aQuarius Records (aQ) has been championing the fringes of music for 45 years now. They think. It could be 46, as the San Francisco record store has a murky sense of its own history – with no one working there having been around when the shop opened, which was either in 1969 or 1970. No matter which date is actually correct, aQ still holds the title as the oldest independent record store that sells indie music in the city, an accomplishment that rings all the more vital as these businesses continue to struggle as the local music landscape evolves.
The store is not letting this important milestone go unnoticed — and has chosen to host itself a birthday party on November 15. The celebrations will include a storewide sale, a special aQ anniversary zine, limited edition aQ totes, and a cast of DJs keeping music going throughout the 11am-9pm event. The musician lineup includes a number of aQ staff members, as well as Josh Cheon, Chris McVicker, and DJ Prajmetal, among many others. The storewide sale includes deals on vinyls and cds and a special promotion where every $45 purchase will earn 10% off your next visit to the store. Throughout the day Voodoo Van will serve sandwiches, tacos and an assortment of fried food, and expect a outdoor BYOBBQ later in the afternoon.
Suffice to say, aQ is very excited about the whole shebang. We asked the store’s co-owner Allan Horrocks to reflect a bit about his time at the store and aQuarius Records’ lasting legacy.
The Bay Bridged: Why do you think aQ has lasted longer than many a record store that has come and gone in the city?
Allan Horrocks: Love. Foolish love. We’ve just been lucky to have had so many people over the years involved in supporting the store and its dedication to discovering and sharing new music (whether new wave in the ‘70s or stuff like black metal, international psych, and field recordings today) — people including not just Aquarius’ various owners and employees but also all our loyal customers in San Francisco and around the world, too.
How has aQ evolved in its 45 (or 46) years of operation?
This one I don’t know if we have time/space to really get into, but definitely the shop has continually expanded its reach, definitely making a big step in the ‘90s when we first started selling music on the Internet. Also, certainly some specialties have come and gone (there was a time when we had a big section of foo wop and rockabilly records, for instance) but we think the core values have remained, in terms of stocking and promoting the music that we love, whatever it might be, without regard to, shall we say, what ‘the industry’ thinks people should buy.
How do you think a shifting location has affected the store?
Well, we weren’t around for the move from Castro St. to 24th in Noe Valley, so I don’t know what prompted that move, but I would guess it might have to do with the same reason we moved down from Noe Valley to Valencia St. in the Mission in the mid-nineties; it was to be where our customers are. Moving to Valencia Street was definitely a good thing, and we are very lucky to have a wonderful, wonderful landlord here too. But, as the City has changed in recent years, the Mission unfortunately is less and less the place it was when we moved down here, and like a lot of businesses around here, we’re finding our customers have been displaced, forced out. This used to be where creative people, artists, musicians, punks, made their homes alongside the longstanding Latino families, but it’s harder and harder to afford to live in the neighborhood. So when and if we ever move again, to be closer to our customers, regrettably, that might mean out of the City too. But we really would prefer to remain where we are, we love San Francisco and the Mission! At least, until it’s been completely ruined…
Where did the idea for the “New Arrivals List” and the in-depth employee reviews come from? How long have you been doing them for and how have they changed over time?
The previous owner of the store, Windy Chien, came up with the idea of doing an email list with reviews, and website, back in like ’94 or ’95 or so. At the time we were ahead of the curve with online sales and stuff, Windy was very much into the possibilities of the Internet. The reviews, though, started off as brief tags on items in the store, handwritten, what bookstores call “shelf-talkers”, and eventually morphed into the lengthy (often too-lengthy) essays you see us do today. We’re trying to scale them back just a little bit nowadays but we do often get carried away still, hopefully that’s something people like about us. We’re enthusiastic about the music we love, no doubt about it.
aQ has hosted a number of acclaimed artists throughout the years. What have been your personal favorite in-store performances?
You’re right, there’s been so many. Well, my faves include Alec Empire (in part ‘cause of how much his noisy music freaked out the sound guy that came with the gear Grand Royal had rented for the performance, the guy’s face when this ‘German DJ’ started in with some Merzbow-style noise was priceless), Author & Punisher (another noisy one, and great to see his instrument-sculptures up close), Green Milk From The Planet Orange (a Japanese psych-prog band who got very creative with the idea of doing a stripped-down, acoustic set, including drumming on a pair of empty soda cans taped to the floor), um… Stinking Lizaveta, who always rule; Silver Sun, who did an acoustic set; Scud Mountain Boys, who were lovely; and of course Jonathan Richman, such a showman: he did one in-store that was just him solo, no guitar, no mic, just singing, with him up on the countertop, the place packed. Very impressive. And there’s been so many, many, more, so that’s just off the top of my head and I’m sure I’m omitting something else really incredible… Oh, Neutral Milk Hotel!!
How did you come up with the idea to release a 45th anniversary zine as part of the celebration?
It was Irwin who works here who came up with the idea, and it’s great one ‘cause what we do at AQ is a lot like doing a ‘zine anyway, what with writing all our reviews and putting out the list. Zine is short for FANzine and we’re definitely all about being fans. We love zines and are excited about doing this one. Maybe we’ll do more!
What plans do you have for aQ for the next 45 years? Or if you have not thought that far ahead, the next few years?
Oh boy… Well, honestly, we’re lucky to have gotten this far, and if we make it another 45 years the owners will be in their ’90s. So, long before that, somebody else would have had to have taken over and changed things up for sure. Indeed, to make it to 50 we’ll have to change some things up as well. Working on that! Also, our big immediate plans revolve around getting our website redesign finished, that’s a big deal. It’s been in the works for years, hoping that it’ll finally get done soon.
What are your personal picks for the best album(s) of the year?
Another tough one. The year’s not up yet! Andee (the store’s other co-owner) will probably have a huge list for you, mine so far would have these at least in the top ten: TAROT The Warrior’s Spell (Heavy Chains Records & Tapes), SWEAT LODGE Talismana (Ripple), and FOLLAKZOID III (Sacred Bones). Also we just got the new SATAN’S SATYRS in today, Don’t Deliver Us (Bad Omen), haven’t even heard it yet but it’ll be contender I’m sure. Those are some very personal picks, perhaps, though! Oh, and then there are also a couple crucial reissues this year that should be mentioned; SUN CITY GIRLS Torch Of The Mystics (Abduction) and ATA KAK Obaa Sima (Awesome Tapes From Africa).