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Single Cell Record Organism

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I knew this story was coming. We ran this report a couple of days ago about how bad things are for the major record retailers, and at the time I thought to myself, “I’ll bet some of the big used record stores and the stores that feaure hard to find items – better still, these two assets together – are doing pretty well, and will continue to do so.”

It would appear I was right, at least for one such store:

    I found an aggressively anticorporate, outsized emporium, where roughly 300 music fanatics were joyously assailing the record racks as a Bay Area grunge band thrashed away on a makeshift stage. Perhaps you’ve heard of the place. It’s called Amoeba Music, and it’s arguably the largest — and almost without question, the best — independent record store in the country.

    Twelve years ago, Amoeba raised the curtain on its original outlet, a pint-sized storefront in Berkeley packed with about 11,000 new and used CDs. It was not a great time to launch a mom-and-pop record store. Major labels were drunkenly churning out megahit makers such as Michael Jackson. In a desperate bid to get bigger faster, many national chains gobbled up smaller chains and independent stores and geared themselves to the casual music consumer. But Amoeba chose a different route: to serve the dedicated fan. And it has grown, amoebalike, since its first year. It expanded its Berkeley store until it ran out of room, launched the San Francisco outlet in 1997, and, just over a year ago, added a third store, on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. This past fall — a period when the music-industry recession hammered the national chains and the independents alike, and mass merchants barely eked out a sales gain — Amoeba was projecting year-over-year growth of 75% ( due in part to the successful launch of the L.A. store ).

Why? Value and selection, both of which appeal to record hounds such as myself, who aren’t looking for Christina, Britney or Mariah, and who would NEVER pay retail price even if we were.

    Here’s the first part of the formula: Just because it’s independent doesn’t mean it’s small. Amoeba’s sprawling San Francisco outlet, which occupies an old bowling alley on Haight Street, takes up 25,000 square feet. Between CDs, LPs, 45s, 78s, cassettes, 8-tracks, videotapes, and DVDs, it stocks roughly 250,000 titles. Compare that with Wal-Mart, whose average store carries about 350 titles, most of which are this month’s flash in the pan. Amoeba even towers over the national chain that’s best known for its selection, Tower Records, which on average stocks about 60,000 titles at its stores.

    But it’s not just about size. It’s also about diversity. Looking for the ultrarare, out-of-print LP, “I Get That Lonesome Feeling” by bluesman Ivory Joe Hunter? Amoeba has it. How about a one-of-a-kind Japanese import of the Byrds’ “Ballad of Easy Rider”? Got that too. At a time when the music industry is mired in another one of its slumps and most retailers are placing smaller orders and stocking fewer titles, Amoeba covers a dazzling array of music genres and subgenres: experimental, electronica, New Orleans, dance, hip-hop, Appalachian, New Age, Celtic. Its classical section alone carries 15,000 CDs, roughly three times as many as one of the bigger Tower stores. But that’s not all. Amoeba devotes every square inch of its space to selling stuff. Instead of wasting real estate on promotional displays from the record labels (as do most of the chains), Amoeba’s walls are plastered with historic posters: the Beatles at the Palladium, B.B. King in Hamburg, the Who and Santana at the Fillmore. Says tattooed Amoeba salesman Nick Tyhurst, as he takes in the mind-bending display of art: “First you get high on it, then you buy it.” [Fast Company]

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