Monday, 31 August 2015

California Crate Dig

San Francisco, Mission District street art

I'm just back from my latest family jaunt Stateside - this time to San Francisco and various points south - armed once again with the indispensable VinylDistrict iPhone app. Not wanting to take any chances with getting my purchases home safe and sound, I got kitted out with a sturdy flight case before heading out. It's built like a brick shithouse and at £30.00 didn't break the bank.

I'm no stranger to the Golden State and its record stores, so was fully expecting rich pickings. Before leaving home I had compiled a US vinyl wish-list; not a comprehensive list of every record that I hoped to add to my collection, but a best case scenario, cream of the crop, fingers crossed kind of a vinyl roll call. Of the 75 LPs I brought home, eight of them were from my hundred-strong wish-list. I'm yet to decide whether that's a result or not.

The holiday began in San Francisco, one of my favourite cities and home to more nut-jobs and dead-eyed junkies than you could shake a shitty stick at. Walking through the Tenderloin, even in daylight, is like stumbling onto the set of Michael Jackson's Thriller video. The people there really have been left to rot. Those drug casualties who haven't completely given up on interacting with anyone other than their crack dealer haul their arses up to the Haight to hang out and provide a bit of authentic counter-culture colour for the tourists. It's all a million miles from the manicured perfection of Russian Hill and the commercial artifice of Fisherman's Wharf. Except, it's not - it's just a manageable walk away. But anyway... record stores. There are plenty of them.

Recycled Records, Haight Street, San Francisco

Last time I was here I got into an altercation with the guy at the checkout because he didn't think I needed a bag for my purchases. That was a decade ago. The staff are still on the glacial side of frosty, but at least the stock is interesting and the place is a manageable size. I was chuffed to find a copy of Wichita Fall's Life Is But A Dream and a Locomotiv GT album. A good start to the trip!

Amoeba Records, Haight Street, San Francisco

It looks like it's going to be vinyl nirvana when you survey the acres of racks that greet you as you cross the threshold, but the truth is that since my last visit the amount of space given over to vinyl appears to have shrunk, and much of what there is consists of new, sealed LPs - which I can pick up on Amazon any time - mixed in with the used stock. That's not to say that I came away empty-handed, but the pickings were slimmer than I had anticipated. Of the eight LPs I purchased, perhaps the most interesting was a self-titled album by Shotgun Ltd, which is an impressive and largely unheralded slab of hard rock and comes highly recommended. Incidentally, the staff member who sneered "we're not a toy store" when my wife and Kiss-obsessed kids asked if Amoeba sold Kiss action figures, might want to think whether a customer service job is really right for him. Prick!

Originals Vinyl, 3150 18th St #105, San Francisco 

This is more like it: a welcoming record store run by a friendly, enthusiastic, helpful guy who allowed me to listen to anything and everything before committing to buy. It seems that the smaller the store, the better the quality of the music on offer, and the better the service. I can't recommend this store highly enough. It's a bit off the beaten track, nestled in a tiny unit in what appears to be a small industrial estate, but Originals Vinyl is an essential stop-off if you're looking for vinyl, particularly 60s / 70s psych and hard rock. There's a pretty healthy jazz section too which provided me with a couple of gems. The cheaper stuff is at floor-level, but the low prices in no way reflect the fantastic selection of goodies on offer. Highlights of my haul included Ramatam's In April Came the Dawning of the Red Suns, The Yellow Payges' Volume 1, White Water's Out Of The Darkness and Larry Coryell's Offering, each for a measly five dollars. A fantastic little shop!

Logos Books & Records, Santa Cruz

Logos is definitely more of a bookstore than a record shop, but there is still a reasonable, if limited, selection of used vinyl to dig through. I came away after 15 minutes, having checked out all the vinyl there was to see, clutching Savoy Brown's Blue Matter ($3.00) and Spooky Tooth's You Broke My Heart So I Busted Your Jaw ($6.50), so it was certainly worth a look.

Streetlight Records, Santa Cruz

Streetlight is a nice store - if slightly confusingly laid out - and the staff are friendly. It's unfair to judge a used record store on its stock after just one visit, but despite full racks, I struggled to find much of interest. Prices are reasonable, but the stock when I visited was just a tad uninspiring. Richer pickings another time maybe?

Metavinyl, Cedar Street, Santa Cruz

The clean, simple logo that announces the store to the street presages the smart, minimalist interior. Clutter is kept to a minimum and the racks are arranged around the edges of the room to give an airy, spacious feel. The used and new vinyl is racked separately (halleluiah!) and clearly labelled. Prices of used vinyl are very reasonable, starting at a dollar.

It's always a test of my patience and parenting skills when my bored kids are rolling around at my feet, play-fighting and shouting at each other while I'm digging through racks of records. I think the store owner coped with their 'colourful' behaviour better than I did and, for that, I'm grateful, as I found a bunch of quality titles within Metavinyl's racks. I've been looking for a minty copy of Dylan's Blood On The Tracks for some time, and I found one here for a grab-it-and-run $8, along with Traffic's John Barleycorn for $5, Harvey Mandel's The Snake for $7 and The Resurrection Band's Awaiting Your Reply for $5, which, if you can ignore the god-squad lyrics, is a kick-arse, must-hear, heavy rock LP! Not that it was audible over the racket my kids were making, but ELO's Out Of The Blue was playing over the shop's system for the duration of my visit: that earns Metavinyl extra points in my book. The kids were given stickers when we left (presumably on the understanding that they never return.) My favourite of Santa Cruz's record shops.

