Meet the new Amoeba… same as the old Amoeba? In many ways, yes, despite reopening in a geographically more iconic location, just a block east of the intersection of Hollywood and Vine, after year on pause. The new Hollywood outpost of Amoeba Music officially opens today, April 1, with lineups expected outside the store, at least initially, thanks to capacity restrictions and pent-up retail-therapy hunger from the store’s avid customer base.
Would Variety ever devote saturation coverage to a retail store under practically any other circumstance? No. But to a retail store that is easily in the top 10 of the entertainment industry’s most revered Holy Places? Yes to that. So take a look at our early peek at the new location, captured in photos and video below, annotated with notes about what went into the move and what returnees can expect from longtime L.A. store manager Jim Henderson (on top of our previously published Q&A with Amoeba co-founder Marc Weinstein).
What will the initial crowds be like? “The social media response and the response that I’ve been getting even on a personal level suggest that it’s going to be a pretty successful turnout,” says Henderson. “We’ve got a lot of questions from customers about when they could start camping out and just how early they should get here, with a lot of people making plans for what they’re doing after day one. So I do believe that we’re going to have a pretty big turnout. I also know that with the social distancing, safety practices and capacity limitations, there will be an element of patience required in the process.”
How restricted will attendance be in the early days of the new store being open? “The allowable capacity [in L.A. County] is at 50%, but we’ve got a big space and we don’t plan on putting our 50% capacity in here. Our practice is going to be that day one, Thursday, when we open up, we’re going to allow a chunk of people and eyeball it, allow a few more, eyeball it, allow a few more… And then whenever it starts to feel like people are filling up some of these aisles or people are congregating to the same places, we’ll just put a hold on it. So I honestly don’t anticipate getting much over a quarter of our capacity, initially. But I think we’re going to wait and see and apply practical, common sense to the process and make sure everybody feels safe with how many people we’re letting it at a time.”
The first thing customers will notice is that the store is essentially one big space, unlike the Sunset Blvd. location, which had a separate upstairs for home video and a back room for classical, jazz and other genres. There is a mezzanine, devoted to books, magazines and posters, though it’s not elevated to the point of being called a second floor, the way the DVD/Blu-Ray mezzanine was in the old store. You’ll also find a minimal set of three steps separating the first half of the floor, which is primarily vinyl, T-shirts and tchotchkes — the primary sellers in this day and age — from the CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays that make up the back half of the store. But essentially, it’s a one-view-fits-all store, although no photograph can take in its full scope.
“Visually and aesthetically, I think that’s probably (the main difference), that you can kind of see everything from most parts of this store,” Henderson says. “So it’s kind of a nice advantage to the other space where, for many years, a lot of new customers would still be discovering that we had a back room with all the jazz and classical, orthat that was back there, or that the movies were upstairs — just the things that, if it didn’t kind of cross your natural flow of discovery, remained undiscovered. In this space, yeah, there’s slight leveling that, uh, because there’s a lower area that’s a few steps down from the higher area. But there’s nothing behind any walls and there’s no proper second floor. You can kind of see the whole lay of the land from one position, so I think it provides a little bit of an easier navigation than the old store did.”
But not such easy navigation that the store isn’t posting maps to the layout on pillars, as well as providing those as handouts at the main counter, for those without an hour or more to explore.
In Weinstein’s earlier interview with Variety, he offered the old-vs.-new dimensions of the Sunset and Hollywood Blvd. stores: “The store is 23,000 square feet. The other building — the total building, including the loading dock and everything — was 43,000 feet, so it sounds like we’re going to half. But really, the actual amount of floor space is three-quarters of what it was in the other store, so we’ve had to reduce our floor space by about a quarter. But in the process, we’ve done all kinds of stuff with shelves, and also… We have bins down below our bins and we haven’t always kept those full.”
In other words, the spaces below the racks that were once largely reserved for “overstock” are now, for the most part, just plain stock. As Nicki Minaj might advise: Get on your knees.
But the store also seems to have grown upward. It may be an optical illusion, but the display posters (mostly reprints, but many originals) and collectible albums and 45s at least appear to stretch more neck-craningly skyward than before. Much use is made of pillars throughout the store as well. The most valuable LP collectibles, which for decades stood behind the sales counters at the Sunset location, are now posted up and down the support structures throughout the new store. Beyond getting down for crate-digging, you might be tempted to bring your binoculars, too.
Henderson points out one reason that the lesser square footage didn’t make that big a dent in the stock Amoeba carries: “The main difference between this space and the old space is the back-of-house space. We really carved out almost as much retail space as the Sunset location had. Where we made the sacrifice is that the folks that work with us no longer have the acreage on the back side of the building that we had before. And we’ve taken some practices — like all of our website, shipping and listing, our returns department and marketing — all of that has gone offsite into an office in Hollywood. Then we also have a warehouse nearby that we’ve had for many years was cold storage that we’ve upgraded to being a more functional space that we can get product in and out of, off-site, as well. So lot of the biggest or most inconvenient changes are things that our customers aren’t going to have to experience,that just allowed us to make the retail space comparable to the old space.”
Weinstein has already said that more space is being allocated to vinyl, thanks to that boom, and less to currently underperforming media like CDs and DVDs. But devotees of those waning digital formats shouldn’t fret too much: In the new space, you’d be hard-pressed to guess anything has been cut down at all. Appearances can be deceiving — and the way that the store is laid out, not all physical formats are always strictly grouped together — but on our visit, we counted 12 long rows devoted to LPs and 16 rows devoted to CDs, not counting side and end racks, with hefty sections for movie as well.
