Neal Schneider stands behind the counter, arms covered in tattoos, harboring the same obsessions that just about everyone who works at a record store eventually develops. He memorizes the minutiae of catalogue numbers, develops alliances to long-forgotten bands and avidly loves what older people assess as irritating noise. One could never guess the extent of Schneider's work, nor the important service he provides to the community, just by watching him cue up the next album on the in-store stereo.
Schneider, 28, is the manager of Bedrock Music in San Rafael, one of the few remaining independent record stores in the North Bay, all of which will celebrate Record Store Day on April 18. Developed largely online last year with a huge cadre of high-profile supporters, Record Store Day aims to remind the public about the important roles of the independent store: as community meeting place, local archive, encyclopedic resource, haven of opinion and, of course, still the best way to purchase music, human-to-human.
Artists like Bob Dylan, Modest Mouse, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Sonic Youth, Leonard Cohen, Wilco and the Flaming Lips are offering exclusive Record Store Day releases, and many stores are having in-store performances and sales. It might be a fake holiday, but it's one that just about everyone can get behind.
Bedrock is unique in that it is owned by Four Winds West, a nonprofit residential treatment program in Fairfax for young adults aged 18 to 28 who have difficulties functioning in the world due to bipolar disorder, social phobias, ADD, addiction recovery or other issues. Over a three-month internship at the store, clients accumulate the job experience and self-esteem to transition into the work world.
As manager, Schneider not only sells the latest albums by Bruce Springsteen and Of Montreal, he advises interns on manners, dress, skills and responsibility. "Each one will have different specific needs," he says. "Someone has trouble with personal interaction, for example. We can really focus on that. Or someone might have trouble with numbers—we can focus on the cash register."
Schneider's reward comes when he hears from former interns who have succeeded. He spent months training a worker who had a problem with authority, and once she moved on to another job, she called to say thank you. Other former workers have moved into their own apartments, gone to college or gotten jobs at grocery stores based on their experience at Bedrock.
In a half-hour span, Schneider addresses almost every customer who comes through the door by name. He spends a very patient 12 minutes dealing with a group-home customer who deliberates on his choices and eventually buys a $1 cassette tape. Schneider drops the change in the bag; he knows that's the way this customer likes it. "What's sad is that probably our kids' generation will never have that High Fidelity experience of growing up wanting to work at a record store," he says. "It's an experience that might not be around for much longer."
Toni Brown, of the Bay Area band Joy of Cooking, started Four Winds West in 1991 and saw a unique opportunity to buy Bedrock Music in 2005. "It was very hard to find jobs for these kids," she explains. "It's difficult enough when you have a recession and nobody can find work, but tougher if you don't have any job skills and you're looking for entry-level work, and you've got issues, you've got challenges, you've had a rough go."
Schneider once worked at the Wherehouse, and then Cargo Records, a label in San Diego, where he saw firsthand the industry downsize. These days, he sells a lot of classic rock to Marin baby boomers. "So are there a lot of young people in Santa Rosa?" he asks at one point. "'Cause that's the one thing Marin is really missing."
Bedrock Music & Video, 2226 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.258.9745. On April 18, 10 percent off storewide, 15 percent for students; free coffee and cookies.
The amps are cranked, the store is full and young people have turned out in droves. In the corner of the store, Classics of Love, featuring Operation Ivy's Jesse Michaels, finish their last song, reminding people to support independent record stores. A few days later, Tom Waits makes a routine visit to buy records. So does Jello Biafra. Then Charlie Musselwhite. It's just another week at the Last Record Store.
Founded in 1982 by co-owners Doug Jayne and Hoyt Wilhelm, the Last Record Store became the largest independent record store between San Francisco and Portland by doing things the "wrong" way. From the beginning, they stocked unknown underground bands, wrote down the store's sales by hand and continued to carry vinyl when other stores abandoned the format. Even weirder: they actually let me work there for 14 years.
Theirs is a good example of how a record store can remain vital in a post-iPod world. Weekly movie nights and a constant schedule of in-stores are announced via weekly email newsletters, MySpace bulletins and Facebook notes. But the real wealth here is in the endless stock and combined knowledge of the staff on all manner of genres—popular and obscure, local and foreign. When Waits, in a quote for Record Store Day, says "Folks who work here are professors / Don't replace the knowers with guessers / Keep 'em open, they're the ears of the town," it's hard not to think of the store he frequents most.
Last Record Store, 1899-A Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. 707.525.1963. On April 18, exclusive giveaways, $2 off all used, $1 off all new and a free performance by Volker Strifler Band and Bob Livingston at 1pm.
I'm in the back of Red Devil Records when I overhear the request for Coldplay from a customer who's strolled into Barry Lazarus' San Rafael shop. Coldplay is the biggest band in the world, with a huge hit topping the charts. But the answer is no. Red Devil doesn't have the Coldplay CD.
What it does have, much to my amazement, is an original copy of Alan Silva and the Celestrial Communication Orchestra's Seasons, a triple-LP set of the most outrageous and majestic avant-garde jazz I've ever heard. I last saw a copy 13 years ago, and I've never forgiven myself for passing on it. It's here. It's expensive. I hold it in my hands and gape.
Red Devil Records is all about finding the records that you wish you could own and then justifying their price tag. Punk and jazz are specialties, with plenty of Dead and Dylan to satisfy the ex-hippie Marin crowd. Flyers adorn the walls for shows you'd either kill to see or bands you've never heard of, and Lazarus' beautiful black dog sits near the counter, greeting new customers that walk through the door while Lazarus prices rare LPs.
