The music lovers of Los Angeles no longer need to pray for their mecca to return. Amoeba Music’s Hollywood branch is reopening April 1, and hoping to make fools of everyone who would maintain that physical media is dead. It’s in a new location on Hollywood Blvd., just east of its world-famous intersection with Vine. And it’s in a smaller space — but not so much smaller that anyone should hit the panic button, because the owners assure us the vast majority of the stock made the slight move to the northeast, though you might have to search the bins-under-the-bins a bit more than you did in the ArcLight-adjacent years.
Marc Weinstein, one of the co-owners since the original location opened in Berkeley in 1990, got on the phone with Variety to discuss a panoply of angles on the eve of the reopening — including everything FAQs about parking and what the trade counter will be looking for to not-so-frequently asked questions like whether you’ll still be able to buy 8-tracks and laserdiscs in the new store. He also waxed philosophical about the urge some frequent customers may be having to downsize their collections in the wake of quarantining: Go with that feeling, he urges… there is someone else out there who wants and needs your collectibles if they don’t bring joy anymore.
VARIETY: How long has the store been ready to go, and how did you decide it was time?
WEINSTEIN: It’s been really hard to calculate, as a business owner with a large store and a large staff, what the appropriate time might be to open safely for everybody concerned. We were supposed to reopen Nov. 1. We’ve actually been ready to go for about three months; technically we were ready to be able to open before Christmas, but it was impossible with the (COVID-19) numbers being the way they were. But with the recent significant declines, we feel very confident about being able to do it safely. That’s the number one aspect of the whole thing. It’s kind of nice that we had a few extra weeks or months to flesh things out before we open; this way, we’ve had time to tweak it so it’s that much more filled out.
Was there anything that surprised you about moving into the space, even with all the planning you’d done?
One thing that was extremely fortuitous… The city requires some pretty significant ventilation systems for all these new stores. At the time, it almost seemed like overkill, the extent to which we had to put a really exotic HVAC system into the store. It turned out to be great, given the times. We didn’t know how appropriate that would be, and now we’re in this brand new space with a really good ventilation system with high ceilings and a lot of space. Now that people are going to be so cautious out there in the world, we have a great environment for that because it’s such a big space and well-ventilated, and there’s a lot of opportunity to have your own space and still keep your distance from people.
How much has space that’s appropriated for different media changed? Vinyl is still booming, and people are not buying DVDs and Blu-Rays like they once were.
Yeah, that’s true. It is still Hollywood, and I know that a lot of people in Hollywood will still want hard copies of film for a while. The extent to which we’ve had to reduce the space for DVDs up here in the Bay area is even greater. In L.A., I think we can still allot a pretty good amount of space to it. But certainly, DVDs and CDs are not getting as much premium positioning as they did in the other store, and vinyl is certainly being featured.
When we talked a little less than a year ago, you thought you’d be able to bring most of the stock to the new store, and you anticipated being creative with how things were being shelved to do more with a somewhat lower square footage. Did that work out as you expected it to?
Yes, very well. Being as inventive as we can, we’re managing to fit almost everything we had in the other story into this space… with enough room to shop. The store is 23,000 square feet. The other building — the total building, including the loading dock and everything — was 43,000 feet, so it sounds like we’re going to half. But really, the actual amount of floor space is three-quarters of what it was in the other store, so we’ve had to reduce our floor space by about a quarter. But in the process, we’ve done all kinds of stuff with shelves, and also… We have bins down below our bins and we haven’t always kept those full. But now, some of the less important stuff, let’s say CDs, there’s just certain categories that we’ve had to relegate to the lower bins. That’s really the extent of how we’ve done it, besides making sure every square inch of it is as full of product as possible.
When we posted a story about the reopening date, someone on Twitter replied, “I can’t wait to go buy a bunch of Blu-Rays that I’m going to end up streaming anyway.” It was a joke that spoke to how some people are a part of two different worlds — enjoying the streaming convenience but still wanting the physical media as part of a collection.
