The Great Record Stores: Amoeba Haight-Ashbury [part 1]

Amoeba Haight-Ashbury © Tony Northrup

Amoeba Haight-Ashbury © Tony Northrup

Tireless readers of this blog may have noted that in October of last year, my wife and I took a Full Monty genuine big vacation to the West Coast where I was spawned, but had not returned to in well over 40 years. The trip was sparked last Spring by a comment from my stalwart friend Tom, who had recently been trapped into a bi-costal existence due to his changing job fortunes. This necessitated bi-weekly trips to the Berkeley area for a couple of years from his home in the North Carolina Piedmont.

My wife and I had long planned visiting Tom going back to the 90s when we were all living courtesy of the Tech Boom bubble. Tom stayed in it and I bailed in 2001, probably just months ahead of the auditor’s knife. But travel costs being what they are, we never had the budget to actually visit him, even then, and when he married and eventually moved to our state in 2006, it seemed like that idea had passed. Until March of 2014, when on a visit to us, and two years into his commuter hell existence, he offered to gift us with frequent flyer miles to visit him and his wife in SF while he was still working for the company that flew him out there for two weeks at a time.

So we said, “absolutely!” I began saving all money earned for the big trip. Not only would I be visiting California for the first time since my parents move away from it in 1972, but we would take in the SF Bay area, The Pacific Coast Highway going southward, and ultimately Los Angeles, where I was born many, many years ago. In Long Beach we would be visiting with Ron “The Man” Kane, whom I’ve known for over half of my life, but have only seen twice [2008 in Portland, 2012 in Atlanta]. Ron is all about buying music. I am too, but let’s just say that Ron has no governor on his accelerator pedal. He puts people like yours truly to shame as the big fish in small ponds that we are. Ron had met Tom in 2012 and when he found out that we were going to San Francisco before meeting up with him in Long Beach, before you knew it, Ron was planning a quick trip to SF earlier than that for a record run.

On the day when we went to The Haight, my wife preferred to take in the sights, so she went off on her own for a few hours. That left Tom and Elisa [his wife, whom I’ve known almost as long as Tom] and Ron to meet up and hit what many would call the ultimate record store in North America. I’ve known of the Amoeba Music phenomenon for at least a dozen years. The store in Berkeley opened in 1990. Their Haight store was in a former bowling alley and opened in 1997. The Hollywood location opened in 2001. All three have flourished in the Tribulation of Record Stores® that happened in the last decade.

When planning the trip became a reality, all spending on music stopped as I built up my stores of expendable cash for a once-in-a-lifetime chance at “big game hunting” as it were. I’ve spent my life on the East Coast and while larger cities have some amazing selections, the fact is that for the last 25 years, almost everything that I really want the most is only available to me by mail order. And that carried a heavy tariff of postal costs which are now many times more than that of the actual CDs and records. When these goods I want are only available from overseas, the loss of buying power can be profound. This would be a chance to see the best of what American stores had to offer without the penalty of postage. Plus, there’s nothing like diving in actual bins and inspecting the merchandise close up. With my sales from my collection last year, I managed to squirrel away a music buying budget of $450 over the six months prior to the trip.

When we met Ron, he was carrying at least 450 CDs in six cases on a luggage tote. For trade in. Ron trades in on one day, more CDs than most people own. Ever. We entered the large store with Ron and he got his credit slips – worth $600 and then we began hunting for music in earnest. The thing to remember was to pace yourself. With want lists on the personal device, and my cratedigger database at the ready, I began my spree.

Next: …Decisions to make

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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12 Responses to The Great Record Stores: Amoeba Haight-Ashbury [part 1]

  1. johnnydark says:

    Amoeba is indeed a great store, but not to be overlooked is Recycled Records down the street at the corner of Masonic. Smaller, but very well curated.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      johnnydark – I was with Ron Kane. The man knows his record stores all up and down the entire West Coast. If it were up to Ron, we would have been crate digging for 10 hours straight. I can’t go there, and purposefully limited myself to just the three Amoeba stores on the entire trip for something approaching a well-balanced vacation.

