This Saturday, take some time to dig through and discover vinyl at local record stores for this week’s lesser-known “holiday,” Record Store Day. Talking about his 20+ years of selling and spinning records in this week’s column is local DJ and store owner Mike Bee. Formerly the curator of the dance/electronic music section at Amoeba, he now owns a record store aptly named Vinyl Dreams, a cozy neighborhood spot that resembles a friend’s chill living room.
Visit Vinyl Dreams at 593 Haight St. or catch Mike Bee spin this Friday [4/21] at Dance Jam in Berkeley, early Saturday [4/22] at the As You Like It Picnic in Golden Gate Park, and Friday [04/28] at his regular monthly at Muka.
SF Weekly: Give us a brief history of how you got into DJing.
Mike Bee: Learned about DJing through my interest in the U.K. rave scene between 1988-1990. By the time I got to college, I immediately met the two guys who ran a WRCT radio show that featured DJ mixing, got them to teach me, bought a pair of terrible turntables and a Radio Shack mixer, and that was it. Four years of bedroom DJing or so later, I started gigging professionally.
SFW: You’ve been a pro for 20+ years. What did your early gigs look like compared to now?
MB: Well, I feel like people used to actually go out to dance, specifically, more than they do now. My earliest paid gigs were at places like 330 Ritch Street and the DNA Lounge (when it was owned by Rob Schneider), and the city and scene were extremely different to how they are now. I also started out playing drum ‘n’ bass and now, 25 years later, I have a repertoire that includes many genres and subgenres. I am very flexible music-wise and can adapt easily to any situation. Unless you wanna hear trap music or EDM — I don’t do that.
SFW: During your 13 years at Amoeba, what was one of your most memorable experiences?
MB: Aside from gaining another family whom I spent much of my spare time with, my most memorable experiences are cracking jokes all day with my co-workers/friends, meeting lots of celebrities, and the incredible records that passed my eyes and made it home with me each day. It was fun meeting people like Mick Jones or Robert Plant, Bjork or Tenacious D — it was nonstop. But the friendships I made working there will last me forever.
SFW: What was it like working at a huge record store versus your boutique record store, Vinyl Dreams?
MB: It’s a completely different experience in many ways. At Amoeba, I presided over a dance/electronic section that was as big as some record stores on its own — certainly bigger than Vinyl Dreams in terms of the amount and scope of stock we carried. I had no budget constraints for years and was free to curate the section as I saw fit. I felt it was my duty to imbue the section with my opinion, highlight the releases I thought were worthwhile while downplaying (yet still carrying) the stuff I thought was either bad or overrated. That section, much like Vinyl Dreams, was all about my own tastes and what I felt was relevant and interesting. I was lucky enough to work in music retail during a golden age — I don’t think my successor has the same freedoms I did.
SFW: Tell us how Vinyl Dreams got started.
MB: I was thinking about leaving Amoeba and was approached by Darren Davis — former impresario of Tweekin’ Records in the Lower Haight — about partnering up and opening a shop online, because at the time, we had no desire to open a brick-and-mortar store. A year into our online endeavor, Darren left our partnership and I carried on with the shop on my own while working in the digital music industry for a year. When I got laid off from that job (as you do), I decided to try and make Vinyl Dreams happen for real — first by operating the shop out of my living room, which was a really cool music salon where local DJs and enthusiasts would come over, have a drink and smoke and end up giving me money at the end. It was a best-case scenario! That graduated to doing pop-up shops inside places like Explorist International (now Pyramid Records) in the Mission and Black Pancake Records in the Lower Haight. When Black Pancake went under, the space next door — 593 Haight, aka the former location of Tweekin’ Records — became available, and I knew I had to open up my shop there, in this place where there is 20+ years of S.F. dance music history! It felt like I was coming full-circle.
SFW: Where did the name come from?
MB: My former partner picked it. There is a disco label called Vinyl Dreams Records, most famous for Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy,” that may have been his inspiration, but I can’t be too sure.
SFW: What do your vinyl dreams look like?
MB: A hole-in-the-wall place, off the beaten path in the middle of nowhere, the shelves floor-to-ceiling packed with records and bursting with holy grails. I have this dream often.
SFW: What are some challenges you face as a small business owner in S.F.?
MB: Well, the City doesn’t make it easy for you. It’s expensive to operate even on the smallest budget. Permits, licenses, sales tax, the insane cost of rent: It’s always something. I’m lucky in that our rent at the shop is a lot more reasonable than most of the places in the neighborhood, but it is still orders of magnitudes larger than like-minded shops in other cities. An acquaintance who runs a very cool and popular shop in Amsterdam told me his monthly expenses were about a quarter of mine! It’s hard to not feel like the city is rooting for your failure.
SFW: Record Store Day is this Saturday. What’s the importance of having a day dedicated to record culture?
MB: I’m a bit torn on this. Record Store Day is every day in my life and in the lives of the people who keep the store running, either as staff or as customers. I think boxing it into one day a year does just that: It compartmentalizes it into this thing that people are into just once a year and not really otherwise. While I can’t deny that R.S.D. is a boon to our bottom line, I feel like I would much rather have that business stretched out over the course of a year and not in one lump sum. We put a lot into making sure we have everything we can by the time the R.S.D. hordes show up, but frankly it would be much better for us in the long term if people would patronize their local record store with some regularity.
SFW: As a former journalist for publications like XLR8R and Bay Guardian, what’s a question you often ask yourself about the local scene that we didn’t ask?
MB: What’s so wrong with S.F. that we regularly lose all our best talent to cities like New York, London, and Berlin?