Well, all these formats have their place. And I’m not anti-streaming. I think for people who are real music geeks like us and our regulars, streaming is a fantastic way to have a point of reference anytime. You can just call it up and there it is. But if it’s really for a listening experience, a lot of people would much rather have a hard copy. Not only that, but buying a hard copy is a kind of a statement about how much you care about a certain artist or genre. There’s so many different reasons why people still covet the hard copy, and vinyl kind of is the ultimate version of that. And certainly part of the resurgence has everything to do with people recognizing the wide gap between a streamed experience and having a hard copy that’s curated and presented the way the artist would intend.
During the pandemic or quarantine, people missed going to concerts, but there is that subset of people who have really missed being in a record store — not purely to make purchases, but for the feeling of being in an environment where you’re around people who feel the same way you do, and you don’t feel as alone in the universe when you’re part of a crowd of other people who care about music, or films, and here is kind of a temple where we gather.
That is a subtlety that people have been missing so much. It’s really insane how much it means to people. I can’t believe how many people are saying this is the sign that the world is opening back up, just in the few days since we made our announcement about the 1st. I’m much more excited having read people’s comments, that this is going to really mean something to people. We have a lot of romance for it, obviously, in our generation, because that’s how we were brought up. It’s hard for young people to imagine a world where the only way to get music you wanted to listen to was you had to go to a record store. That has changed so much. Now, the store is that much more filled up with people who are just truly passionate about records and music, as opposed to all people. That was a time we all lived through, and one that was great, where absolutely everybody had to go to a record store if they wanted to get something that was their personal favorite to listen to. Now, they can just stream and that’s fine. But people who really care about it more — there’s so many of them in Los Angeles. The store is going to be that much richer with culture of the people who really love hard copies in that way.
What’s been the situation with your two stores in San Francisco and Berkeley?
They’ve been open since October, because the (COVID) numbers in the Bay area as you know have remained quite low. We’re only open four days a week, 11 to 7, in both stores in the Bay area, Thursday to Sunday. Our customers have gotten used to our temporary schedule, and the numbers are fine and better than they were for seven days two years ago. That also makes us that much more encouraged about the L.A. store — I mean, the Bay area loves records, but L.A. loves records the most.
With your L.A. staffers, are a lot of them or most of them coming back?
Yes. A majority of our full-time staff, and all the veterans, are coming back… We don’t even know how much we need to scale back until we get open and see how it feels and looks. So we still have numerous people on hold. But between unemployment and us helping with the benefits, people have managed to make it through the year successfully and are all very excited about coming back. All the same familiar faces will be there, that’s for sure.
Do you have an idea of the vinyl-to-CD percentages, and how those have changed in terms of the space, with vinyl getting more of it?
I don’t know about percentages, but we’ve certainly devoted more space to vinyl than we did before. Even despite the fact that through the CD era, CDs were the main thing, we’ve always had so much vinyl. But I would say it’s kind of flipped. With Amoeba on Sunset, 10 years ago, we devoted 40% of our space to CDs and 20% to vinyl, and I would say that’s pretty much flipped by now. So more like 40% vinyl, 20% CDs, and the rest is everything else — T-shirts and books and magazines and trinkets. We’re excited to be on Hollywood Boulevard near some of the tourist destinations in terms of our ability to sell stuff like cool rock T-shirts … We get a lot of really hard to find music T-shirts and that’s always been a big part of our business. We think that’ll really do well on Hollywood there.
So because of the location, you’re expecting a bigger tourist trade.
I think so. I mean, we’re literally across from the Pantages and the W Hotel, and being a block from Hollywood and Vine and right on the Walk of Fame, we’ve landed where I think we kind of belong with a landmark positioning on Hollywood Boulevard. We’re a few steps from the Red Line stop too, which makes it so a lot of people can access to us that much more easily.
That brings up the issue of congestion in that part of Hollywood, with the new hotels. Probably the No. 1 FAQ has to be: Is there adequate parking? Street spaces aren’t easy to come by in Hollywood anymore.
Right. There’s a huge parking lot down below, and it’s quite convenient, because you come up from the lot right next to the store. When it’s really busy in the parking lot, hopefully things will flow freely. We expect from everything we hear that it’s going to be a great situation, parking-wise. We haven’t had the mobs show up yet, though, so we’ll see.