Recycled Records, Lighthouse Ave, Monterey

With my family happily ensconced on the beach, I made the eight mile drive into Monterey and took full advantage of my freedom. Recycled Records has masses of well-ordered stock, some hard-to-find titles and bargain bins that contain the occasional gem if you're prepared to root through some pretty mundane stuff. I bought eight LPs including a couple of Keef Hartley albums, two by The Flock and Badfinger's Magic Christian Music, prices for which ranged from $5.50 to $11.50.

Sean, the co-owner of Recycled Records, is friendly once you've lured him from his little wooden booth and engaged him in conversation (I never did find out the purpose of the mysterious booth), and he was kind enough to steer me in the direction of my next digging spot a couple of miles up the road in Pacific Grove.

Vinyl Revolution, Forest Avenue, Pacific Grove

Pacific Grove is a well-heeled and attractive stop-off five minutes' drive down the coast from Monterey. Vinyl Revolution declares its presence with a sign executed in Master Of Reality-hued purple, a window box display of half buried LPs and the sound of a band in thrall to Black Sabbath bludgeoning its way from the store's sound system. Bob, the proprietor, looks like the Big Lebowski's biker brother and is affable and interesting company. Anyone who understands the brilliance of Captain Beyond's debut and Judas Priest's Sad Wings Of Destiny is alright in my book. A hand-made, wooden Scorpions logo adorns one wall of Vinyl Revolution - a remnant of a shop display from the time of Taken By Force. It really ties the room together.

Vinyl Revolution's stock is priced to sell. The records that I dug out from the bargain bins have clearly been well-used, but none of them is trashed: The Beatles' Yellow Submarine, Blues Project's Projections and Richie Havens' Alarm Clock for $0.25c each! My most expensive item was Triumvirat's Pompeii LP; a steal at a shade under four dollars. My only regret is that I didn't pick up a copy of a single by Bob's own band, The Tomb Weavers: an authentic-sounding, 60s-style garage band recorded in the store's back room. Top bloke, nice store!

Granny Had One, Main Street, Cambria

Cambria's real draw is the beautiful, wild beaches, but the town has much to recommend it too, with its large choice of restaurants and antique shops, many of which have the odd rack of vinyl lurking, waiting to be discovered. Prices are often on the optimistic side of realistic, but there's always something worth a punt. In the case of Granny Had One, I left with Grand Funk Railroad's All The Girls In The World Beware ($7.50) and Sea Train's hard to find debut ($8.50) under my arm.

Country Collectibles, Main Street, Cambria

The beauty of shopping for vinyl in places like this is that there's plenty of books, jewellery, antiques and vintage toys to keep Mrs Shelf-Stacker and the kids entertained while I flick through the surprisingly sizeable vinyl selection, amongst which I found a nice clean US pressing of Badfinger's No Dice on the Apple label for $20 - a fraction of the cost of buying a UK original back home. I realise now that my taste in music belongs in an antique shop after the sweet old lady behind the counter looked at my T-shirt and commented: "Black Sabbath! It doesn't get any better than that!"

Boo Boo Records, San Luis Obispo

For a fairly large store, I struggled to find much of interest here, in part because much of what's on offer is new vinyl. Having said that, I did pick up The Association's self-titled album ($3.00), Redwing's eponymous debut ($1.00) and Trouble's Live In L.A. ($10.00), so I can't complain. Prices seem very reasonable. The staff at Boo Boo Records are friendly, welcoming and kept the kids happy with stickers and badges promoting the recent, expanded reissue of Led Zeppelin's Coda. This is another store where it's probably unfair to judge it on the back of one visit because on a different day I'm sure there would be more interesting used records in stock to supplement the wide range of music-themed peripherals such as T-shirts, playing cards, mugs and key fobs.

Cheap Thrills, San Luis Obispo

When I first climbed the stairs to the vinyl section of Cheap Thrills, I thought I was in heaven. The place is huge. Not Amoeba huge, but pretty impressive nevertheless. Once I had got my bearings and had a tentative poke around, I realised that it was more manageable than I had at first thought, as great swathes of the racks house genres that are of no interest to me. The next thing I noticed - something that initially made me want to walk out empty handed - was that all the LPs are sealed in plastic sleeves making it impossible to check the condition of the vinyl. The urge to leave subsided once I'd spotted the signs explaining that records are visually graded and can be inspected at the till prior to purchase. Not something I'd encountered in a record store before, but fair enough. I needn't have worried as all the records I picked up had been very conservatively graded and, what's more, every LP comes with a free, brand new, protective outer sleeve upon request.

I had to pay two visits to Cheap Thrills to satisfy myself that I'd not missed anything. I came away with ten LPs ranging in price from $1.98 to $9.98, including a pair of Barefoot Jerry albums, James Gang Live, Sugarloaf's Spaceship Earth, Dreams' self-titled album and Zephyr's debut featuring Tommy Bolin.

Downstairs at Cheap Thrills is a labyrinth of CDs, comics, action figures, computer games, cables and connectors and anything and everything vaguely related to music and home entertainment. My kids filled their pockets with complimentary fridge magnets and stickers, and charmed the guy at the checkout sufficiently for him to give them each a Hotwheels toy. A superb store that I would live in if I was a local. And there's a customer car park.

One thing I noticed throughout California is that many record stores are racking new vinyl in amongst the used stock. I hate that. To me they are different things that have their own separate appeal and should be shelved separately. You wouldn't expect vintage apparel to be hung on the same rail as new clothes, or for used cars to sit alongside new vehicles on a garage forecourt, or for dog-eared paperbacks to be shelved next to the crisp, new books in Waterstones; same principle applies to vinyl. My over all impressions of my modest sample of California's record stores are that the prices are higher than on the east coast (although there may have been a nationwide price hike in the two years since my last visit to the States) and that, with the odd exception, small is beautiful when it comes to vinyl shopping: as with any retail experience, a smile and a spot of friendly banter goes a long way.

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