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Record Chain Bets on the Past, Future

No industry has been as thoroughly eviscerated by new technologies and changing cultural norms as the music business.

The record companies are consolidating, laying people off, wondering whither their audience has fled.

Record chains like Tower Records and Wherehouse Music have spent long stretches under bankruptcy protection. Makers of portable devices and purveyors of online music are all searching for the right formula to serve a mass market.

Through all this upheaval, Amoeba Music survives. The independent record chain was founded in 1990 in a Berkeley storefront and subsequently expanded to three stores -- one on San Francisco’s Haight Street and another, launched in November 2001 near Sunset and Vine, that instantly became a Hollywood landmark.

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Up to now Amoeba’s success has been based on looking backward. It relies for as much as half its unit volume on used, vintage, and collectible LPs (“vinyl” in used-record parlance), CDs, and DVDs on which high profit margins make up for the razor-thin margins on new CDs. Amoeba’s used-record buyers are masters at assessing with a glance material that comes across its trade-in counters by the thousands per day -- more than 200,000 items a month at the Hollywood location alone, not including items acquired from established collections or at estate sales.

But Amoeba is about to take a couple of big leaps into the future, with plans to start its own record label and to create an online site for downloadable music.

“We’re starting the 21st century now,” Dave Prinz, 52, one of the company’s co-founders, told me last week in Berkeley. “The Internet is changing everything. We were ignoring it.”

As a chain that has stayed in private hands, remained manageably compact, and built a devoted (not to say fanatical) clientele, Amoeba has long seemed immune from the changes roiling the rest of the industry. Only this year has it detected any flattening of sales that might arguably be traced to free peer-to-peer music trading and commercial downloading sites.

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Part of its appeal to customers is the stores’ unique atmosphere. Amoeba shuns industry promotions that make customers at Tower Records or Best Buy feel as if they’re trapped in a “living commercial,” in the words of Marc Weinstein, 48, who was working in a Bay Area record store when he co-founded Amoeba with Prinz and two other friends. (One, Karen Pearson, now oversees the L.A. store; the other is retired.)

Amoeba takes great pride in the uncanny erudition of its staff -- its test for applicants for a buyer’s position is so tough that, according to company legend, only one person, a buyer at the Haight store, has ever notched a perfect grade.

Indeed, armed with a list of hard-to-find CDs from several genres, I was able to stump the Berkeley floor staff on only one, an obscure Hungarian recording of the ensemble piece “Coming Together/Attica” by composer Frederic Rzewski that I’ve been trying to replace for years.

Amoeba is the rare chain where the inventory encompasses items including the Guarneri Quartet’s 30-year-old recording of Mozart’s Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn, Ellington’s “Great Paris Concert” and a huge selection of the avant-garde saxophonist John Zorn -- not to mention black metal, electronica, world music and much more. The very breadth of the inventory creates its own sense of community among the customers -- especially within the diversity of L.A.

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“Amoeba is this little distillation machine,” Weinstein says. “I can’t tell you how many people thank me just for creating a place you can go and be proud of the L.A. scene.”

Weinstein and his partners have consistently resisted pressure to expand the chain beyond what they could embrace with their own arms, turning down feelers from New York and Chicago. Los Angeles was harder to rebuff, in part because customers visiting the Bay Area from Southern California kept pleading for a local outlet.

“L.A. was the biggest chance we took,” Weinstein says. “It was the chance of losing control.”

The owners focused their energies by making the L.A. store big enough to serve as a destination for the entire region. They spent roughly $2.5 million to acquire used vinyl and CDs over a period of months before the grand opening of their 30,000-square-foot store, seeding it with an inventory that exceeded that of the two Bay Area stores combined.

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The new store soon exceeded the owners’ projections, and not merely in sales volume.

“The sheer number of hard-core music lovers and collectors in L.A. was far beyond what we expected,” Weinstein says. “Then there’s the ethnic and economic diversity. It’s a deep and rich tapestry, and after 25 years up here in the Bay Area, it’s refreshing to have that alternative reality in my life.”

Still, opening a major bricks-and-mortar location doesn’t sound like an experience the partners are eager to repeat. Instead, they’re contemplating alternative ways of distributing music.

That has led to plans, still in development, for an Internet download site, perhaps to absorb the technological challenges they know are coming. “The next store we build will be virtual,” Prinz says.

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More advanced are plans for an Amoeba record label. Prinz, an enthusiast who wears his passions on his sleeve, says the first CD, scheduled for January, will be a previously unreleased 1969 concert recording by one of his artistic heroes, the country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Prinz hopes to follow the CD with other archival material from Parsons, only a fraction of which appeared before the musician’s death in 1973 at the age of 26.

Amoeba will also release an album featuring the Robin Nolan Trio, a Gypsy jazz group inspired by Django Reinhardt, and Brandi Shearer, a local singer who happened to join the Nolan group for a promotional appearance at the Haight Street store and knocked Prinz over with her smoky voice.

The label’s business model will thus reflect that of the stores -- a little looking back, and a little looking forward. Says Weinstein, “this business has always been about the cool stuff we could bring to people.”

You can reach Michael Hiltzik at golden.state@latimes.com and view his weblog at latimes.com/goldenstateblog.

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