What has definitely grown is a more souvenir-like section that is to your right as soon as you walk down the ramp to the theft-detection entryway of the store, with a bigger selection of pop-culture-themed lunchboxes, enamel pins, stickers and figurines. It doesn’t take a great stretch of imagination to guess that these get up-front treatment because the Pantages Theatre a half-block away, Shake Shake across the street, nearby W Hotel or the Walk of Fame itself may bring in tourists who don’t even have a turntable or CD or DVD player anymore. But Henderson discourages any thinking that the store sacrificed any core product for the sake of attracting newbies.
“Honestly, it didn’t factor into our decision too much,” he says of the more foot-traffic-friendly location. “We’re still just up the street from where we used to be. So we don’t expect that our regular customers who are serious music and movie shoppers are gonna just disappear and turn this into a Hollywood Boulevard tourist trap. Our goal is to still be a world-class record store — and just provide enough around the edges to kind of satisfy everybody that comes through. We haven’t redefined ourselves by our inventory… You know, everything is kind of still intact.”
That includes not just digital formats and vinyl but token cassette, VHS and even laserdisc sections in the back of the store. (We’ve been assured that even 78s and 8-tracks remain for historical and/or fun purposes, but didn’t come across those in our initial scan of the floor.)
One addition that definitely did not exist on Sunset: a small display near the rear of the store of K-pop collectibles, from deluxe CD editions to individual BTS candles.
One addition you won’t see in the new Amoeba, despite years of rumors to the contrary: an in-house weed dispensary. “We’ve talked in the past about it,” concedes Henderson, “with ideas of possibly growing into that realm down here as we’ve done in the Bay area. But that is a process that requires a lot of attention and the type of handling that we can’t do right now. Our focus is on opening the new store, and even getting a license in L.A. is a very particularly convoluted and challenging process that we haven’t had the bandwidth to commit to.”
Weinstein, who still resides in the Bay Area, where the mini-chain’s initial San Francisco and Berkeley stores are located, points to Henderson as the main mover-and-shaker in making the L.A. relocation a reality. The clock had been ticking for years since Amoeba sold its Sunset. location to a developer to pay off growing debt as well as secure for the future, subsequently facing a landlord that was not overjoyed to have the store still sticking around for years when a high-rise was waiting.
“Jimmy is the guy who did all this,” says Weinstein, “and I can’t say enough about him and what he has managed to pull off. He did all of the organizing of the staff, he was the guy on the front lines of looking for this base for all these years. He’s not the guy who you see a lot in our press. But he’s somebody who behind the scenes is beyond instrumental in helping us move forward. He’s a hero in this whole move, as far as I’m concerned. I think anyone would say that.”
Henderson said the possibility has long existed that Amoeba would move out of Hollywood when the time came, but all are grateful it didn’t come to that.
“The whole process itself was kind of playing out over the past few years, and though we lost the last year from a retail sense (because of lockdowns forcing an early closure of the old store), I think it’s about two and a half years even before COVID that we were actively looking and exploring different ideas and new spaces,” the L.A. manager says. “And we looked everywhere. I mean, we always felt that Hollywood was where we wanted to be; it’s kind of where our community is based. But we did want to take the opportunity to explore how an Amoeba downtown or on the west side or even in Culver City might play. Ultimately we were really lucky to find a space that truly ticks all the boxes — not just the amount of square footage that we needed, but the high ceilings and the kind of open-air, industrial feel that people that shop at Amoeba identify as our aesthetic. Andt also parking, walking, traffic, public transportation, freeway access — I mean, all of those things that were important to us, along with a community that would ultimately support having an independent music retailer in their neighborhood. So everything fell into place because we found the El Centro location.”
For anyone anticipating a parking logjam, now is actually a good time to drive in (though it’s never a wrong time to just take the Red Line to the adjacent subway stop). The new El Centro complex remains otherwise pretty much retail-free for now, although signs offer other coming attractions like an Urban Radish restaurant and a Novo Body workout spot. The first 75 minutes of parking are free with validation. (You may want to set a timer on yourself… it’s easy for a visit that’s planned for a half-hour or hour to expand to two, at which point you, like us, may find yourself spending $9 on exiting the facility after an elongated spree.)
Anyone who’s ever moved a stack of vinyl from one part of the house to another knows that it is a handle-with-care process, since no one wants to spend current new-vinyl prices on something with a bent cover. What kind of super-sensitive movers do you get to pack up and unload LPs en masse?
“Well, we did it with the staff, and we didn’t hire movers, because it takes somebody who appreciates how you handle vinyl to move vinyl,” Henderson says. “So we did it with a really scaled back staff. And we had to move to a warehouse first… because of the nightmare year that 2020 was.” Amoeba had originally planned to stay open at Sunset until the new store was ready to be moved into, but after the March 2020 COVID closure, it didn’t make sense to be paying rent to an unhappy landlord on a space that could likely never reopen before Hollywood Blvd. became available. “So we had a warehouse downtown and moved everything first there so that we could then begin and complete the construction of the new space.”
No dates are being set yet for when the in-store stage will be put to use. It now has a distinctive, Shepard Fairey-designed backdrop… and a modest, bandshell-style “roof” designed to keep band sounds from drifting up toward the residential areas too radically. The decentralized stage is in the corner of the floorspace, which will be fine for most in-stores, though it’ll be a little harder to put people in view of it if Paul McCartney ever does another Amoeba in-store.
Although the opening day at the new store is likely to be “packed” — or what passes for that in April 2021 — Henderson thinks things will settle down quickly. “It’s been really quite humbling and gratifying and emboldening to see the comments and social media and how everybody’s really responding,” he says. “And I think it’ll be hopefully a wild but controlled first few days, and we’ll find our footing and get back to selling some records and experience something a little bit more normal in our day-to-day.”