I cave. I buy the Alan Silva. On my way out, some guy with no teeth and a raspy voice is standing in the doorway, bragging to Lazarus about how much his Beatles albums are worth. I shoot a sympathetic look. He laughs. It's the business.
Red Devil Records, 894 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415.457.8999. On April 18, storewide discounts and exclusive releases.
Don't bother Googling "Incredible Records" —all you'll get is a webpage complaining about high prices. The true way to experience this Sebastopol-by-way-of-Montreal shop is in person. A documentary on the store begins shooting this week, no doubt covering Lipsin's own illustrious past as a rabble-rousing underground paper staffer and countercultural denizen who once snuck in to see Led Zeppelin because he couldn't afford the $2.50 admission.
Randy Bachman's signed Fender Jaguar from "American Woman"; a Bruce Springsteen tour jacket; a signed photo of Gordon Lightfoot; drawings made by a 14-year-old Jim Morrison—all of these and much, much more are collected in cluttered glory, looking down on the "500 CDs to Listen to Before You Die" display, the infamous "Pagan / Goddess" section and, as always, Lipsin's knowledgeable recommendations.
Incredible Records, 112 N Main St., Sebastopol. 707.824.8099. On April 25 ("Because we're rebels," Lipsin explains), inventory sale and in-store appearances by the Analy High cast of Beauty and the Beast and Music for Animals at 1pm.
Celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year, Watts Music has a sure-fire way of staying in business amid a rocky music industry. "We don't stock Top 40. That's crap," says manager Darren Chase. "Go to Target for that, and good luck, because that stuff doesn't last. You're gonna look back on the Top 40 artists of today next year and say, 'Who?'"
Of course, that didn't stop Top 40 mainstay and American Idol winner Jordin Sparks from stopping by to buy some Michael Jackson and Crosby, Stills & Nash records just two weeks ago; Watts also sees its share of Metallica, Huey Lewis and the Doobie Brothers members returning to its racks, which are heavy on rock, punk and blues. "Loyalty is our biggest reason why we're still here," Chase says. "And customer service is such a thing of the past. We still provide it."
After 18 years at Watts, Chase remains authentic. "Christ, when you think of Novato," he says, "it's all hair salons and boutiques, Costco and Target. That's what Novato's known for! We're the old-school Novato."
Watts Music, 1211 Grant Ave., Novato. 415.897.2892. On April 18, exclusive releases and discounts on records.
In a rare admission among record store owners, Phil Lieb at Vinyl Planet tells me he doesn't know that much about country music. The longtime Petaluman, who once played in the '80s punk band Trap-a-Poodle, is pricing out rare records by the Louvin Brothers at 25 cents each. I descend.
In 2004, Lieb expanded the inventory at his vitamin shop to include vinyl, filling a void on Petaluma's record-store map. Lieb's happy to charge modest prices on everything from John Zorn to Tones on Tail. His is probably the only store that can sell you antioxidants and Anti-seen in the same transaction, or, as he's done in the past, traded record collections for vitamins.
Vitamins still account for 80 percent of Lieb's sales, but vinyl sales continue to rise. Does anyone think the combined inventory is strange? "People walk into Costco and get their plastic gallon of vodka and get their Lipitor at the pharmacy, and pass by the new tires, and think nothing of it," Lieb says. "This isn't much different."
Vinyl Planet, 112 Washington St., Petaluma. 707.765.0975. On April 18, 25 percent off vinyl and free in-store concert by Erstwhile Medicine Show at 4pm.
After working at Village Music for 25 years, Mill Valley Music owner Gary Scheuenstuhl couldn't imagine any other life for himself when the iconic Mill Valley shop owned by John Goddard closed last year to make room for a salon, a pet-pampering store and a cupcakery. "It's a labor of love," he says, standing behind the counter of his new store on Miller Avenue, wearing a Ray Davies T-shirt, listening to Henry Cow and rifling through a 1,500-LP collection to purchase. "This isn't a way to get rich, believe it or not."
In a two-story building of mostly vinyl but also CDs, DVDs and scattered racks of T-shirts, one finds plenty of rarities around Scheuenstuhl's shop. He's dabbled in internet sales, but "then you become a computer guy who enters data and goes to the post office," he explains, as he rings up a Grateful Dead set on Village Music's old crank-operated cash register. "That's not why I got into this! I got into this because I love music."
Mill Valley Music, 320 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. 415.389.9090. On April 18, 30 percent off used and 20 percent off new, except consignment. On April 25, Dan Hicks plays a free in-store concert at 3pm.
Backdoor Disc changed dramatically in 2005 when Cotati's long-running hometown record store was sold to a national chain, Value Music Concepts Inc., based in Georgia. More toys, more video games, more sunglasses and apparel suddenly filled the aisles. Some of the staff remained—for a time. Most people now hardly recognize their old haunt, and even recently, corporate headquarters replaced Backdoor's manager with a transplant from Alabama to run things.
In spirit if not in proper definition, Backdoor remains a signpost on the local record store roundup. The staff is friendly and qualified, the selection includes local bands, the racks are home to KRSH's "CD Pick of the Week" and, in an ironic twist, they've started selling vinyl again, years after changing their name from Backdoor Records to Backdoor Disc.
Backdoor Disc, 7665 Old Redwood Hwy., Cotati. 707.795.9597. On April 17, an in-store appearance by Electric Funeral at 7pm. April 18, live in-stores by East Coast Kids at 2pm, Sonicbloom at 6pm, and special sales, exclusives and sidewalk clearance throughout the day.