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How I Made It: Marc Weinstein, co-founder of retailer Amoeba Music

The three-store record chain has survived by cultivating the type of culture that Weinstein cut his teeth on 35 years ago. "We don't sell shelf space," he says. "Never have. Our customers know that."

October 03, 2010|By Alex Pham, Los Angeles Times

The gig: Co-founder of Amoeba Music, the world's largest independent record retailer, with close to 1 million albums in three California locations — Hollywood, Berkeley and San Francisco. Rolling Stone magazine in September named it among the nation's 25 best record stores, calling it "simply the most thorough and welcoming place a record lover could hope to shop."

Personal: Met his wife, Valenta, 17 years ago at the first Amoeba Music store in Berkeley. Likes to listen to Jaga Jazzist, Scorch Trio, Miles Davis, John Coltrane.

The protozoan record geek: Weinstein, 53, began working at record stores right out of high school in Buffalo, N.Y. His first job was at Record Theatre, which at the time was the nation's largest record store.

"I loved it the minute I got there," Weinstein said. "I didn't have to cut my hair, and I didn't have to wake up early. I could just be myself. That's what record-store culture is all about."

Genesis: Located in a 3,500-square-foot former Mexican restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, the first Amoeba Records opened in 1990, when Weinstein was 33.

"There were already five record stores on Telegraph, down from 10 in the 1980s. People thought we were crazy," Weinstein said. "But there was huge buzz about our store. When we opened, we did more than $10,000 in sales the first day."

Mitosis: Five years later, Weinstein and his partners, husband and wife Dave and Yvonne Prinz, opened the second store in a former bowling alley in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district. The Hollywood store, its largest, opened in 2001, after scores of customers driving up from Southern California urged the partners to open a Los Angeles branch.

Metamorphosis: Independent to the core, Amoeba has survived the rise and fall of record-store chains such as Virgin Megastores, Tower Records and Sam Goody by cultivating the type of culture that Weinstein cut his teeth on 35 years ago.

"When most of the chain stores moved into video displays that marketed the latest hits, we've been adamant that independent artists have equal standing next to major-label artists," he said. "We don't put up major label displays on the wall. We don't sell shelf space. Never have. Our customers know that."

Osmosis: Another reason Amoeba has outlived its competitors is curated stock. While other record stores featured top-40 albums and a small back catalog, Weinstein and his partners kept thousands of titles flowing through their stores by mopping up estate sales and buying used records. To stock its Hollywood store for opening day, "we spent millions of dollars across the country buying up collections that had never been seen before," he said. "And we still do. People who love our store come in frequently just to see what's new."

The numbers: Annual sales are down 10% since the stores' peak a couple of years ago, to about $45 million this year from $50 million, Weinstein said. Much of the decline is at the Berkeley store, where students are more likely to hit online torrent sites for pirated music. But the L.A. store has seen no decline in sales, he said.

Virtue in vinyl: A big reason for L.A.'s buoyancy is vinyl. The Hollywood store sells about 1,000 vinyl records a day. "Vinyl sales are so strong, it's making up for the decline in CD sales," Weinstein explained. Who's buying vinyl? Jazz collectors, DJs and, surprisingly, heavy-metal fans. "Many of them are 18 or younger," Weinstein said. "It's a very artifact-oriented crowd that's attracted to how these things looked and felt."

Evolution: Amoeba Online. Far from being Luddites, Amoeba's founders are embracing the Internet. But don't expect a replay of iTunes when Amoeba's online operation debuts early next year.

"Our goal is to have an online store that's very unique," Weinstein said. "If you look at most of the sites that sell music, they have the same artist bios. That's because it all comes from one source, All Media Guide, which takes 3% of the gross sale and gives you these generic bios. We've spent the last three years writing our own reviews, written by a staff who is passionate about music. It takes longer, but people who love music will know the difference. We just want the online store to be everything we've always been, but even more than before."

alex.pham@latimes.com

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