How about in-stores?
We have this absolutely beautiful stage that Shepard Fairey painted the backdrop of, and the stage is really well designed not only really to help foster really good sound, but also it’s because we’re underneath a residential building. We had to do a bunch of extra installation and a bandshell-type thing around the stage, which helps keep the sound in the record store and not going up. That was really technically one of the more complicated aspects of our design was to make sure that we could do live music without worrying about the residential above. We’ve gone to great lengths to make it acoustically appropriate for this fact that we’re underneath a residential building. We still want to have those big in-stores.
Is there any format that you lost altogether, that there were still a last vestige of in the old store?
No. We even still have two rows of laserdiscs. We’re still gonna have some 8-tracks. [Laughs.] We did reduce the amount of space for 78s, but we’re still gonna have 78s. We’re not losing any formats. And we still have a big wall of cassette tapes. I just feel like it had so much for people, even if they’re not buying cassettes, to see the cassettes on the wall actually has meaning for so many people. And people buy ‘em. You know, people love cassettes nowadays. You can read articles about how cassettes are coming back too, because they have this amazing kind of DIY quality about ‘em that no other format ever really had. So all those formats that people love and remember are all in the mix. And we just feel like that adds so much to the atmosphere. Regardless of whether it makes sense or we make any money, we really like to have all formats present, so that people can sort of consider the whole history of how music was sold in the 20th century.
Another big question: the trade counter. If it was busy before the pandemic…
We’re still trying to make it as easy as possible for people to bring us collections to sell, so there’s a buy counter right at the front door and people like that are ready and willing to help bring people’s stuff in. We just have a different set of issues around loading in. But we have a yellow zone and we have a couple spots in the parking lot that will be devoted to people selling, where we can bring somebody down with a hand truck and help people move it in. That was one thing we were quite concerned about, but it’s working out pretty well.
I will say that the people who run the El Centro, which is the name of the whole complex, have been very accommodating and nice to us in the process of us going through all this. We really feel like we have a nice relationship with the center that we’re in, which really is great, as opposed to necessarily the people who were the owners in the other building. I don’t want to get into that, but they were not so much fun. [Laughs.]
Some of us have spent the last year on our couches, maybe looking across the room at our shelves, thinking, “Do I really need all those boxed sets?,” or whatever it is that’s been in the periphery of everyone’s home line-of-sight for 12 months.
Yeah. As I stare at about 3000 records here in my office right now, and I have another 3000 in the closet… Yeah, it it’s a time of life. I don’t know how old you are. I’m turning 64 next month. And with all of the available formats, and streaming, I mean … I finally got decent speakers for my laptop and there are all these really great radio sites where you can listen to radio all over the world. Have you noticed those? Where you can go peruse radio stations in Africa, Greece and all these places where the music is so amazing. That’s just a whole new frontier. And meanwhile, yeah, I really still want to keep all my Beatles and Coltrane records and all that, because they mean so much to me. But do I really need to have 6,000 LPs on the wall, and probably 10,000 CDs. I don’t know. The context changes as you get older, and now that the world has changed so much, that’s a tough equation for so many people I know: what to do with all of this stuff.
This store wouldn’t exist if we all adopted Marie Condo levels of austerity, though.
Well, one of the things I always wax about when I talk about the store is, we are a one-of-a-kind kind of business in that we are recycling culture. in a way. If you sell us your records, you know that someone who wants those records is going to get ‘em. And there’s no other way you can do that. If you have a garage sale, it’s going to be random. If you bring your stuff to a record store where everyone in the world goes to try to find what they’re looking for, you’re actually putting your stuff back in a place where the right people are going to get it. And that kind of cultural recycling doesn’t happen enough. When I buy (large) collections, I tell people, it’s sort of like the ocean — the stuff all washes in, and then it all washes back up. The nature of stuff is a whole long subject. Obviously there have been quite a few books written about that in the last couple decades. People in our generation have a tendency to hoard because of when we grew up and where we grew up in this world. It becomes a burden and a challenge if you don’t figure out how to manage it, for some people, anyway. But we’re kind of like this outlet for people to be able to sell their stuff and know that it’s going to go back out into the world in a meaningful way.
