After crash landing on my couch this weekend, I started reminiscing about an adventurous trip we took to discover the west coast of the United States. We travelled from San Francisco inwards towards Las Vegas, continued south with a stop in San Diego before going back up to end the trip in Los Angeles. Most of the trip was focused on visiting the many stunning wild parks scattered around these places with no record stores in sight for miles. So whenever we hit civilization again, I tried to squeeze in as much time as possible to buy some records. Record shopping in the U.S. is a whole different experience from my adventure in Japan and closer to how I am used to buying records in the Netherlands. Even though the similarities, I found that it’s worth taking the following in consideration when going record shopping in the U.S.
- The U.S. is a big place and most of the major cities are streched out with different neighbourhoods. Getting around is easiest by car or public transport if you feel comfortable enough with the sometimes huge public transport networks. I found that the time it takes to get familiar with the public transport network is better spent doing research about the record stores you want to visit and just simply navigate to them by car. Renting a car in the U.S. is also relatively cheap and chances are you will do this anyway in order to travel from one place to another.
- The bigger cities have a lively music scene and a healthy number of record stores. So doing a bit of research can save you a lot of time and disappointment. Try as much as possible to pick record stores that are in close vicinity of each other. I unfortunately did a terrible job at this, which in the end resulted in not being able to visit as many record stores as I would have liked.
- Doing some research beforehand on records that are readily available in the U.S., but are normally hard to get by or expensive in your own country, will save you a lot of research when you hit the floor. In this way you can spent all your time browsing the bins. This will also increase the chances that you will bring something home, you were not familiar with before and expand your musical spectrum.
- Besides a bit of research, you should also take in consideration that some stores are gigantic. Browsing just one genre can take up a few hours. Often these bigger stores are open till 23:00. Doing record shopping during these hours make it a far more relaxing experience since it quiets down after working hours.
- In the bigger stores such as Amoeba Records and in some smaller record stores you have to bring the records you found to the counter to see the actual state and to listen to it. This is not meant for listening to the whole record, but if it is quiet they often don’t mind. They grade every single record upfront, but checking is highly recommended since you are not a local who can come back the next day to get a cash refund.
- Next to the actual music itself, most stores also stock posters, books, DVD’s and much more. If you plan to bring back home a Grateful Dead poster, reserve some extra time. Think about how you can get this poster back home in one piece without having to fold it in order to fit your carry-on luggage.
- The standard preparations of bringing something you can carry your records in safely or make sure you bring a credit card apply as well for record shopping in the U.S. of course.
Let’s waist no more time and look at some of the records I was able to buy on this trip!
Amoeba Records – San Francisco
Knowing we would start our trip in San Francisco, there was one record store on my mind even before we boarded the plane. Amoeba Records is the biggest independent record chain in the U.S. with stores in Berkeley, Hollywood, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Having read about this record heaven got me excited but also weary that I would buy a lot of records that I had to carry with me from the start. Walking around the neighborhood where Amoeba Records San Francisco is situated is an experience on its own. With a rich history in music, the Bay Area brought forward many well-known bands from the Psychedelic music scene such as Grateful Dead, Sly & The Family Stone, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & Holding Company just to name a few. Traces of their presence still can be felt if you stroll through the neighborhood with its characteristic houses painted in vibrant colors and graffiti art on the walls.
- Grateful Dead – Live/Dead
- Dennis Brown – Superstar
- Derrick Harriot – Reggae, Funk & Soul
- Noel Ellis – Noel Ellis
- Ras Michael and The Sons Of Negus – Rastafari
Moondog Records – Las Vegas
Las Vegas was something different entirely and I wouldn’t recommend it when you just found your inner peace at one of the serene wildlife parks that surrounds the area. For me it was a bit too much, but I might not have given the desert city a fair chance and only stayed for a few days. Next to that, I’m not an avid gambler and rather spend my money on Vinyl than on chips. When doing laundry at a local wash and dry we had some time to kill. I had already spotted a record store along the way and sneaked out leaving my wife to guard our clothes. Going through the door I found a neatly stacked record store covering a wide range of genres. Going through the Soul section already consumed quite a bit of time. I came across Victim Of The Joke?…An Opera by David Porter. Being a fan of David Porter’s work as songwriter for other artists in the Stax days made me hold on to this. I started doing some research on my phone because listening to the record would surely take too much time. When I looked up, I already ran out of time and let the record slip. If I was better prepared with a clear list of records easy to obtain in the U.S. I probably walked out with more than one record. Luckily enough, the record I managed to purchase was one of my favorite Soul albums which coincedently features a song written by David Porter. So in the end it was definitely worth sneaking out.
