By the time I discovered their vinyl collection, my parents didn’t even have a record player anymore – “ Records scratch easily and the needles are too expensive these days" – but they still kept them. As a girl, I’d flip over the covers, read the liner notes, and pull the discs out and study the grooves, looking for scratches. I’d ponder over the Woodstock LP, a gatefold double disc with a photo on the back cover of two naked hippies stepping out of a pond. Before my parents were square, were they not square?
These days, I have all my parents’ records. I have my grandma and grandpa’s records. I have my Bubbi and Zadie’s records. And I have recently realized: I still want more.
In search of vinyl vendors throughout the city, I wanted to know what happened to all those albums that used to be owned by people of my parents and grandparents’ generations – where they’re found, how they get into record shops, and where they go after they’re bought. I also wanted to learn about the people who love and collect these vintage treasures. In my journey, I find that one thing is universal: Records are timeless.
I start at Groove Merchant Records, a narrow shop with vintage keyboards in the windows. It's primarily a soul and jazz shop, but has expanded to other genres, like rock, disco, Latin, and Brazilian. It’s a small store, so what it doesn’t offer in quantity it makes up for in quality, focusing on unusual and regional records.
Groove Merchant owner Chris Veltri, pulls out a rare Latin disco record by Fresno-native Ray Camacho that’s priced at $150. “It’s got a really good track called ‘Let’s Boogie’,” says Chris as he places the A-side onto the record player. A funky bass line fills the shop; it’s an instant dance-party starter.
Chris has got a cool-boy demeanor, sporting fairly neutral work attire (white shirt and gray jeans), and an audio-pedia brain. Everyone who owns a record store was first a record collector. Chris has collected since he was a teen. Before he moved to San Francisco in 1994, he would come to visit this store. “All my money would go to records when I was young and this was the place I’d always come to.”
“When I moved up here from Los Angeles, fate would have it that someone was leaving and there was a job opening.” Chris managed the store for three years, and then bought it in 1997.
Groove Merchant has always catered to the DJs of San Francisco, and since record store employees have always been record-store-obsessed, it’s no surprise to learn that everyone who works there also spins somewhere in the city.
And Groove Merchant employee Vinnie Esparza is no exception. He spins lowrider soul at Casanova, reggae at the Elbo Room, and jazz at Amnesia. The ubiquitous SF DJ agrees to take me out on Saturday night to play with the turntables at Dalva. It’s a narrow bar next to the Roxie that doesn’t have a dance floor, giving us more freedom to just spin what we want.
Vinnie explains that when he’s actively dealing with a dance floor, it’s a totally different beast. “It’s almost like a mind game; you want to play stuff that’s going to keep them interested.”
Vinnie proclaims that his musical tastes stop at 1983, so he brings a record carrier full of mid-tempo old soul 45s. We throw on licorice pizzas to our hearts’ content. It’s mostly an excuse to sip on free mojitos, listen to jams, and just have fun.
When I arrive at Rooky Ricardo's, a Haight Street shop specializing in soul, funk, Motown, jazz, and R&B, owner Dick Vivian is handpicking items for an older black lady with a blonde afro. Before he plays each vinyl he tells her what she’s going to like for sure, and what she might like. He’s always right. She leaves with the Jazz Crusaders, Side Effect, Teddy Pendergrass, and Bloodstone.
Over a tall glass of white wine and a BLT from Nickies, Dick tells me that he has been collecting records since he was 10. He’d go to the grocery stores or auto shops where vinyl was sold back in 1958, and he’d buy four 45s for a dollar.
By 1987, he had more than 35,000 records overflowing from his flat, so he decided to open a shop. The owner of Nickies recognized Dick from his days as a dancer on local independent station TV 20 on the ’80s show Dance Party , and offered him the vacant space next door. For the first four years they split the place, but eventually Dick took it over and got a business license of his own.
Dick’s voice echoes throughout the store as he happily greets a drifting young customer with red-dyed hair tied into a side ponytail.
“I kinda don’t know what I need,” she says. She wants to listen to records again, she explains, but doesn’t have a working turntable. Dick says he’s been seeing more customers like her these days – normal people who are realizing they don’t like the sound of music on CDs and are coming back to vinyl.
The girl and I banter back and forth about how sound works and why we’ve returned records: They have grooves that mirror the waveforms of the original sound as it was recorded, so nothing is lost.
Dick listens to vinyl all day long and never grows tired of it. “It has a certain life and I am a dancer,” he says. “The music from vinyl gets inside of me.”
I walk into Grooves and collide with an employee, Richard Hart, who directs me with his pleasant British accent to the owner of the shop, Ray Andersen. Ray lights a cigarette and says that he and his wife have owned the shop for 14 years.
The store’s windows, with displays of colorful vinyl, face out to Market Street inviting in pedestrians and drivers. “It’s a poor man’s stained glass,” says Ray. Inside, the store is massive. It’s a collector’s paradise – or hell, depending on how you look at it. There is folk, bluegrass, soundtracks, comedy, Brazilian, Disney records, and more; some collections are organized and many are overflowing into the aisles, making the big space seem small as you try to maneuver through the mini-labyrinth.
Ray says he doesn’t go to estate sales, garage sales, or record shows anymore; he lets the records come to him. “Today, for example, I got another three feet of records.”
As if on cue, a bedraggled older woman, barely able to lift the box she’s brought with her, sidles into the store. She drops her box with a thud. Richard starts pulling out 12-inch singles. He shows them to Ray, who gives the final verdict. “Yes” to the Kinks. “We have a lot of that, but it’ll sell” to James Brown. “Not more of that junk,” to Crosby, Stills and Nash. “Yes” and “No” piles amass. The two tally up what they want to take and give her 60 percent of what they will charge for the records. “We hope we can sell some of them,” Rays says to me, “because we have no place to keep them.” He follows this remark with his trademark, almost diabolic, cackle.
The next day, I drag my roommate back to Grooves, enticing him with the possibilities of new records I’ll buy “for the apartment.” We somehow spend three consecutive hours there sifting, choosing, listening, and re-choosing. We listen to Jimmy Cliff’s “Hanging Fire” and a record, which Ray deems rare, of a dog’s heartbeat. Both make us laugh.
We leave with a white-vinyl reissue of The Kinks, and Fleetwood Mac’s four-disc Tusk album featuring two discs of live material. We’ve also got Prince’s 1999, which features an inside slip with the practically naked Purple One lying on his bed next to a set of watercolors, which look like what he might have used to create the album cover.
At the apartment, we have friends over and play 1999 – it’s a hit. In the morning, I listen to the Fleetwood Mac live LPs. I listen to Stevie Nicks wail, “ Open up your eyes and look at the day, you’ll see things in a different way ... Yesterday is gone. Yesterday is gone.” And I know I love it as much as my mom loved it the first time she heard that same yowl.
If you want to work at a record store, just start hanging out at one – although the competition is tough. You’ll need to gain music-nerd status by becoming obsessed. You might pick some special genre in particular – Dick loves girl groups – or just buy whatever sounds good to you. Vinnie says: “It pays to have good taste in music. If you are careful with your shit and you hold onto it, it will be valuable. There’s like no question about it.” If you get obsessed enough, it’ll snowball out of control and you’ll have to open a shop just to have space to put your vinyl records in.