Earlier this week, indie retailing powerhouse Amoeba Music announced the creation of a GoFundMe page as a way to offset costs associated with the COVID-19 shutdown. Like most businesses, the record store, which opened its massive Hollywood location in 2001 and has two locations in the San Francisco area, is still paying rent, bills and health insurance for some of its 400 employees.
Setting a goal of $400,000, the company wrote, in part: “We have weathered many storms — 911, recessions, the Internet, downloading and streaming. But we don’t know that we can weather the COVID-19 storm.” Their stores have been closed since mid-March, founders Marc Weinstein and Dave Prinz continued in the note, and with no “no way to generate income, our savings are running out.”
They stressed that Amoeba is exploring “every possible means of support, including federal and local grants and loans. But these funds are not guaranteed to come in, and they won’t meet the needs of our short-term future. So, we most humbly ask for your help.”
The funding plea has since gone viral. Within 48 hours, Amoeba had raised more than one-third of its goal.
Speaking on Wednesday, Amoeba Music co-owner Jim Henderson acknowledged that Ameoba’s fundraising ask “is a very unnatural and, frankly, uncomfortable position for us. But, you know, pride and preference are taking a backseat right now to necessity and survival.”
In Amoeba’s case, the pandemic arrived as its Hollywood location was in transition. In 2015, the company sold its 24,000-square-foot building at Sunset and Cahuenga to developer GPI Companies for a reported $34 million. Since then, Amoeba has been paying rent on Sunset as it scouted a new location. Last year, the company announced that it had found one to lease a few blocks east at Hollywood and Argyle and received its building permits last month. That means that the company is paying rent on two big spaces, neither of them generating money, in the heart of Hollywood.
“We really feel like once we can get into the new space, we’re going to have room to breathe and do all the things that we’ve been otherwise encumbered due to lack of finance,” Henderson said.
Construction on the new spot will begin “within the next week or so,” he added, saying that he remains cautiously optimistic that the location will celebrate its grand opening in the fall. Asked if he’d spoken to city officials about that hope, Henderson said that he had but that no one has been willing to guarantee a citywide retail reopening date or even offered a possible range.
Most pressing, Henderson said, was ensuring that customers understood the plight of Amoeba’s staff. He called the GoFundMe campaign “an opportunity to help keep our staff whole with health benefits being covered, and to help bridge the gap.” Amoeba continues to pay its salaried employees’ health insurance, and has applied for loans under the CARES Act, Henderson says, but has yet to receive a response.
Still, that $34-million sale price suggests Amoeba might have a cushion. Asked whether the real estate transaction gave Amoeba’s ownership some wiggle room, Henderson said no. Calling the reported sale price “a bit of a thorn in our side,” he noted that the number has “always come without any context. It is a nice number for people to throw out there and to put in print that paints a picture of eternal wealth.”
But, Henderson continued, “the reality of it is, we got a great deal for the building, but we needed a great deal to pay off past debts. When the recession came along, we were impacted by the fallout from a traumatic national financial catastrophe. That went hand-in-hand with the emergence of streaming services. So we got double sucker-punched.” He added that Amoeba’s rent on the Sunset location is “above market rate,” though he declined to offer details.
In a practical sense, the obligations and timetable puts into question whether it even makes financial sense for Amoeba to reopen at the 6400 Sunset Blvd. location or focus its energy toward a reawakening at Argyle and Hollywood. Will customers be able to shop in the old location one last time? Will there be a closing party?
“We hope so, but we just don’t know,” Henderson says.
Its customer base would likely show up for a send-off. Since Amoeba’s Hollywood grand opening, the store has hosted hundreds of in-store concerts and album-signing events. Among those who have graced the stage: Paul McCartney, Lana Del Rey, Gary Numan, Best Coast, Charles Bradley and the Lonely Island. As well, the Sunset store has documented the shopping sprees of the famous with its popular “What’s in My Bag” series. The YouTube clips, which show famous people such as Lena Dunham, Childish Gambino, Ice Cube, Bob Odenkirk and Sky Ferreira buying records with an Amoeba gift certificate, have generated millions of views.
Henderson explained that “everybody is hoping that sometime this summer we’ll re-open, to some degree.” But, he stressed, “as a high-traffic, high-volume retailer, we have to look at what that’s going to look like for us.” He predicts that “there will be social distancing practices still in place, limitations to how many people can come into the building at any given time. No gathering for shows, and a staff of nearly 200 people who are going to have varying degrees of health concerns and safety concerns.”
While the future is uncertain, he concluded, “We’re still on track and moving forward with the Argyle plan. And I’m looking forward to a fall opening.”