The vinyl, CD, DVD, and poster emporium known as Amoeba Music on Haight Street celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend, with Friday night and all-day Saturday parties, performances, and throwdowns. As “the world’s largest independent record store” gets ready to celebrate, SF Weekly spoke to the iconic Haight Street music shop’s partner to find out how Amoeba SF has stayed on extended play for all these years.
Amoeba SF was not the first Amoeba Music location. That distinction belongs to the Telegraph Ave. store in Berkeley that opened in 1990. But the success of that Berkeley record store led to the Haight Street expansion that still stands as one of the most recognizable — and largest — record shops in the United States.
Image: Amoeba SF
Kids of the 1990s will remember that Nov. 15, 1997 day when Amoeba Music opened at Haight Street and Stanyan Street, as seen in the vintage snapshot above. “People were lined up early, around the block,” Amoeba SF partner Joe Goldmark tells SF Weekly, “We had a huge, huge day.”
“Everybody knew us from Berkeley, and they knew that we had been stockpiling the store for about a year, and that we would have tons of great stuff,” Goldmark says. “Which we did.”
What distinguished this Amoeba Music from its late 90s local competitors like Tower Records and Virgin Megastore was it’s sheer, astonishing, 24,000-square-foot floor. “You walk in the front door, left to right, it’s the largest expanse. Because it was built as a bowling alley,” Goldmark says.
Image: Amoeba SF
That bowling alley was Park Bowl, interior seen above, whose old-school “Bowling” marquee still sits atop Amoeba today. Too bad Park Bowl didn’t foresee how bowling alleys would eventually enjoy a hip S.F. resurgence, just like vinyl LPs.
“All the bowling machines went to Hong Kong and Taiwan,” he notes. “The pin machines all ended up overseas.”
But rows of records going on for decades have replaced the alleys, along with some unforgettable live performances in the shop. “There’s been some great shows,” Goldmark remembers. “Elvis Costello, Tenacious D filled the place, the Raconteurs with Jack White, Lana Del Ray, Steve Earle.”
Longtime locals will remember flat-broke, penniless days when we’d sell our old records at the Amoeba counter for cash. Ironically, the old vinyl stock we foolishly sold them has helped power Amoeba SF’s unusual longevity.
“One of the main reasons we’ve survived is because we’ve been a used store,” says Goldmark. “CDs have been on the decline since the early 2000s. Luckily, vinyl really began to tip. Every high school and college kid has to have a turntable. At least, the alternative ones do, and they’re playing vinyl again.”
“We’re a big trading post here,” Goldmark says. “You don’t have to have any money to shop here, just bring some product that you’re tired of, CDs, LPs, posters, DVDs, anything.”
Goldmark brags Amoeba Music is “not like the big box retailers. We’re still a little funky here.” While Amoeba architecturally resembles a big box, it’s still the place to go if you’d be more excited finding an out-of-print Wu-Tang solo album than running into Taylor Swift at Target.
The Amoeba SF Platinum Anniversary Celebration is Friday, Nov. 17 at 5 p.m. feat. Ibeyi, and Saturday, Nov. 18 at 10:45 a.m. with a gift bag for the first 100 people in the door plus DJs, a drag show, and a performance by Blue Bone Express. Amoeba SF is at 1855 Haight Street at Stanyan Street.