Groove Merchant owner Chris Veltri found a long-desired record at a flea market last week — a mid-’60s garage single by Los Angeles group The Starfires. “I Never Loved Her” starts with the low growl of a pissed-off singer on top of a simple guitar riff and the hit of a high hat, before turning into a smoothly crooned early-psych song. A super-
sought-after single for garage collectors, the song is “infectious.”
“You could just play it, like, 20 times in a row,” he says.
After 23 years working at the famed Lower Haight shop — known among collectors, record-heads, DJs, and producers the world over for its collection of soul, jazz, hip hop, and rarities — Veltri is still driven by the thrill of discovering new music. His enthusiasm is palpable (but not overstated) in the small store, which is filled with vintage posters, found photographs, and, of course, great albums.
Originally opened in 1990 by Ubiquity Records president Michael McFadin within neighboring Rooky Ricardo’s record store, Veltri acquired the 700-square-foot shop on Haight Street between Steiner and Pierce in 1997. Groove Merchant has stood the test of time in a rapidly changing city, but you don’t have to dig into the back catalogue to find Veltri’s secret to success. He’s been playing the same mellow song (figuratively) for two decades.
“When it’s at its best, [Groove Merchant is] just really a fun place to hang out,” Veltri tells SF Weekly. “I want people to come in and be curious, I want everything to be accessible. One of the things about having a kind of collector’s shop where records can get pricey is people get excluded or feel left out. I try to make people feel comfortable from the get-go.”
For Veltri and his crew of employees — DJs Vinnie Esparza, Josh Bea Mophono (aka B-Cause), and Sweater Funk’s John Blunk — that means stocking the store with everything from a $300 funk record from Trinidad to albums by The Clash, alongside dollar records by Cyndi Lauper or a copy of the Velvet Underground and Nico’s self-titled album, signed twice by Andy Warhol.
“We started out as what you’d call a ‘rare-groove shop’ in 1989, 1990. The shop is still that, but over the years, I’ve really infused a lot of my love for psychedelic music and international records,” Veltri says. “I really love anything with an exotic kind of bent to it, or some kind of mystery where you’re not totally sure what you’re listening to.”
Although the shop has occupied various Lower Haight addresses for the past 28 years, Groove Merchant will host a 25th anniversary party at the Elbo Room on Friday, July 21. Expect to see shop staff behind the decks and a special performance by skateboarder and musician Tommy Guerrero. Elbo Room is one of Veltri’s favorite venues in the city and has been the site of previous anniversary parties — the Groove Merchant crew were simply too busy to celebrate their 25th on time.
Keeping Groove Merchant fresh (and busy) are an international network of collectors and dealers who come from as far as Japan and Sweden with regional records to exchange for Veltri’s gold mine of hits and rarities; a good chunk of the store’s 10,000 records are from trade.
“For me, it’s always about stretching my ear,” he says.
Over the years, Groove Merchant has been shouted out by The Beastie Boys on their song “Professor Booty,” and seen influential people such as Josh “DJ Shadow” Davis, producer Large Professor, and DJ Qbert come in to dig. While Veltri hasn’t noticed many high-profile people from the city’s booming tech industry coming through, he points to a new, younger clientele who have a unique appreciation for records and are contributing to a massive surge in vinyl sales.
“There’s definitely a new generation that gets it and is comfortable with the middle ground between technology and tapping into the things from the past,” Veltri says. “There’s kids that, even though they didn’t grow up with records, kind of get it right away. They understand the beauty of the tangible record.”
The city, on the other hand, hasn’t created the most positive climate for a small business with a lot of overhead. Like legacy business Rooky Ricardo’s down the street, Groove Merchant must temporarily relocate to 214 Pierce St. (just across the way) while its building undergoes a seismic retrofit beginning in August. Fortunately, Veltri says, he has an excellent relationship with his landlord and will be able to move back in at some point.
“The new space will be even smaller; it’ll be like a slightly denser version of the shop we have now with the walls covered in posters and a lot of records hanging up,” he says.
Groove Merchant recently held a garage sale, marking down much of its $5-to-$7 record stock to $1 in order to make room in the new location.
While the move is cumbersome, Veltri says the biggest issue he’s had as Groove Merchant’s owner is “the challenge of surviving in San Francisco where there’s just no room for error. When something like a retrofit is thrown at you — some people could say they’ll take a vacation, they’ll work from home.
“I have three kids,” he adds. “That kind of shit’s not an option. It’s kind of upsetting that there’s nothing in the city that protects businesses that need to be here and add to the fabric of the city.”
Groove Merchant has added to the artistic fabric of the city in a variety of ways, releasing an anniversary compilation and a mixtape as well as a found photo book titled People and Their Records. It’ll also sell a found-photo zine titled St. Louis Record Shop at the SF Art Book Fair; the book features blown-out Kodachrome photos of record store customers and owners in 1957. Veltri has plans for 10 books and zines, some of which may be done in collaboration with Kate Steffens of The Family Acid photography-archive project.
The art books are a natural extension of Veltri’s photography background — he used to work at a professional photo lab in the early ’90s, and regular digs at flea markets.
“When I couldn’t find records, I looked for photos. I started looking for scrapbooks, and over the years I started to amass boxes of found photos,” he says. “When I make house calls, I always ask for ephemera.”
Beyond the constant cycle of excitement and frustration that comes with owning a small business that partially runs on rarities, Veltri says Groove Merchant has had minimal challenges over the years. Veltri learned early on that the store was his calling.
“There’s just a magical energy to [the store], and I’m the conduit at times. I’m lucky that the people who come to my store and the guys that work at my store just get it, and we’re not jaded. I still love what I do,” he says. “Any real challenges in my life, the store has actually pulled me through them.”
Groove Merchant Records, 687 Haight St., 415-252-5766 or groovemerchantrecords.com