Photographs by Max S. Gerber
One day at Amoeba: Record buyers photographed January 3, 2002. Interviews by Vanessa Silverton-Peel and Christine Pelisek.
RECORDS: the burden, the commitment. Even as props behind dark, gloomy curtains in airless subbasements, they’re essential the way all designated essentials are: the universe would topple without them (but it all depends how strongly you designate).
—Richard Meltzer, 1999
Rick Frystak gives the impression of being tan. His sandy, neck-length hair frames a face with several lines in it, but he bounces with a youthful, puppy-tail energy. He has the free and generous appearance of a surfer. Only Frystak’s pleasures do not involve chasing waves. He is one of the buyers at the new Amoeba Music Hollywood. If he’s learned one thing on the job, it is this: “People will lie through their teeth to get you to see their trash.”
Still, Frystak remains committed to the quest. “We will go anywhere in the States for a collection — we went to Hawaii — but first we have to determine its worth. First I’ll ask you how many you have. And people will always exaggerate. Eight thousand records? Okay. Then I’ll say, What kind of music? If they say ’80s pop-rock, I’ll be less excited than if they say ’40s blues or ’50s jazz. Then you get a feeling for how they feel about their records. Do they organize them? If they say, ‘No, I just have my records in a roofless shack in my back yard’ — it happens — then you know it’s bad. If they have ’em in order, alphabetized and chronological, then you know they care. How long have they had them? Did they buy them in bulk or one by one over the years? By talking to them you discover how legitimate they are.”
At Amoeba’s front counter, a collector — a balding, walruslike man with a handlebar mustache and a gray, thickly cabled cardigan — shows off a selection of his 7-inch singles. He has four long cardboard boxes containing an alphabetized selection of artists, letters M through Q, along with one box of D. He wants to sell them off.
“My collection’s been sitting for a while, and I don’t want to sink any more money into it,” says the collector. “I’m proud to say I don’t have any Huey Lewis, period.”
Chad Hemus, a used buyer and vinyl pricer, flips through “M” — the Mamas and the Papas, Manhattan Transfer, John Cougar Mellencamp. With his pencil-thin mustache and slicked hair, Hemus looks both tricky and fastidious, a bit like a villain from a low-budget ’50s horror film. He takes the singles out of the box one at a time, slides them halfway out of their sleeves and angles them carefully. The collector looks at Hemus looking at his records, at all of the hairline fractures and imperfections revealed by the light. The collector’s eyes shift from affection to concern, paranoia, resignation and affection. I loved that one. Will I get anything for that? What is this joker with the mustache thinking about? One way or the other I’m committed to giving these records up.
As with most buys, the transaction is charged with desperation and mutual torment. Sellers are looking for quick cash. Or they’re getting rid of the collection owned by their dead brother. Sometimes the records are stolen. Or else they’re just fussy collectors, and they’re getting rid of a lifetime of their own stuff. At its best, selling part of a collection — honing it — is a rigorous form of self-analysis and self-improvement. (How many old indie-rock 7-inches will it take to get one copy of Neil Young’s On the Beach LP — out of print and as yet unavailable on compact disc?) For the buyers, these transactions demand that they be therapists, pawnbrokers, parents and security guards all at once. And they have to make the transaction work for both sides.
Hemus tells the man he’ll have to pass on the collection as a whole, but that he’s willing to discuss purchasing it in bits and pieces. There’s room to talk. The collector is reduced. There is a visible full-body slouch. He says he’ll think about it, and shuffles out of the store with his four boxes.
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.”
“I’d cherry-pick that collection,” Chad Hemus says of the singles brought in by the collector in the cardigan with the walruslike face. “By the late ’70s, early ’80s, the record companies were pressing way more singles than they could sell. For example, I already have a shitload of his Queen. He did have good Dylan, good Presley, though. A Presley EP that books for $40, I’d put out for $40, and he’d get half of that.
“But then he had stuff like Manhattan Transfer.” Hemus gently winces. “I wouldn’t pay on that. A customer coming in here looking for Manhattan Transfer is going to want a CD of greatest hits.”
In a room upstairs, Hemus sits alone and prices records, between 1,000 and 1,500 a day. He’s been doing this for years, and his appreciation for vinyl goes beyond the music, extending to the objects themselves.
