Name: Marc Weinstein
Position: Co-founder, Amoeba Music
You opened the first Amoeba Music in 1990 on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Several record stores were competing with you nearby, at a time when vinyl was giving way to CDs. What was your thinking?
Marc Weinstein: We felt the ultimate business model had not yet been created. As much as our hearts were in the small boutique store, to do it justice we had to do it on scale. We went right to record row in Berkeley. Nine stores in five blocks at the time, where everyone went for music if they were record geeks. We opened with an inspired model, a mix of new and used, making sure every indie artist was represented.
With all of the new technologies, younger people who stream music on their phones today may not be aware of the joys of a record store. What’s your sense of that experience?
It’s spiritually uplifting. It doesn’t matter if you’re into Dolly Parton or Sun Ra. Every customer who comes in my stores has a unique cultural filter. They have half a million selections to choose from. One of the great joys in this business is watching people shop. I get to help turn people on. That’s what my mission is all about. Music goes further than other arts. It’s everyman’s art. Everyone can relate to music one way or another.
Next spring you will open the Berkeley Compassionate Care Collective, a medical marijuana dispensary, taking over 3,000 square feet in the store’s jazz room. Berkeley has given only six such permits for dispensaries, and getting approval was hard-fought. What was behind that move?
It comes after years of brainstorming on what kind of product we can add to our mix to make the business more profitable, for the sake of survival. All of the fixed costs of retail have been going up at the same time the [music] market’s getting smaller. So what could be more inspiring and spiritually uplifting than cannabis? We feel strongly it’s a human rights issue that goes right along with who we are and what we believe in. It’s something we can get behind that can amp up our ability to stay in business. We’re trying to be progressive and renegade, and show people what we’re inspired by. It felt like a natural fit.
You also have stores in San Francisco and Los Angeles. How would you describe the Amoeba experience?
We celebrate the physical product in a way that makes it more exciting. Our core customer is not the average Joe. It’s someone who loves music and records. By being a destination, we have something for anyone. It doesn’t matter if you have five bucks or want a collectible on the wall, you know you’re going to have a nice treasure hunt. People on both sides of the counter are filled with love and passion for the product, and that’s an experience you not going to find in a big store.
Your stores still sell a lot of vinyl albums, a throwback in the music business. You started working in record stores out of high school selling eight-track tapes and cassettes, and you were hooked. Do you feel that same inspiration all these years later?
I still do get that thrill. I don’t think anything can bring you closer to an artist’s work than an LP, not only because the sound is superior, but also you’re getting it curated the way the artists intended it. You hold it in your hand. LPs give you an opportunity to have a sound spectrum you don’t get when you’re streaming. It’s more a meditation than listening to a CD.
What was it like growing up Jewish in Buffalo, New York?
Buffalo at the time was a city of 500,000 with about 28,000 Jews. We were a Conservative kosher household until I was a teen, when we joined a Reconstructionist synagogue. I didn’t stay a strong practicing Jew, though I connect with the cultural side of Judaism. As I get older I recognize a lot of my characteristics are based on a Jewish way of living. Social justice, caring deeply about being of service, being there for people in need. It’s up to me to be a respectful human on this earth. Most Jews are charged with a sense of that. I feel lucky to have grown up that way.
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