I’ve always said that one of my favorite aspects of watching people shop at Amoeba is how people walk in empty-handed and they walk out with a few items that could even be in different formats, but every single person is this cultural filter who comes into this store, not knowing what they’re going to get, and coming out with a few items. Every single person who comes in, practically, does that— they don’t know what they’re going to get when they come in. Some people obviously are looking for specific things. But part of the fun of Amoeba is you come in knowing that you’re probably going to find things you didn’t know you wanted. It’s such a treasure hunt to go into a place like Amoeba.
Also, just as far as trade-ins, besides people just wanting to declutter, a lot of people have been unemployed for a year, or close to it. And so that could create a feeling of “Okay, I need to sell stuff just to get some cash.” Do you think like you’re ready at the buy counters for the inundation you might get just from people who are looking for a quick cash transfusion?
I think we are. I think people who are selling vinyl or vinyl collections will be pleasantly surprised by the value. People selling off their CD collections? Maybe not so much so. We do offer real money for CDs, but they’re not worth what they once were. Having been in this business all this time, I see people who spent immense amounts of money on stuff and then sell it for obviously what seems like a very small percentage of what they paid. In the case of CDs, the fact that they were the primary format for 20 years and everybody loaded up on them, and now there’s not nearly as big a market for that, makes the less interesting CDs really not have a lot of value. It’s hard to generalize about that, and I don’t want to turn anyone off from selling their CDs, because we still pay what we can for all the good stuff. But the really common stuff on CD is really the stuff that is the hardest to deal with. I know we’ll have a fair amount of people coming in trying to sell stuff like that, but we’ll do what we can.
What’s the future like for used CDs… “the good stuff”?
A lot of people who are really into music are buying CDs at both stores up here (in the Bay area) with the sentiment of, now is the time to get CDs inexpensively. There’s so many of what were $20 CDs out in the bins for $4-5, so that you can really get some great, great music for literally a quarter or less of the price that you would pay for it on vinyl. If you still want a hard copy and you want it to sound good, now is the time to buy CDs, because they’re cheap and they’re great. And especially for younger generation suits who sort of caught the end of the CD era, they really now can load up on them for much less money and have a really significant collection.
I think one of the other aspects of shopping in a record store or a bookstore that young people really don’t even think about is: You’re sort of anonymous. You’re doing your own thing in your own world. No one’s paying any attention to what you’re doing or what you’re shopping for. When you shop online or when you just listen to music online, it’s all part of a system where you’re being marketed to, and they’re tracking everything you’re doing. I’m not trying to sound paranoid about Big Brother. I’m just saying, you’re not alone when you shop online. But when you go into a store, it’s just you and the records. No one is watching you. [Laughs.] And I think that’s such a great aspect of shopping in a record store. It’s like the world is leaving you alone to be your own person and look at stuff and not have to worry about who’s marketing to you or tracking you. Or, you know, nowadays, no matter where you go online, you’re just got so many ads and things popping up. And in a record store, you’re sort of in your own personal space with the music that you love. That’s a very special feeling on a very personal level, I think, you know?
And we understand you won’t be there on April 1? That’s not an April Fool’s joke?
All of this is so screwy. I can’t believe that after all this time, I can’t be there for the opening. I have my second vaccine shot on the day before April 1, and my wife is on April 1, and we’re in the Bay area. We have to wait two weeks to really go out into the world after that. So we’re staying safe and not coming to L.A. until mid-April, so the store will have been open two weeks before we even get there. That’s really a weird feeling, I have to tell you. But once it got to a point where we could open, we couldn’t wait for Marc to get his vaccine, so we’re just doing it.
We’re also opening during the week (on a weekday). And even though we’re announcing the opening, we’re not creating a huge hubbub. You know, we do have a few people outside making T-shirts and we’re doing some celebratory stuff, but it’s certainly not the kind of big deal we would’ve been able to make in the old world. Someday in the future, I’m sure we’ll have a big party. But for now we’re trying to do it in a really judicious way.