“This is an overpressing,” he says, pulling an obscure jazz LP from its sleeve. “I believe it happens when the presses get too hot. I’m not exactly sure what causes it, and I can’t describe what it sounds like, but I can tell it when I see it. There’s an oily rainbow look like you’d see on the sidewalk on a hot day. It’s halfway between a pigeon’s feather and the fog . . .
“The most rewarding part of this job is finding little pockets of other people’s reality,” Hemus says. These can be found both in an individual record — Hemus plays a 7-inch by The Ron, a vanity single of a helium-voiced man singing over karaoke-quality rock & roll — or in the entirety of a collection.
“The strangest collection I ever bought happened while I was still a buyer for a store in San Diego,” Hemus recalls. “Half of it was old Korla Pandit records on Fantasy. Pandit was that turbaned organ player who had a television show during the ’50s that aired in Southern California. It was exotica, like Esquivel, Martin Denny, that kind of stuff. Anyway, this guy brought in one stack of that — lots of colored vinyl — and one stack of Nazi records. Hitler’s speeches. Recordings of World War II rallies. Mostly private pressings. The guy who brought them in said they were his mother’s! It was one of those collections where I could not figure out who this person was.”
DJ Surge, 29, urban buyer at Amoeba. Has more than 2,000 records. “I just sold 3,000 of them to friends. Vinyl comes and vinyl goes.”
For the past month, Hemus has been largely occupied with sorting through one 30,000-record collection, an obsessive aggregation of vinyl unlike any the buyers at Amoeba have ever seen. It contains multiple editions of the collector’s favorite bands. For example, several boxes of Genesis might be followed by solo albums and side projects: Phil Collins, Peter Gabriel, Mike & the Mechanics. A host of Beatles records would be followed by McCartney solos. Hemus pulls a random sampling from one of the boxes. Ram in American, British and Israeli editions; a 12-inch promo-only sample of McCartney’s “Tug of War” on white vinyl; a “No More Lonely Nights” extended-version 12-inch picture disc; then a 12-inch of McCartney’s pop theme to the film Spies Like Us. All of the records are pristine. Many are unopened. The collection is mostly Top 40 British rock — lots of David ä Bowie, Rolling Stones and Spandau Ballet — along with music that scratched the mainstream — early punk, some progressive rock, a bit of heavy metal. Together, the records are an aggressive display of skewed normality. It’s as though the collector was trying to prove that his tastes were just like everyone else’s, only more perfect, more fully realized and — given the European bias — a bit exotic.
“There’s a ton of Canadian bands,” Hemus says. “So he must have had a shop he went to up there. Frequently.”
Then something happened.
“I just priced out some Marc Almond stuff from ’88, but around ’86 he was definitely slowing down,” says Hemus. “By 1990 the collection basically stops.”
Molly Lambert, 18, freshman at Brown University. “Why do I collect records? Because it’s totally bitchen. It’s also cheap.”
Returning to Plato, Marc Weinstein is the Platonic form of Record Store Man. Co-owner of Amoeba, he wears a goatee and his head is an explosion of black curls shot through with gray. He looks like Santa Claus, or Jerry Garcia’s third cousin. You can read his moods by his eyes, which are paranoid (“Hey, are you stealing that?”) and joyful (“You gotta listen to this!”), excited (“I love this place”) and tired (“No sleeeeep”) all at once. His clothes are disheveled in a stylized way, unironed but not unconsidered. The first time I meet him he wears a purple paisley shirt, the second time a rumpled black suit and a button-down on which several buttons either are missing or go unused. Weinstein looks like he’s been through the wash, faded but fresh. Best of all, none of these impressions betrays his musical bias. He could be a hep jazz fan who still haunts small dives, drinking stiff martinis and snapping his fingers in time. Or he could be an aging punk grown into a middle-aged slick. Or perhaps he’s a Jewish R&B connoisseur trying to look like a spiffed-up black man wearing an old favorite suit. Anyway, you can’t quite figure out what Weinstein is into. So I ask him.
