The Coolest Record Store in the World
By Dylan de Thomas
A favorite record store is like a favorite ice cream. The ingredients are basically the same: cream, sugar, and favorite flavor; and in the case of a store records, CDs and favorite flavor. It's the flavor that counts. I want a store with selection, but I don't need a football-field sized collection. I want a store that's friendly, but I don't want part-time kids who have the job for pocket money and aren't interested in what they're selling. I want a knowledgeable staff, but I don't want to be snubbed by some snide hipster/punk/fill-in-the-blank type. I want to be turned on to new music by someone who will witness the virtues of a particular band or sound with all the earnestness of a preacher in a revival tent, but you know, in a low-key way.
Aquarius Records, "The Store That's Old Enough to Drink," opened its doors in 1970. Through the years it has been the champion of many different kinds of music - Punk in the 70's, New Wave in the 80's - and is now an eclectic grab bag of genres and bands from Power Pop to Kraut Rock, from Norwegian Death Metal to field recordings of frogs, from Japanese Psych Pop practitioners Nagisa Ni Te to, well, Foreigner.
A visit to San Francisco requires a pilgrimage to Haight-Ashbury and its acre-sized Amoeba Records. Once you've checked your bags it's fairly easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer size - it can feel like an airplane hangar and, though it is a great record store, one can leave there feeling like you've read the phone book. Friends will leave there with a stack of CDs in hand, but a glazed and kinda empty look in their eyes after consuming to the point of bursting. And, don't get me wrong, it's one of the best independent record stores in the country, but if I'm going to drop the cash on the Merzbow box set, Merzbox ("The ultimate artifact of Japanese noise music"), then I want someone who can tell me what the hell it is. And this is why going into Aquarius Records can feel like finding a new home.
The storefront is plate glass with a creaky door that matches the rough-hewn hardwood plank floor. The door opens to a light and expansive-feeling space that's small but not at all cramped. The ceiling is draped with cloth with clusters of bare light bulbs hanging down, and the walls are adorned with Art from revolving exhibitions. The music is broken up into genres, but not according to standard retail rules. "We have arguments about how we don't like having the store categorized in different genres because you don't want to ghettoize things," manager/buyer Allan Horrocks said, "You don't want to pigeonhole things, you know? Eclecticism is a virtue here. We have an educational mission, in a way, and we try to be super friendly," he said, "Not, like, 'Oh, You Don't Know About That?' but more like, 'Hey, you should know about this and I want to tell you about it because it's one of my favorite things.'"
Twice monthly, Aquarius comes out with an email of a list of the new arrivals that have found their way to the shelves of the store on Valencia Street in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco and about 7000 people find it waiting in their inboxes every other Friday night. Personally, I look forward to it with great anticipation, not knowing what's in store for me. When I open it, I scroll through the list of artists and albums looking for names that I recognize or that ring a bell and, sometimes, just lines like, "You hear that? That echoing, droning heavy psych jamming destroying your mind? Yep, at last, we've got 'em," talking about Japanese psych folks, Les Rallizes Denudes will grab me. "THIS RECORD SCARES US. Hearing it is like stumbling upon some forbidden ancient ritual that scares you to death. You stand paralyzed, too afraid to look away," is a recent addition writing about Comus' First Utterance, the best "British pagan folk psychedelic prog rock album ever." The list, along with their website, has album art and sound clips from the various records that they sell, too. Though, as the website warns many times, the database is not always up to date; the breadth of the selection is impressive.
Aquarius Records can take an indie pop-loving guy in his 40s and turn him into a Black Metalhead. "We had this one guy, who's one of our favorites, who is a middle aged guy and his son would come in and buy the twee indie pop stuff, Japanese bands that were really wispy and pretty and everything. Then, after a while they got into more droney and blissful like the stuff on Kranky. We played this Burzum ("Black Metal's homicidal answer to Aphex Twin") record, which is a black metal band but it's really trancey, it has this trancey buzz, and we told him that if he liked the stuff by so and so then he might like Burzum, and he did. The next thing you know he and his son are just coming in and buying death metal CDs. And that's success!"
