There is a time in many record collectors’ lives (including mine) when you’re surfing on Discogs, or standing in a frenzy of shoppers and tourists at Amoeba, and it suddenly dawns that there must be something more. Small record stores emerge from the city walls into your line of sight, almost as if they were hidden and revealed only to a keen eye. But little did we know that these shops were here all along, waiting for us to come in and explore.
The great thing about record shopping isn’t always finding what you wanted. It’s about discovering a song you didn’t know existed, and falling in love. It’s about the unpredictable journey more than the destination. This is a journey through six very different San Francisco record shops, and an exploration of the unique finds they each have to offer. Each of these shops meets my personal qualifications of what makes a great record store:
1) The owner and employees are friendly, approachable, and know something about the records in the shop. They are happy to give out information and suggestions.
2) It must have listening stations. Part of the joy of crate digging is finding something you’ve never heard of before and falling in love with it. I’ve picked up records based on nothing more than cover art or release label, then taken them to the listening station and discovered some of my favorite albums. Having the ability to explore is part of the joy we share as vinyl lovers. I’ve also put back many records after listening, and I’m glad I did. The listening station is key.
3) The store is big enough to move around, but not too big or disorganized or it can become intimidating.
With these qualifications in mind, the journey begins.
1055 Valencia Street
Located on Valencia and 21st Street, Aquarius is probably the most popular small record shop in San Francisco. This is in part because Aquarius sells new releases, displayed in writing on a large chalkboard above the register. And though new vinyl is something you won’t find in many of the other shops on this list, they also have a great collection of used vinyl, and often host in-store performances and meet & greets. Aquarius is a great alternative for those who love Amoeba Records, and you won’t get out of the store without seeing a handful of upcoming show posters.
687 Haight Street
Nestled in the middle of lower Haight, Groove Merchant is stacked to the brim with soul, funk, jazz, and R&B records. There’s a smaller selection of experimental music and psychedelic rock n’ roll as well, but this shop is really for the funk junkie. Like many record shop owners, Cool Chris is a local DJ. Pick up a copy of Wax Poetics magazine while you’re there.
593 Haight Street
Just a block away from Groove Merchant, step off the curb and below street level into Vinyl Dreams. SF residents from 2013 and earlier might remember this spot as the late Black Pancake Records. One of few record shops in the city specializing in electronic music, Vinyl Dreams boasts an approachable but deep cut selection of basically every electronic genre, from disco to industrial to ambient and everything in between. Sometimes during street fairs, the shop owner Mike hosts local DJs in the front window.
448 Haight Street
Also housed on lower Haight Street, Rooky looks a bit gritty from the outside, but inside the shop is a soul lover’s playground. Crates upon crates of soul, R&B, oldies, and rock records line the room, with a special focus on 45s. The owner Dick has held down shop for over 25 years, and is known for being especially knowledgeable and friendly. Many great local musicians have also worked at Rooky Ricardo’s, including Nick Waterhouse and Al Lover. In the center of the room there’s not just one but four listening stations, making Rookies a place of true discovery.
The Explorist International
3174 24th Street
In the Mission on 24th and Shotwell, The Explorist International is my personal favorite. There are two curators who populate the shop – the “Explorist” and “Pyramid”. The Explorist section holds a very wide range of music, with everything from new releases by local bands to world music, to post-punk and reggae. The Pyramid section holds mostly pop and rock music from the 70’s through the early 2000s, with a special interest in Rough Trade, 4AD, and music snob approved choices. The owner is always playing a record from his personal collection, usually something wonderfully odd.
In the heart of the Tenderloin, RS94109 is named for its location. This is the second shop on the list specializing in electronic music, and the only shop on the list that sells nothing but that. It’s a large-ish shop with a cool, cavernous feel and a well-curated selection of techno, house, experimental, industrial, and other electronic genres. Lovers of dark electronic will find a happy home here. The shop owners often host parties into the evening with local DJs after shop hours.