By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When you walk into a new record store, do you get that queasy sick wonderful feeling? Something in between “Oh my God this is the best thing that ever happened to me” and “Oh my God because I dare try to possess these gifts I’m doomed to end up unloved and alone in a gutter”?
If you are a collector, buying records is like that, a fusion of two irreconcilable impulses — the most liberating art, and the most maddening form of commerce.
Collecting, by definition, is acquisitiveness that is both endless and pointless. The urge to assemble a group of objects united by either form (books, paintings, yo-yos, matchboxes, guitars, shells, stones, stamps) or content (elephants, things involving Texas, American flags) is a difficult one to satisfy. While you can aspire to complete a collection, you’ve more likely chosen to love an open set, a puzzle with an infinite number of pieces. People will keep making records, postage stamps, gewgaws in the shape of pachyderms and U.S. states. Over time, you will get the secret, creeping sense that your collection will never be complete. And it won’t. You are a doomed soul. You will never be satisfied.
Chris Garcia, 26, retail worker and DJ, loves all kinds of music. “It soothes my soul.”
And in choosing to collect music, you’ve chosen to love temporality, or a memory of a work of art. Music can be set to a scale. It can be transcribed in notes and key signatures. But essentially music is vibrating air. By nature, it is uncontainable, uncollectible. As Plato said:
Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate and eternal form.
That quote is taped over a cash register in the new Amoeba on Sunset Boulevard. Perhaps it’s too idealistic an epigraph for a place where vibrating air is bought and sold, but it doesn’t seem inappropriate, because the store does it better and on a larger scale than anyone else. Amoeba opened its first location in Berkeley in 1990, its second in San Francisco in 1997 in an old bowling alley on Haight Street, and its third and probably last on Sunset Boulevard in November. (“We could open another,” says co-owner Dave Prinz, “but then it wouldn’t be fun anymore.”) Rolling Stone ran a story on the San Francisco store under the headline “The World’s Greatest Record Store?” But really there’s no need for the question mark, unless you consider the fact that Amoeba Hollywood is better.
Some numbers: 500,000 used and new CDs, a quarter-million vinyl LPs, 31,000 square feet of retail floor space. By most measures it is the largest record store in the world. While a few showcase locations for the nation’s big chains have more square footage — say, the Manhattan branches of Tower Records and Virgin Megastore — in terms of inventory, the number of titles you could browse on a given day, Amoeba has the deepest selection bar none.
Andrew J. Schubert (left), 20, frame shop manager, just bought Wall of Voodoo, Rocket From the Crypt and the Replacements. Fernando Vasquez, 20, pizza shop manager bought Louis Armstrong.
But these numbers have a tidiness to them that doesn’t square with the Amoeba experience, those first moments of walking the aisles of a new record store, or one that’s new to you. There is the sheer visual wonder of thousands of record covers — pornographic, psychedelic, subliminal, profane — arranged in neat rows, lined up in the racks. It is the ultimate union of order and caprice. There is the clack-clack of fellow collectors fanning through the store, their fingers jogging through the merchandise section by section, disc by disc, at a steady, unyielding pace, like a cartoon character eating an ear of corn kernel by kernel, or a postal machine sorting mail. In Amoeba in particular, there is the satisfaction of finding an artist’s entire discography in one place, allowing your purchase to be a matter of both choice and chance. It is a free-thinking obsessive-compulsive’s wet dream.
“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” the cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his most famous essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting.” “More than that: The chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” Benjamin argued that an assemblage of individual pieces of art, though it might aspire to logic, is more akin to a catalog of the individual collector’s madness.
Jessica Mirmak, weekday Amoeba shopper. What’s in the bag remains a secret.
“Things we’ve saved and saved and SAVED. For all the stupid reasons you or I or anybody saves things,” wrote rock critic Richard Meltzer in his 1999 essay “Vinyl Reckoning,” an opening statement that smacks as much of disgust as affection. Meltzer circles in on the tragic fact at the heart of any collection: “You can’t take them ‘with you,’ not all, not any, but chances are what’s left is but a microfraction of the total heap o’ shit that in the course of life has passed through your prehensile puppy paws.”