Another success story of Aquarius is the Conet Project, "a record that's near and dear to everyone's heart at AQ," a 4-cd box set of recordings of "number stations" - short-wave radio stations that feature nothing more than a rotating roster of voices reading streams of numbers (and just might be codes for spies) - that became a big hit selling nearly 400 copies. Which, at $60 a pop is no mean feat. Norwegian cut-up artist When's record The Lobster Boys ("totally catchy, sunshiney blend of ethno-sampledelic rhythmic groove that reminds us a lot of AQ-staff-and-customer fave Milk Cult, and yet it's also *exuberant* pop heavily influenced by the Beach Boys") is a further example of a hit for Aquarius, where they sold more than 200 copies of it, accounting for most of the copies sold in the US, and coming close to its sales figures in Europe. "The guy who runs the label emailed me just to say 'thanks' and to make sure we had his other stuff." While perusing the site, click on the "streaming audio clips" link and you'll hear all of the sound samples of their current new arrivals list playing for you as you read it. When you're in the store, on many of the CDs is a card with the review that made it to the list printed up, so if you're there, and wondering which Bright Eyes ("If you're partial to music that stirs from beyond the point of one's deepest melancholia - clawing at the walls in despair, drowning in a sea of tear-soaked handkerchiefs, clinging to the last sliver of hope... get the picture? - Nebraska's Bright Eyes may be for you.") record to pick up, you can read the cards to get some information if you're too shy to talk to the friendly staff.
One of the benefits of the new arrivals list is that it's like a biweekly educational tract about the music that Aquarius stocks and that its employees love. Even if you don't live in SF, you can get the email and read the evocative, well-written screeds on bands that you may or may not know, but will want to soon. Their website also has a keyword search, so if you want to search their database with the name of your favorite band - Built To Spill, say - then you can type that in and get a list of the reviews in the database where they've been referenced; it's a good way to get a human version of the Amazon ("If You Liked Thatů") thing. Or, to have even more fun, type in some of their oft-used modifiers like "ridiculous" or "fucked" and get a great, varied list of bands that are kinda fucked and maybe a little ridiculous, but are indeed intriguing. The biggest bonus for those that don't live in SF is the ability to receive the same attention that you would if you came into the store. You can correspond with Andee, the mail-order guy, who will answer any questions that you might have while ordering CDs via email. They do a third of their business via mail order and, when you order something (which you should) you can have actual human contact instead of some credit card-bot that you're typing numbers into at 3am in the morning.
Because the reviews (mostly) don't have a byline and everyone who works for the store contributes to the list, all of the genres and musics end up being covered by someone in the store. Though all of the employees may have a field of expertise, none cleaves to only one type of music. Jim, one of the noise and experimental authorities at the store, is also a visual artist with a show on rust and decay (go to the art/photo exhibits page on the site to see some examples) currently exhibiting down in San Jose. Cup is a member of the band I Am Spoonbender ("brilliant fare, in which the telephone operates as metaphor to semiological, aural, and sidereal transmissions [Andee's interpretation: 'They sing into phones']") and can hold forth on electro and power pop. Andee runs the label tUMULt, which is the house label of sorts, and helps Allan with the ordering of varied metal genres. Sadie is a member of the Husbands, who just recorded their first album. Byram, the recent recipient of a music degree from U.C. Berkeley, is the dub and reggae expert. Most have worked there for several years and, according to Allan the store is "like a family. When we do hire someone it's a difficult decision because you know that the person is going to work there for the next five years or something."
Part of the phenomenon of Aquarius Records is their ability to find wonder and beauty and interest in all sorts of kinds of music, where for others it might be easy to miss. "We keep selling these recordings of frogs," Allan said, "Which a lot of people would call a novelty, but I love that stuff. Why listen to some guy with a laptop who's trying to come up with sounds that aren't even close to being as cool as recordings of Alaskan sled dogs or penguins? You know? We're really proud of our store and we try to be the best record store that we can be. We're enthusiasts. We just want to turn people on to great music. It's a lot of work, but it's a great job."