San Francisco Records Store Reviews – Soundtrack by Erasure (Again)

While I was in San Francisco for Outside Lands, I also made a special effort to hit as many of the city’s fine record stores as I possibly could. I have heard epic things about the San Francisco record store scene, and I certainly wasn’t dissapointed. It’s no Portland (which has over 10 independent stores) but it was still mighty impressive. So impressive, in fact, that I ended up having to buy an extra suitcase to pack all the damn records I bought.

Here’s a quick rundown of the stores I made it to during my time in that great city.

Amoeba Music
If you ask someone who has been to Amoeba to describe the store in one word, that word would probably be “massive.” You could also accept “huge,” “monstrous,” “cavernous,” and “really fucking big” (although technically that last one isn’t one word).

Seriously. It’s huge. It’s so huge that it’s hard to even put into words, but I’ll try. Imagine a Best Buy, now take out all the dicks in blue shirts, all the shitty computers, overpriced TVs and crappy video games and replace them with CDs and LPs. Then imagine a medium-sized grocery store filled with nothing but DVDs, Blu-rays, VHS tapes and freakin’ laserdiscs and slap that on to your mystical Best Buy. That’s how big Amoeba is. Okay, maybe it’s a little bigger, but you get the idea.

The store is so big that when I first walked in I didn’t even know where to being. I just kind of circled the outer peripheries of the aisles for a few minutes, plotting my plan of attack. I decided to start with the CDs since they’re easier to carry than LPs.

I have never seen a more well-organized/stocked/maintained CD selection in my entire life. The sections make sense: rock/pop, electronic, hip-hop, jazz, country, and the artists are all where they belong (no finding Depeche Mode in electronic or Johnny Cash in rock or shit like that). Each artist of note (and several hundred not-of-note) are given a placard, and in many cases each of their individual albums are given placards as well. For example, if you go to Bowie, David you’ll find an individual placard for Station To Station that has all the various versions of that album that the store has in stock. Such a great system. Box sets and deluxe editions that are slightly too big for the racks are on a shelf above, while the massive box sets get their own section near the end of each genre. It all make sense. It’s how record stores used to be, just on a supermassive scale.

The LPs are slightly less organized, but still well-maintained and relatively easy to search through. The rock section is the cleanest, with nearly every artist you could think of getting their own placard, while the electronic section is much more of a hodgepodge in a kinda-sorta alphabetical order. Everything is packed nice and loose though, so it’s easy to skim through each row. They also separate the new used arrivals from the genreal stock, so if you’re a frequent visitor you don’t have to dig through the general inventory every time you visit.

But all this wouldn’t have mattered if the prices are bullshit. Thankfully, prices at Amoeba seemed relatively fair. I never thought that I was paying too much for a used record, and in some cases I felt like I was getting a steal. They always seem to have a good selection of stuff on clearance (especially in the electronic section) and the only really expensive albums are the ones they put up on the wall, which can range anywhere from $10 to $2,000 (and in case your wondering, the $2,000 record was a butcher baby).

If there’s only one downfall of Amoeba, it’s that it’s too big. It’s staffed rather well, but they’re always busy making sure no one is trying to rip them off, so it’s hard to really talk to anyone. It feels more like a supermarket than a record store, and is lacking that laid-back independent record store vibe.

The being said, it’s definitely the coolest fucking supermarket in the world and it goes without saying that I’m in love with the place. I went there twice during my time in San Francisco and I bought so many records the first time I was there that they had to give me a box, not a bag, to carry them all out in. If you’re a record collector this place is fucking Mecca. A must visit no matter what.

Recycled Records
That isn’t to say that there aren’t other great record stores in San Francisco! Just down the street from Amoeba is Recycled Records. This store may not be as massive and awe-inspiring as Amoeba, but it has its own charm and personality, both of which really made it stand out to me.

The records are easy-to-access, just like Amoeba, and while the store is small, they have a very diverse selection of rock, hip-hop and electronic music. In terms of their selection, what really stood out to me was their soundtracks section. They have a wide variety of odd and weird movie soundtracks, I picked up a copy of the Starman soundtrack while I was there, and at a pretty reasonable price too.

What really makes Recycled Records a store to visit, however, is the staff. From what I could tell, two dudes man this place, and they are both some laid-back bros, even by San Francisco standards. I walked into their store hauling a big box of records from one of their competitors, but not only were they cool about it, they wanted me to show them what I picked up there. They even let me leave the box there while I walked around the neighborhood! If you’re looking for a solid little store with a ton of personality, this is a great place.

Groove Merchant Records
A few blocks down the hill from Recycled Records is Groove Merchant. They mostly deal in soul and hip-hop, so it really wasn’t for me. If you like that stuff, however, then you might want to check this place out. Their records were a little on the pricey side though.

Rasputin Music
Next to Amoeba, I spent the most time at this store in Union Square. It’s huge, but its hugeness is hidden by the fact that it’s spread out over five stories. The first floor has all the new releases, and you take the stairs to the second, which is where most of their DVD inventory is. From there, you take an elevator (which is always manned by an employee) to the rest of the store. The third floor houses the vinyl; on the fourth you’ll find rock, hip-hop and pop CDs; and on the fifth is everything else, including electronic music, jazz and experimental.

It’s a little daunting at first, but the layout make sense once you get the hang of it. All of their inventory is meticulouslyorganized, and everything is super-easy to look through. Their prices are excellent as well. I picked up some imports and hard-to-find 12″ Bjork singles at nearly half of what I would have expected to pay for them anywhere else. The staff isn’t especially friendly, but they are helpful and polite if you need them. A nice surprise, I’ll be coming back here for sure on my next trip.

