Dawning Anew

Aquarius Records has changed owners, but its warm, informative approach to selling music remains intact

In New York City there's a record store called Other Music, which, based on its eclectic, at times devilishly rare inventory, is among the best record stores in the country. One of my first experiences at Other Music involved a band called Sun City Girls. At the time I was still a novice music dude, but I had heard about the idiosyncratic group and entered OM to inquire further. When I asked a staffer there about SCG, he vacantly looked me up and down, then gave me a spiel in which he used about two dozen “reference points,” i.e., bands I'd never heard of (Ethyl Meatplow?), and a half-dozen adjectives à la “no wave,” which to a beginner's ears sounds more like a surf report than anything resembling useful information. Essentially, he just confused the hell out of me. Then he pulled a Sun City Girls LP down off the “rarities” rack – priced to move at $50 – and told me that if I wanted to know about the band, here's the album I should get. Gee, thanks.

What I came to understand about the employees at record stores like Other Music – and this goes for elitist book and clothing stores, too – is that it's their job to confuse and intimidate you. It's as if presiding over rare cultural ephemera, and having the knowledge to talk about it, instills one with the patience of a DMV clerk and the ego of a Harvard professor. These sages are allowed to act this way, of course, because if you have the tooth for this kind of stuff, you've relatively few options. (Another group perpetuates this dynamic. They're called drug dealers.) Luckily, here in San Francisco we have Aquarius Records.

Aquarius is cooler than Other Music. How much cooler? Well, let's just say that when I sit down to interview Windy Chien on her recent decision to sell Aquarius to two of her veteran employees – Andee Connors and Allan Horrocks – after having owned the store for seven years, she's perfectly OK with Britney Spears' new record serving as the background music.

“I promise I won't write something like, 'Windy Chien endorses the new Britney Spears record,'” I tell her as she puts In the Zone on her home stereo.

“Oh, I don't care,” says Chien, who's also a huge fan of Journey's Escape. “I believe you can find good music anywhere, even on major labels. You just have to look hard for it.”

Looking hard for it is exactly what the staff at Aquarius does, and it does so on behalf of those of us who may not have time to sift through the landfill of CDs released each month. A lot of people complain that the store doesn't carry this or that release – it probably stocks less than 1 percent of, say, Amoeba's inventory – but Chien says that attitude misses the point.

“Like, don't complain about what we aren't. Appreciate what we are,” she says. “If you want to find jam music, you can go somewhere else. But what about all the great stuff that we have that no other store on the planet carries?”

That would be stuff like the recent arrival Power Slaves: An Electro Tribute to Iron Maiden, or the store's mind-boggling inventory of Japanese psychedelic music, or its overwhelming selection of metal – not just heavy, but also the black and stoner varieties – or videos like Metallica Drummer!, which, as far as I know, can only be found at Aquarius. (Metallica Drummer! shows a Canadian guy who set up a camera and videotaped himself air-drumming to four Metallica songs. Watching this guy unselfconsciously air-drum his heart out, virtuosically “hitting” each splash, crash, and rimshot on his air kit, is an unparalleled sight.)

Aquarius has been around since 1971, when it began as a tiny hole in the wall in Noe Valley. Back then it was a major player in the local punk scene; among the seminal bands that played in-store are the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and Elvis Costello. When Chien took over in 1996, she enacted many of the changes that have made Aquarius the internationally recognized force it is today. These include the creation of an online catalog; Aquarius' weekly “new arrivals” e-mails, which are reviews written by staffers about their favorite picks; and a database archive of more than 12,000 of these reviews, available not only on the Web site, but also in the store. This means that more than half the CDs on the shelves come with knowledgeable, accessible reviews – which is pretty helpful if you've ever been intrigued by the name Acid Mothers Temple but have certain (justifiable) reservations about buying its CD. This open-book policy is a testament to the store's more-than-passing interest in dispelling the notion that it's snobby.

“I bent over backwards to try and make my store really friendly,” says Chien, “so that's why we put the little tags on the CDs. So that people don't have to ask, they don't have to pick it up and go, 'I don't know.' They can read about it and decide if they're interested.”

“Some people are just insecure,” says new co-owner and professed Beyoncé fan Horrocks of the snobbery accusation. “They've seen High Fidelity or they've experienced that [elitism] in real life at other stores, and so they're gonna just make assumptions, like, 'Oh, your record store has all this stuff I've never heard of, therefore you must be really snotty about it.' And that's just the opposite of the truth. We might have stuff you've never heard of, but it's not there to make you feel bad; it's just cool stuff. The enjoyment that we get out of having a store is that we do have stuff that people haven't heard, and we want to let you know about it.”

As Chien explains it, the model for the shop is more the friend who knows everything about music – perhaps he has eclectic tastes – whom you might ask for a recommendation from time to time. Doesn't such a strategy sound more pleasant than that of a chain store that bombards you with billboards for the new Limp Bizkit, the new Creed, etc. (they get paid to do this, by the way).

The immediate question is, What's going to be different about Aquarius now that Chien is moving on to other things? (She has her eye on a number of projects, the most pressing of which is getting Matt Gonzalez elected mayor.)

“One thing we're talking about,” says Horrocks, “is maybe doing some sort of occasional print version of our e-mail list. A lot of people, I think, would probably read that who maybe weren't aware that we had a Web site. But we're pretty busy. It's hard to find the time to do stuff other than ordering the CDs and writing the reviews.”

Indeed, Horrocks was busy doing inventory the other night when I took it upon myself to conduct an experiment. At about 8, I shuffled into Aquarius, poked around, then approached the guy behind the counter, Jim Haynes – who doesn't know me from Adam – and asked him a question: “I've heard a few things about this band Sun City Girls, but I'm not sure what they're all about. Can you recommend a record that might serve as a good introduction?”

Alas, Haynes could not offer such a record, not because he didn't know plenty about the band (he did), but because the best introductions to SCG are out of print – hence the $50 price tag at Other Music. He was nice enough not to direct me to the band's later, more challenging work. What he did do is ask me what I was looking for and then walk me around the store, pointing out various SCG members' side projects and other offerings that might suit my taste. I ended up buying an album called Night Recordings From Bali, which is exactly what its title indicates. Its songs are pieces recorded and mastered by Alan Bishop, formerly of, you guessed it, Sun City Girls. It's pretty cool, a visceral aural snapshot of some fiery Balian rituals that makes me wanna reach for the nearest bottle of firewater and cut a mean-ass rug. And it cost me about $15.

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