Folk Arts Rare Records – San Diego
If I had to choose a favorite record store among of the record stores I visited in the U.S., Folk Arts Rare Records would undoubtedly be on the top of that list. At first it didn’t seem that this record store would even make the list, since after knocking on the door multiple times, no-one seemed to be present. I was convinced it was within opening hours as I checked their website or did I? There was somebody else waiting, but he seemed to give up after a while with the sad look of bitter disappointment on his face. Walking back to the car I decided to see if I could find any contact information online and soon after I found a cell number. After the call tone rang a couple of times someone picked up with loud music in the background. It happened that the owner closed earlier to visited a local festival. Who could blame him, I problably would have done exactly the same. I explained that I came all the way from the Netherlands and he made it back to the store just for me. Apart from the fact that it felt I was getting private access to the store, the owner was a very friendly and knowledgeable music fan who was very helpful pointing out some records that I otherwise would never even have considered. So we chatted the whole time while I was going through the bins and he put on record after record so I could get a taste of what he suggested. I ended up leaving with a stack of records, both suggestions and some major finds from my wantlist, which to this day I still play with great pleasure.
- John Lee Hooker – The Big Soul of John Lee Hooker
- The Larks – The Jerk
- The Johnny Frigo Quartet – Afro-American Jazz Rhythms
- Funkadelic – America Eats Its Young
- Frank Zappa – Over-Nite Sensation
Amoeba Records – Los Angeles
Out of all the record stores I was able visit in the U.S. I expected most from the fabled Amoeba Records, especially the Hollywood branch. I remember this night quite vividly. I sat behind the wheel at 7 and it took me 20 minutes to arrive and park the car in the almost empty indoor parking lot. I had to find the garage entrance to the store as it was tucked away plastered with band stickers and graffiti. Once at the top of the stairs I was in awe with looking at all the fully stacked records bins as far as my eyes could see. I spent almost 3 glorious hours of browsing the bins after which I went through my selection to decide what to bring home with me. Even if I wasn’t able to score an immensely rare record, I was quite satisfied with the loot and the overall experience of what record shopping in the U.S. can bring. I was particularly happy with Reggae In America by Lion Zion which is very hard to come by in Europe and is exactly why I was looking forward doing some record shopping in the U.S. This is one of the oddities in Lee Perry’s immense work as producer that was still missing in my collection.
- Lion Zion – Reggae In America
- Tippa Lee – Dub Them With Reality
- Tippa Lee – Cultural Ambassador
- Natural High – The Bongoman Collection
- Burning Spear – Man In The Hills
Record Surplus – Los Angeles
I managed to squeeze in another record store before leaving. The haste in which I tried to add another record store to my trip couldn’t be more different from the laidback atmosphere in the store. Record Surplus is a big record store were you can easily spent a few hours but I had to make due with just 30 to 45 minutes before we had to leave. The store had some listening booths were you could sit back and take your time looking and listening to what you had just found. It didn’t take long for me to find some records but ultimately I ended up only buying two. I left Brent Dowe’s Build Me Up and Soul Synidcate’s Was, Is & Always behind as I was not convinced enough. The album that I didn’t had any questions on buying, was an original pristine copy of Blackheart Man by Bunny Wailer still in its 1976 plastic wrapper which had never been opened. A stunning piece of work that holds up to the best work Bunny had created together with Bob Marley and Peter Tosh in the days of The Wailers. To the Reggae community’s grief, Bunny Wailer passed away just last week on the 2nd of March as the sole survivor of the three. He continued to be an important Rastafarian role model throughout his life. His musical output maybe not as prolific as in the 70’s, but he continued carrying the torch and kept the fire roaring setting an example for the new generation. To all Reggae fans Blackheart Man will surely be no mystery, but for all those unfamiliar with it I strongly encourage you to set foot in the mystical realms of the Blackheart Man. That sums up my experience of record shopping in the U.S. hope you like it and it helps in ever you plan on going.
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Great road trip! Looking forward to be able to go to the USA again, and I will certainly check out that record store in San Diego next time around.
And I thought the Bay Area was only known as the birth place of trash metal 😉
I’m definitely heading back there as well. Bay Area apparently is a very fertile land for creating influential music🤘🤘.