is the same guy who buys for the shows and vocals department. You need separate experts.
Once you have that, you have the makings of electricity. When you walk into Amoeba on Sunset in LA, you instantly feel it. The electricity of possibility: the chance you will find a CD you never knew existed which you must possess now, or a CD you knew existed but never thought you’d see. The electricity that makes you spend more money than you went in thinking you would. It doesn’t happen online. That electricity is what disappeared when record stores disappeared, which is why the record business is disappearing. (Just take a look at the statistics to see if online and download sales increases combined have made up the decline in brick-and-mortar sales. They haven’t; not even close.)
In the electrified/adrenalized state their huge, miles-of-aisles store put me in (it may even have to do with the height of their ceiling, which creates the impression of millions of cubic feet — why that should matter I don’t know, but it does) I bought many CDs at Amoeba on a recent visit. Possibly all of them are widely available online, where I do a lot of my shopping these days. The point is I never did buy them online. It took seeing them to make me need them. That’s why the death of brick-and-mortar has been the death of recorded music.
It so happens that Amoeba stocks new and used CDs. But cleverly, they’ve created a store experience that doesn’t present that way (even if their business card does). When I go into Amoeba, I don’t think of it as a “new and used CD store,” I think of it as a store that has amassed a truly interesting collection on my behalf (without prejudice about such distinctions as “new” and “used”), a collection that earns my gratitude. How Amoeba has managed to create the personality of a just-plain-terrific record store has a lot to do with retail magic that is an art, requiring talent not possessed by many, but part of it is that they don’t seem to carry a used CD because it’s cheaper (though it is) — they only carry it if it makes their inventory more interesting.
There are Amoebas in San Francisco and Berkeley, but I haven’t been to them. One day I hope to get to the Princeton Record Exchange in New Jersey, which others rave about in the same way I rave about Amoeba. As long as there is one Amoeba somewhere, life as I’ve known it still exists, and I can go on.