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  2. Echorich says:

    MECCA!
    My last trip to SF, I set aside a day with my best friend to explore The Haight. He was forewarned that the afternoon would include either lunch at or culminating at Ameoba. I’m not sure he was prepared for my transformation into the sloth-like bin browser as I have a reputation as somewhat of a “speed tourist.” We hit Ameoba at about 12:30 and just before 4pm I was done. I had lost my best friend after about 1:20 to go off and explore and text me every 30 minutes or so.
    As I usually am, I was VERY picky about what I wanted, what I needed and what could turn my head. I walked out with some Bunnymen, XTC, Clash, Style Council, PiL and Kraftwerk.
    When we met back up I was greeted with a face of surprise that I only had two small record bags with me. I, on the other hand was quite impressed with my self control for sometime.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – That’s nothing! For a tale of true abandonment, ask chasinvictoria about that time in Pikeville, MD @ Yesterday & Today Records! Truly, one of the Great Record Stores! Actually, THE Greatest, if you’re me. As for your bin technique, I found it in Georgetown to be relaxing and complimentary to my more erratic technique. Do I even have a technique?

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  3. Jon Chaisson says:

    Since I live in the area now (Richmond District since ’09, a short walk/drive to the Haight), I get to frequent this mecca on a decent basis. I still remember that first time walking into the store back in ’06, and my first reaction was: “Oh. Oh dear. This won’t end well.” :p
    I agree, it’s got an excellent selection of both new and used for pretty much everything you need, and a lot of things you didn’t know you needed.

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  4. Simon H says:

    Just seeing that picture gave me goosebumps!
    For me entering a shop like this is like passing into an alernative time zone, who knows how long I’ll really need. Something my wife struggles with…
    I was lucky enough to visit Amoeba during two holidays to SF from the UK, I always recall a member of staff seeing my wife waiting (and waiting) handing her a basket and saying, ‘he may need this…’
    Online purchases are no replacement for the real deal!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Simon H – Ah, the cherished Record Store Time Dilation Effect®! How lucky we are when this happens. It’s rare for me these days. Too often, I feel every minute trudging through the bins. After about 30 minutes, I start to disengage. Perfunctory crate digging is to be minimized! But if you get the right sort of feedback in the first ten minutes [that’s as long as it really takes to know if you’ve got a good store, or not] …then all bets are off. My wife is pretty good about partnering. We’re often a tag team to cover the territory faster, bless her. I just need to communicate to her all of the music she might not know I have an interest in. She’s spot on about anything from the Record Cell.

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      • Simon H says:

        You’re a lucky man, I’ve just been told that’s never happening!
        Very true re the first ten minutes, not many shops left that would pass that test…I’m checking charity/thrift stores more now, just because you never know what people will give away!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Simon H – I once got a copy of John Foxx’s “The Garden” as well as Zaine Griff’s “Ashes + Diamonds” at a thrift store in town! There were a few other things but that’s all I can remember off the top of my head a dozen years later. All rare birds for my neck of the woods, much less a thrift store!

          The ultimate “60 second test” was a store about a dozen years ago I was visiting in Knoxville, Tennessee. I had never been there before and as we passed by, looking for a place to eat, my wife suggested we go there and look. I wanted to wait until after we ate, but she convinced me to turn around. At the time, I was looking to complete my Eurythmics collection after years of semi-languish. I only need a few of the rarest releases to finish up. I walked in, went straight to the “E” bins and there it was: “The Walk” 12″ for about $8.00, or 0.08% of the then [and now] current median price! Talk about wish fulfillment! Needless to say, we did not eat until we had both put the store through a fine-toothed comb!

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          • Simon H says:

            I have found another charity shop rule: by law they MUST have at least one Snow Patrol cd and a copy of Counting Crows, August and Everything After…no doubt different rules in the States!

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  5. Brian says:

    I nearly made the same trek as you… and just a few weeks after you did. In November, for the first time, I went to this shop and the one in Berkeley. I didn’t exactly hit the jackpot at the Berkeley store, but I left this location all smiles.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Brian – Berkeley is next, and while the numbers were down from The Haight, the caliber of the stock hit higher, for reasons I’ll explain later. I left The Haight, almost bludgeoned by the scope of things, but on the whole, the shopping was a bit enervating.

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