It’s early afternoon on a Tuesday and Kirk Heydt, proprietor of 2-year-old, Petaluma-based Spin Records (1020 Petaluma Blvd. N.), is gently placing a record needle to vinyl while he explains to a customer that, “in the beginning of this ballad by the Ohio Players, the drummer just breaks into a drum solo. In a ballad! You never hear that and it actually got airplay!”
It’s the kind of infectious, in-person enthusiasm that all but disappeared with the advent of illegal music downloading, which rebranded to corporate “streaming services” which, for the most part, killed record (and video) stores while also managing to devalue the very thing corporations were trying to exploit for money: music.
Yet record stores aren’t down for the count quite yet.
“I make enough to stay here and where I am; there’s no foot traffic, so it’s a destination,” Heydt says. “I have really loyal customers who are into all the way-obscure stuff—some very ‘not cheap’ records—and they really keep me going. It seems like a lot of people are getting more into records, too, which is cool.”
Spin Records, which formerly shared space with a scooter-repair shop that since moved next door, feels a bit like a stall one might find at a flea market, combined with a record store. Vintage posters and records grace the walls, and one could easily get lost in the rows of records Heydt curates from his own collection as well as from hitting up garage sales and thrift stores. He also does trade-ins, which typically garner a customer a better rate than a straight sale. His clientele varies.
“I get older people; teens come in with their moms,” he says. “Collectors come down from all over.”
Collectors obviously know all the local hot-spots for vinyl but, if one’s looking to get into vinyl, it can be daunting. Where does one begin in a store with so much vinyl, like Spin? How does one even choose which record store to shop in, given all the North Bay options?
We asked Jason “Scone Bone” Scogna, who loves vinyl so much, he’s added a monthly addition to his “Scone Bone” radio show Monday nights from 7–9pm on Petaluma’s KPCA (103.3 FM and KPCA.fm online) in which fellow vinyl lovers play staples from their own collections on the air. Scogna says that, like many people, he began collecting vinyl with hand-me-downs from his parents.
“I got things from them—Beatles, the Doors,” he says. “Then I actively started collecting in 2006.”
Scogna explains that even though he was living in San Francisco at the time, he frequently made the trip to the Last Record Store in Santa Rosa (1899 Mendocino Ave.).
“I’d say half of my collection is from there,” he says over coffee in downtown Petaluma. When asked why he didn’t shop exclusively in San Francisco, he says, “There’s a lot of record collectors in the city and they’re very active, so when you get to the new-arrival bins, nothing’s left that you want.”
Doug Jayne owns the Last Record Store, undoubtedly the premiere record store in Sonoma County. Hoyt Wilhelm, his trusty, bearded sidekick, frequently runs the register. The store features an excellent selection and knowledgeable, friendly service.
When asked if the name of the store was some kind of prophecy, Jayne laughs. “No, not at all,” he says. “We named it after a Little Feet album titled The Last Record Album.”
Still, Jayne says that when he had to move the store from its downtown Santa Rosa location in 2003, they weren’t sure it would survive. It was “Record Store Day” in 2008 that really brought attention back to vinyl. Each April the annual event features special vinyl releases from a wide variety of artists, all to encourage music lovers to shop at locally-owned record stores.
“Now once a year, we’re like Russian River Brewing Company when they release Pliny the Younger; we have a line around the block,” Jayne says.
Scogna also recommends Watts Music (1211 Grant Ave.) in Novato because, “to them, it’s not about making a sale, it’s about creating a customer.” Which is something he not only respects, but sees as a smart move—because everyone in the record-collecting community talks and shares stories, good and bad.
“You know, take an album like Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers’ live, last show at Max’s in Kansas City,” Scogna says, by way of example. “Maybe a $10 record; Watts had it for $7. So, totally worth it.”
Indeed, a stop at Watt’s immediately reveals the long-forgotten smell of the record store. Used and new vinyl is neatly organized among that truly dead form of physical media: the CD. The gentleman working the counter is friendly and doesn’t bombard customers with his musical taste or the dreaded question, “Is there something specific you’re looking for?”
Friendly service matters because, honestly, shopping for vinyl can be intimidating. No one wants to come off like a newbie, and many record-store owners are clichés of John Cusack’s High Fidelity Rob Gordon character, with his menagerie of know-it-all pseudo-employees who’d prefer you shop elsewhere even though they’re ostensibly trying to make a living through record sales.
Scogna admits that sometimes record-store owners can be “aloof”, and a simple Yelp search of Red Devil Records (894 4th St. in San Rafael) shows this can be the case. A kinder review states the store “reeks of baby boomer record snobbery.”
Yet Yelp shouldn’t be completely trusted. On a short visit to the quaint downtown shop one Saturday afternoon, the mood was light and owner Barry Lazarus was chill as jazz saxophone crooned out from the store hi-fi. Red Devil has a terrific selection, particularly of jazz which, much like country music, just sounds better on vinyl. And hey, why not go for the full record-store experience if you’re just starting out?
Many North Bay shops and stores, such as Sonoma’s Jack’s Filling Station (899 Broadway), also feature vinyl in addition to other fare. Inside Jack’s, worlds collide, with masses of old-school toys and knick-knacks sitting side-by-side with a great beer-and-wine selection. There’s also a nice record rack in the old car-repair garage area.
Petaluma’s retro video-game store, Nostalgia Alley (36 Petaluma Blvd. N.), has about 100 vinyl records in stock, and those interested in starting up the vinyl habit should also consider looking in thrift stores and used bookstores, or simply asking around.
“I think the thing about being into records and going to record shops is that tactile feel,” Scognia says. “Older records have a smell, too, and the pop and hiss when they play. There’s the cover art, which is a large piece, and then on the back or inside, there’s liner notes about the band. It’s like a Wikipedia right there, and you’re reading it as the record plays.”