It’s all been sunshine and lollipops so far, but not all record stores in San Francisco were winners.

I really wanted to like Grooves. It seems like a cool little store. They had a ton of records, the dude behind the counter seemed alright and the customers were fun to talk to. However, the place is a freaking mess.

Records, records everywhere and not a way to look through them. The stacks are packed tight, so you have to pull records out before you can even shuffle through them to see whats there, and unless it’s a major artist, you’re going to have to shift through the miscellaneous sections (which weren’t in alphabetical order) to see if they have what you are looking for. Also, be prepared to crawl on the damn floor. As a tall dude, I really hate that.

Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. Grooves needs to clear out its inventory so people can actually see what’s there. If they did that, the store would be amazing. As it is now, it’s still worth visiting, but only if you have a lot of patience and a strong back.

Streetlight Records
I didn’t get to spend a lot of time at Streetlight, located close to the Castro district, since they were closing up when I got there. From what I was able to shift through though, I could tell it was a pretty good store with a decent selection of tunes on both CD and vinyl. It was their CD singles selection that really impressed me though, I scored a ton of Madonna, Pet Shop Boys and Erasure CD singles there (which was how I knew I was close to Castro). A nice place, I just wish I had more to say about it, I’ll definitely have to check it out again the next time I go.

Black Pancake Records
This store is pretty new, and is run by guys who used to run a store called Tweekin Records. It’s very cramped (I nearly hit my head a few times) but they still let the records breathe, and they’re organized very well. It’s also run by a real cool dude. Not only did he let me use their bathroom, he recommended some solid LPs to me, and didn’t give me a “what the fuck” look when I snagged a 12″ single to the Streets of Fire theme song. That, combined with some great listening stations and an overall chill vibe, made me feel like I could hang out at this place all day.

Green Apple Books
Let me just say that the Green Apple Books is an AMAZING used book store, the kind of book store you just don’t see anymore, with piles of books stacked up as far as the eye can see. If you like books like I like records, then you’ll be in heaven though.

But if you like records, this might not be your place.

Green Apple has a sizable record and CD selection, but it’s a mess. Most of the CDs are kept in rickity shelves that you have to pull out slowly to look through, and most of them are at that uncomfortable knee-high level that makes them a (literal) pain to shift through.

The situation with their LPs is almost as bad. Nearly half of their record selection is on the ground, and for tall guys like me that’s no fun at all. Making matters even worse, the stacks are packed in too tight and too deep. Even with my massive wingspan, I was stretching to grab the records at the back of the shelf. How they expect anyone to find or buy records with a system like this is beyond me. It’s the one store I went to where I didn’t buy a single thing.

Aquarius Records
Are you looking for the newest (or oldest) albums by anyone who has ever even tried to possibly even maybe flirt with mainstream success? You won’t find them here. But if you’re looking for the b-side compilation to your favorite German 70s prog-group, or the latest release by the hottest Norwegian death metal album then you’ll be in luck here. Super-niche for sure, but still a lot of fun. And while their selection may be uber-hipster, the staff is still very friendly and polite.

If I missed any awesome San Fran stores let me know! I plan on returning there someday soon. I really fell in love with that city, and not just from the contact buzz.

Hallowed Ground (Vince Clarke’s Big-Mix)
Chains Of Love (Almighty 12″ Definitive Mix)
Phantom Bride (Ghostly Groom Dub By FrankMusik)
A Little Respect (Wayne G & Andy Allder Hurdy Gurdy Club Mix)
Heart Of Stone (Joebot’s ‘Ounce Of Bounce’ Remix)
Phantom Bride (Dogmatix’s ’12” Tearless’ Mix)
Chains Of Love (Plastic Operator Remix)
These great remixes are from the Phantom Bride CD EP, which came out in 2009 but is already out of print in America for some reason. I bought it used at Streetlight, along with the Erasure singles that I featured last week. Every remix here is a home-run, download them all and have a fabulous night.


6 Responses to “San Francisco Records Store Reviews – Soundtrack by Erasure (Again)”

  1. musicologist says:

    great post, I didn’t know about the erasure-remixes of that classic songs. What about Track 1, ist he still available that you don’t include him?

  2. Lost Turntable says:

    Track one is just Phantom Bride, so I didn’t include that.

  3. jerodius says:

    was just at these places. am very pleased to read this. well done.

  4. Nick Gusset says:

    My missus hated me when we visited her sister in SF back in 2002. I stumbled across Amoeba by mistake so popped in for a quick look, she waited outside…
    “I haven’t come all the way from London to spend 6 hours in a record shop.” she moaned some time later.
    I got some great cd’s that had been deleted in the UK-KLF’s White Room and The Dukes of Stratosphear’s (XTC ‘s psychedelic pseudominious) Psonic Psunpots – Wow that’s the first time I’ve ever used 4 words that start with ps!
    Sadly my sister in law has moved to Miami so I won’t be going back to SF in the forseeable.
    Amoeba is way cooler than the second hand shops in the UK.

  5. Derek says:

    Rasputin Music in Union Square is a joke compared to the one on Telegraph Ave in Berkeley. Next time you come back to the area you should check it out. It has a much better layout & selection.
    There is also another Amoeba on Telegraph a block away from Rasputin (the original Amoeba). Amoeba on Telegraph is still huge, but not as huge as Haight St and it is much less daunting to shop there.

  6. Lost Turntable says:

    Couldn’t make it to Berkley this trip, hopefully I’ll be able to next time!

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