.Amoeba Music is More Than a Record Store

Berkeley's iconic store is a relocated garage sale, a clubhouse and a shrine to vinyl

Amoeba Music opened its iconic store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley on Nov. 17, 1990. A crowd of customers had already gathered on the sidewalk outside. As soon as the doors opened, they ran into the store and began flipping through the bins of new and used records. 

“Before we opened, we spent a year going to every garage sale and estate sale to buy old LPs,” said Marc Weinstein, one of Amoeba’s owners. “The word had gotten out that you could find almost anything you wanted on vinyl in our store, and the people lined up. We did great business that first day, selling albums and buying used records, and we haven’t stopped.”

The original partners, Weinstein and Dave Prinz, rented the building that had previously been The Forum coffeehouse. They renovated it, put in record bins and painted the walls gray.

“We wanted the colors of the albums to pop,” Weinstein said. “We had no video screens, like the chain stores, and no large advertising displays from the record industry. We weren’t trying to sell you anything. We wanted to have the air of a clubhouse, where people could hang out and discover new music.”

Weinstein and Prinz met in San Francisco. “I was managing Streetlight Records,” Weinstein said. “Dave had just sold a chain of video stores called Captain Video. We started talking about music and realized we had a lot in common. I was into experimental music and jazz. He liked country, roots music, old jazz, blues and guitar music.

“We decided to start a company to sell used records,” he continued. “He suggested Amoeba Music because ‘A’ is the first letter of the alphabet, and CDs were dominating the market, so we didn’t want to call it a ‘record store.’ The minute he said ‘Amoeba,’ it stuck.”

The Berkeley store did so well, they opened a location on Haight Street in San Francisco. “It was formerly a bowling alley,” Weinstein said. “There were no supporting posts. When you walk in the door, you have a clear view of 25,000 square feet full of records and CDs. It’s like a candy box full of music.”

Amoeba hired Karen Pearson to manage it. She had a stage built into the front of the store, so bands could come in and play live, sell merch and interact with fans. It gave kids who were too young to get into clubs an opportunity to see the acts they loved, in person.

The Haight Street store was also successful. Amoeba soon became a destination for record collectors from all over the world. Buses full of tourists regularly parked outside. People from Los Angeles often made the trip up to the Bay Area to hunt down their favorite titles.

In 2001, Weinstein and Prinz opened their third location in Hollywood and began producing What’s In My Bag?, a mini-documentary series featuring famous artists and ordinary folks talking about what they found in the bins at Amoeba. “In these days of iPhone cameras, people don’t recall it took serious equipment to make a video,” Weinstein said.

The series was a hit on YouTube, drawing a half-million regular viewers to more than a thousand videos of folks like Norah Jones, Danny Elfman and Jon Batiste, as well as ordinary customers and staff. “We’ve had Joni Mitchell, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Iggy Pop, Elvis Costello, Elton John and others shopping for records,” Weinstein said. “The list is endless.”

Their in-store performances have also become notable, none more so than Paul McCartney’s live appearance at the Hollywood store. “He called up and asked if he could do an in-store performance,” Weinstein said. “We had to keep it secret until the day of the gig.”

Just as they were planning to move into a larger store in Los Angeles, the Covid pandemic shut down all three stores. Unwilling to lay off employees, the company started a GoFundMe page. In the first 10 days, they raised over $200,000, mostly in small donations from regular customers. It enabled them to keep people on the payroll and pay their benefits.

Today, all three stores remain open and profitable, partly due to the resurgence of interest in LPs. Real vinyl records make up over half of Amoeba’s sales. Combined, the three stores sell more than 1,000 records a day. CDs are about 15% of sales, with used CDs priced at around $5 each. Their LP Bargain Bins, with old records selling for $1 or $2, draw younger music fans looking for a total musical experience.

“We still buy record collections from older folks,” Weinstein said. “There are also many people reissuing classic LPs, with the original artwork intact. A hard copy of a record represents a physical manifestation of an artist’s work, presented the way they wanted it to be seen. Having a record by an artist is the best way to pay tribute to the music, even if you don’t have a turntable.

“We see a lot of young people who just want an album in their space,” he added. “We have some kids keeping them for a year or two, then selling them back to us, still sealed.”

Amoeba Music, 2455 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, open daily. 510.549.1125; 1855 Haight St., San Francisco, open daily. 415.831.1200. youtube.com/@amoeba; amoeba.com.

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