Onboard the two Voyager space probes launched in 1977 is a pair of golden phonograph records. On the globetrotting track list, Chinese zitherist Guan Pinghu abuts seminal rock guitarist Chuck Berry. Carl Sagan, one of the selectors, likened the gesture of sending music to space to flinging a bottle into the cosmic ocean. And it resonated enough with Hannah Lew and Andrew Kerwin to inspire a name for their incoming record shop: Contact Records.
“That NASA selected music to represent humankind is pretty amazing,” said Lew, adding that the theme aligns with the name of her label, Crime on the Moon Records.
Tentatively scheduled to open in October, Contact is one of five retailers and eateries anchoring the incoming MacArthur Annex at 40th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a complex of 27 shipping containers marketed as offices for “artists and entrepreneurs.” A beer garden, Arthur Mac’s Tap & Shack, and an as-yet-unnamed café run by the owner of nearby Subrosa Coffee will occupy a standalone building on the same lot. (They’re expected to open later than Contact, this winter.)
MacArthur Annex owner and developer Caleb Inman — who worked with Baran Studio Architecture to develop two adjacent Wood Street homes that earlier this year fetched over a million dollars each — estimated that, as of early September, 65% of the containers were already spoken for.
“You’d think, given the size of this room, that [our shop would] be very specialized,” said Lew, 36, eyeing Contact’s 150-square-feet, where custom-made record bins featuring pullout drawers will maximize perusable stock. “But we love too much stuff.”
“This isn’t going to be a boutique record store,” agreed Kerwin, 35, explaining that the stock, mostly used, comes from years of personal collecting and far-flung buying trips. Kerwin emphasized that Contact will “have a bit of everything, genre-wise,” but conceded that their personal tastes, however eclectic, will color the inventory.
“I’m a guitar guy, so the instrumental section, the international section — they’ll reflect that,” he illustrated. “But when I first got into blues, I collected blues from between 1927 and 1932. When I got into African guitarists, I got really into guitar players from Sierra Leone.”
The San Francisco natives anticipate running the shop themselves, six days a week, for the foreseeable future. Lew is known as a member of post-punk groups Grass Widow and Cold Beat (which this writer briefly performed in) and Kerwin, a longtime Amoeba San Francisco employee, managed 1-2-3-4 Go!’s Valencia Street location until recently.
Contact Records is only a few blocks from 1-2-3-4 Go!’s flagship location on 40th Street. And Temescal’s Stranded Records, which recently opened a second location in the shell of Aquarius Records in San Francisco, is moving to the former Book Zoo storefront off of Piedmont Avenue, next to Issues, in October. Asked about Contact’s proximity to these shops, Lew and Kerwin were optimistic. “When I was a kid, there was Reckless Records, Recycled, Revolver, and Amoeba all in the same neighborhood,” remembered Kerwin. “I used to go and buy a record at each spot.”
Contact is but the latest addition to Oakland’s record store community: Park Blvd. Records was opened by rap critic Andrew Nosnitsky and archivist Jason Darrah last summer (see “At Park Blvd. Records, Short Dog’s Back in Stock,” 7/1/2015); followed that winter by Champion Sound, in The New Parish building; and Hercules Records, on Alcatraz Avenue. They’re all small, focused on used records, and, in the view of their owners, complementary; their selections, more eclectic than the punk- and indie-rock fare associated with standbys such as 1-2-3-4 Go! and Econo Jam, reflect vinyl’s value as cultural currency for a wider variety of listeners.
Champion Sound co-owner Jacinta Kaumbulu, 38, recently put Brother Jack McDuff’s 1969 LP, Moon Rappin’, on one of two turntables at the back of the cozy storefront. The soul-jazz instrumentals warmed the shop. They also piped into Bicycle Coffee next door. Kaumbulu and her partner, Donovan Weaton, 39, relish their connection to the New Parish. During a recent DJ competition at the venue “we stayed open all night,” she said. “There were basically 200 DJs in the house.”
Champion Sound’s selection — focused on hip-hop, jazz, soul, and reggae — reflects the rewarding cross-section of styles associated with DJ culture (not unlike the wares and atmosphere of a nearby record shop, Vamp). Weaton, a DJ known as Donovan, noticed that this writer yanked a cheap hi-NRG single from the bins — Loverde’s (admittedly hokey) “Die Hard Lover” — and suggested several similarly campy disco delights, pointing towards the listening station. One less copy of Plastic Surprise’s “Bang Bang” circulates today.
“All of the record shop owners have been working together to throw swaps,” Weaton said, noting that Champion Sound is hosting one such event with DJ crew B-Side Brujas in The New Parish’s courtyard next Saturday. Kaumbulu added, “We’re actually making a map of all the shops in Oakland.”
Chris Ford — a country musician and longtime soul DJ on KPOO — boasts an entire wall of used roots music, plus strong sections for soul, jazz, and classic rock, at Hercules Records. This writer recently snared a cheap copy of the scarce soundtrack for Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (which includes two choice Popol Vuh tracks). Asked about the record shop proliferation, Ford recalled how, thanks to a perceptive clerk at Econo Jam, he was able to recover stolen inventory that a thief tried selling to Hercules’ competitor.
And then, invoking the sense of historical excavation that enlivens used record shopping overall, he reminisced about the music industry that once flourished nearby: “Music City was a block away. Bayview Recordings was across the street. Reid’s Records. Jasmine Records. ‘Oh Happy Day’ was recorded across the street and it became a big international hit, one of the first gospel records to cross over. This place has a thick history.”