How An Iconic Indie Record Store Stays Relevant

The cofounder of Amoeba Music has the right mix of partnership, passion, and the importance of sharing a few beers with your employees.

In an era of 99-cent song downloads and the ability to pay a nominal fee to stream entire libraries of music, Marc Weinstein’s enterprise is an anomaly—a throwback to another time.

The shaggy-haired music lover, who’s nearly 60 and has been working in record stores in some capacity for most of his life, is a cofounder of California-based independent music retailer Amoeba Music. A brick-and-mortar record shop might sound like a retail relic, but one aspect that makes the company Weinstein leads with co-owners Dave Prinz, Karen Pearson, and Jim Henderson unique is its sheer size.

Far from a neighborhood record shop trying to make a go of it, Amoeba is big—its Los Angeles location alone has an inventory of more than 1 million items, and presents customers with almost an acre of music. And the company is profitable, to boot.

In addition to a store in L.A., the chain includes locations in San Francisco and Berkeley that collectively boast more than 80,000 square feet of space and employs 450 people. Because Amoeba’s leadership scours estate sales and other sources around the country for rare finds to fill its shelves, it’s a paradise especially for collectors and enthusiasts who know they can’t stay away too long for fear of overlooking a musical gem that wasn’t there last time.

Weinstein acknowledges the boulder his company is trying to push uphill. For example, sales at the Berkeley store have dipped, as the area’s demographic skews younger and away from feeling compelled to buy music that you put into a bag to take home.

Still, Amoeba is celebrating its 24th birthday this year, proving Weinstein and Co. have learned a thing or two about leading a company that's in an industry in transition. In fact, Weinstein believes the principles that guide Amoeba’s leadership have applicability for the sale of everything from books to newspapers to widgets—for any business that’s worried about digitally induced oblivion.

Find the yin to your yang

John Lennon had Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger had Keith Richards, and for Weinstein, having someone like Prinz around helps make the leadership team a fruitful one.

“Dave loves to negotiate leases and deal with attorneys,” Weinstein says, explaining how their skill sets and temperaments complement each other. “I’m the complete opposite. I’m creative; I love being around people; I’m a drummer; and I have a degree in fine arts."

“We opened kind of late in the game, when you look back," he says. "Already stores were getting knocked out in the first wave of the emergence of the big stores and chains. In the Bay Area there’s obviously a lot of avid record collectors, and I’d been working in record stores myself and had a lot of experience. Dave had owned a chain of video stores, and we met and kind of conjured up this idea. I think we both thought there was room for an improved model in the market.”

When Weinstein says he loves being around people, that includes everything from keeping his finger on the pulse of great music by hitting up as many shows as he can, to hanging out with Amoeba employees after work.

“I love to drink beers with people who work in the shops,” Weinstein says. “Connecting to the ownership helps and makes the whole thing gel a lot more than you’d typically find in a business our size. The ownership is always around. It’s one reason we haven’t opened up out of state. It would mean we as the owners would have to go there all the time, because we’re in all the stores here all the time.”

Empower passionate people throughout the organization

Weinstein says Amoeba’s leadership learned early on to treat the different sections in their stores almost as record stores unto themselves, putting them under the care of knowledgeable and passionate employees.

“We’ve got a reggae section, for example, with a guy who knows Jamaican music really well,” Weinstein says. “We have experts in the different genres in charge of their own floor, and buying and making their own decisions.”

The way customers feel in the stores also is important to Amoeba’s owners. Weinstein says they don’t want employees to seem snobby or standoffish. In fact, he doesn’t want overt selling taking place.

Instead, he’d prefer that customers feel comfortable asking questions and discover what they want, as opposed to music being sold to them.

“Record shoppers are very acutely aware of whether a store cares or not,” he says. “Our L.A. store alone has a staff of 250, and they’re all musicians, writers, and interesting people. It always feels like a place to be, no matter when you come in. Everybody here . . . is hands on, top to bottom.”

Build your customer’s ideal experience

From the posters on the wall—which Weinstein says are an extension of the high school bedrooms of Weinstein’s and Prinz’s youth—to the thick Music We Like book Amoeba regularly puts out that includes music recommendations from Amoeba employees, Weinstein says the entire Amoeba experience has started from a simple place.

Imagine the ideal record shop a customer might want to visit—and build that.

It’s a principle Weinstein believes translates widely across the business sphere and among leaders of all stripes. Amoeba is a business for music fans, run by music fans. Weinstein knows what his customers want because he’s one of them.

“We started from day one with the idea that anything anybody wants to listen to that gives them that kind of spiritual buzz is okay with us,” he says. “People spend their whole lives listening to music, and it goes deep for them for so many reasons.”

Weinstein likes to stress the importance of “the theater of retail.” By that, he means everything from the appearance of the stores to the live performances from both celebrity names, as well as smaller acts that help get people in the doors. Amoeba’s ideas about retail also extend to innovative promotions like the company’s “What’s in My Bag?” web series, which puts customers, artists, and staff in front of the camera to show some of the interesting finds they’ve picked up at Amoeba.

Last year, the series won a Webby Award that included competition from Conan O’Brien, Fandango, and SoulPancake.

“What we’ve tried to do is imagine the ideal store in our customers’ eyes, and that’s what we shoot for,” Weinstein says. “We focus on the essentials, and the brick-and-mortar model has kept us going just fine.”

[Image: Flickr user Jumilla]

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  • Love this store. Was blown away by the Northern Cal branches long ago and when they opened down the street from me in Hollywood it became an incredible weekly ritual. Thanks for the behind the biz story, glad to hear the folks that make the store happen are cool too!