“I collect just very specific things,” he explains. “I’m a jazz-record collector. I have a huge Sun Ra collection. ä I have almost 200 Sun Ra records, and they’re all different. And that’s my collection. He was a giant inspiration to me, and a very important figure in my life. All of his LPs — the hardest-to-find ones — are generally issues of 300 to 500. He’d make these tiny little runs of records and sell them at the side of the stage. Most of them have hand drawings on the cover or are silk-screened, and they’re absolutely beautiful pieces of art all around.
“As far as I’m concerned, I could lose most of it except for the Sun Ra, and Coltrane, and a few other essentials.” He is unimpressed with his current bona fides. Weinstein tells me that his collection consists of a mere 12,000 records, split evenly between LPs and CDs. “That’s nowhere near as big as some of the people that work for me, some of the pricer guys. Kent Randolph, our master LP pricer, has a collection of about 28,000 LPs that is just mind-bogglingly beautiful. I was deeply into it until I opened Amoeba. And now that I own the store, the stuff is just coming and going all the time. I could get anything I want when I want it. So to an extent, I’ve lost the itch.”
Regis George, 29. Likes classic rock.
Weinstein and many of the people who work for him have instead become collectors of collections. Many of the veteran members of the Amoeba staff will sheepishly admit that they don’t collect as much as they once did, though they’ve inevitably retained the ability to go into minute detail about the 5,000 to 20,000 records they still have “just lying around.” Despite the fact that many here are meta-collectors, their love of records is infectious. All the better to sell you stuff.
More important, though, Weinstein and the employees of Amoeba understand the collector’s psyche. They have insight into the delicate balance involved in collecting, and record collecting in particular — the way a desire for total freedom must be reconciled with stultifying anality. “We have every version of both coming through the store,” Weinstein says. “Being a buyer for 22 years, I’ve bought so many different collections under so many different circumstances. I’ve seen it all, as far as different approaches people have. How they collect. Why they collect. What it means to them. And it’s an identity thing in all cases. It has a lot to do with people’s sense of who they are. It’s a way to show the rest of the world. A lot of people do it with books, some people do it with records. Collections get at it more than anything else.” Weinstein zeroes in on one collection in particular.
Darren Hahn, 29, former drummer for Geggy Tah, currently drummer for Ani DiFranco.
“I recently bought a large one from a very wealthy suburban household in Detroit,” he says. They lived right across the Canadian border. “The woman of the house — the mother of the person whose collection I was purchasing — was into glass figurines and porcelain. Every square inch of the living room, dining room and main floor was filled, floor to ceiling, with glass cases with figurines. I couldn’t imagine . . . You’re not listening to them, you’re not reading them. You’re not even looking at them, are you? I guess if you have a dinner party a few of your friends come over and you say, ‘Wow, well look at this one.’ What’s the point of that?
“Her son was a collector his whole adult life. He was kind of sick . . . Really he was disabled. His parents had a lot of money, so he was able to be a record shopper for a living. They were trying to be as supportive of him as they could given his difficult situation. Over the course of his teenagehood, through his late 30s, he was an avid collector and buyer all over the world. He used to go to Europe, to England and France and Spain, to Israel — all kinds of places — buying everything that he loved, which was mostly popular English rock. From Bowie to the Stones to the Beatles and everything in between. He would basically buy everything he could get his hands on. It was an incredible collection of 30,000 virtually unplayed English popular rock records.”
Barry Wendell, 52, LAUSD substitute teacher. Sings Friday nights at a Jewish temple in El Segundo. Has more than 1,000 albums. “It’s a fairly harmless habit. It’s cheaper than drugs and safer than sex.”
There are things we save and things we throw away . . . You can treat your collection as something that comes and goes. Or you can treat it like a porcelain doll. Some collections evolve. Others are fixed in time, precious.
“That fella from Detroit had passed away literally 11 years earlier, and his family kept the collection intact and well cared for in a dehumidified vault. But eventually they decided they wanted to sell it,” Weinstein says. “There are rare circumstances like this where someone’s life is cut short suddenly and you get this weird, morbid sense of what collecting is all about, how much it’s attached to a living person, and how little it can sometimes mean to everybody else after they’re gone. We’re in the business of redistributing these bits of culture from one place to another, but it never bums me out. It’s an absolute joy. Now it’s going to go back into the world, and everybody who has been looking for this record or that record has actually got a shot at finding it.”