By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
Toward the end of its run, Aron’s tried to survive by stocking more used products — mainly vinyl — where the profit margin was higher, and by undercutting Amoeba in price (which they did). Clearly, that wasn’t enough.
“Amoeba played the Wal-Mart game — except they didn’t do it with Wal-Mart pricing,” Klempner says. “They have a nice formula. They do it efficiently and fast and you end up with a nice vanilla store. It’s the American way. It’s the American business way.”
Others say Aron’s was going downhill long before Amoeba appeared. “Aron’s was not as good as it was 20 years ago,” says Terry Currier, owner of Music Millennium in Portland, Oregon, and one of the founders of CIMS. “They were not on top of it as they [once] were. Selection of new music was poor, and used music seemed a bit less interesting.”
Jon Liu, who’s been working at record stores for 15 years (including Aron’s and currently Amoeba), has fond memories of his former workplace. But he too admits: “Aron’s was kind of operating off momentum, thinking their longevity would carry them through. They didn’t really adapt. There were strengths they could’ve built upon.” It didn’t help that, according to employees, Aron’s wasn’t sufficiently staffed in the post-Amoeba years; at times, inventory would lie abandoned in the upstairs stockroom, and the store held fewer community-building promotions such as in-store signings and performances. Perhaps the nail in the coffin was a monthlong price-slashing event last September — which, apparently due to a lack of advertising and publicity, went practically unnoticed. Since hiring an outside liquidator — which has an adequate promotions budget — Aron’s has seen swarms of new and old faces.
Amoeba, of course, saw an opportunity and, based on its success in the Bay Area, decided to venture into the L.A. marketplace. “Amoeba is tremendously lucky in terms of the timing and everything else,” admits Pearson. “We came in at the right time when there were a lot of big stores that were sterile.”
Apart from the obvious advantages Amoeba has over every other record store — a 38,000-square-foot space at the center of Hollywood, two parking lots, staff of 200, continuous press and promotion since launch — the store’s formula for success has been to make the space more than a repository of objects, and put tremendous effort in developing a real live, breathing and interacting community. Whatever Klempner might say of his old foe, through live music, outreach programs, a recent Hurricane Katrina charity auction and local promotions, Amoeba has given people a reason to come to the store. (A newly launched Amoeba record label and a planned online store represent further efforts to deepen Amoeba’s roots in the marketplace, and build brand identity and customer loyalty.)
“There is this sensory stimuli that blares throughout the store,” Liu says. Pearson adds: “When you walk in, you feel that you’re part of it. It keeps business alive.”
It may or may not be significant that Amoeba employees don’t have formal titles — Pearson even declined to give a title for herself. (She calls staffers “Amoebytes.”) “We’re only a bunch of people. We couldn’t live in the straight world. We all come together to make it the best we can make it,” she says.
Klempner admits he should’ve done certain things differently: He wishes he’d reacted sooner to the need for change, and concentrated on specialties. “I would’ve had a complete makeover and given up on some sections,” he says. “Instead of trying to cover 100 different sections, I would’ve done maybe 20.”
A successful full-catalog indie store like Amoeba is an anomaly in the business, and even Pearson admits that Amoeba is lucky with its infrastructure; she sees her store as “many small individual stores under one big umbrella” instead of one giant store. That’s another way of saying what others have noted in the wake of Rhino and Aron’s demise: Record stores today must attract niche audiences — and court them like crazy. (Poetically, on the day of Rhino’s sale — January 21 — a new independent hip-hop shop, 33third, opened on West Pico.)
Penny Lane is an example of this concept in motion. Throughout the company’s history, 20 Penny Lanes have opened, but only three remain today (including a video store). Yet Bicksler says downscaling and niche-marketing have been a good experience. “We just love it. Business is good. We’ve been able to make a reasonable living at it.”
Naturally, there have been adjustments. Unlike the boom days when Bicksler was working behind the scenes in his office, today, he’s out on the floor: “I’m talking to every customer that comes in. I’m doing orders. I’m working side by side with my staff.”
Klempner echoes that attitude: “You should know 80 to 90 percent of the customers when they walk into the store and anticipate what they’ll buy. When a customer buys one CD, you should be able to say, ‘This is really cool, but have you heard this other guy?’?”