I've just returned from a trip to San Francisco. While my primary purpose in visiting was a conference and catching up with old friends, I was also stoked to visit the legendary Amoeba Music.
This is actually one of three stores Amoeba has in California, the others being in Berkeley (the original) and Hollywood. Amoeba consistently ranks in those "Best Records Stores" lists, and I've heard years of personal testimony. I never doubted, but now I can confirm that Amoeba Music is a) worthy of such praise b) really fucking big and c) totally overwhelming.
(Note: this image does not include the video department, the 45s, or the new releases).
Prior to entering, a long-time friend, music geek and current SF resident said "it's better if you have a list. Otherwise you'll get overwhelmed pretty easily." I did not have a list, and yes, I was overwhelmed. I would browse for a bit in one section, then think of something to look for somewhere else, rinse, wash repeat.
The prices seemed fair, but not incredible deals nor overpriced (I admit, my price-gauge on vinyl has been immensely spoiled by Jerry's Records in Pittsburgh). I did find some gems, however. It's rare anymore that I come across Prince 12 inches that I either don't have or are out of my price range (limited promos and such). But I filled two gaps there ("Diamonds and Pearls" and "Black Sweat"), as well as a remix 12" for MJ's "You Rock My World" - featuring Jay-Z! Didn't even know that existed. I also found a bunch of nuggets in the clearance bins, which are easy to miss. Mostly funk and r&b stuff (filling many Earth Wind and Fire gaps). The coolest thing that I found was a recent release of an old New York Dolls show:
The label touted it as the best-available recording from the era, plus you got a cd copy with the 180-gram vinyl. Count me in! I listened to the cd on the way home from the airport, and it is pretty great (though Johannsen's vocals are mixed a little low). It's not exactly a bootleg release, but from what I can gather it's a Russian company putting out some excellent reissues and previously unreleased gems from all over the musical map - the Dolls, the Cure, the Who, Stevie, Can, Bob Marley and many more. Something to keep an eye on.
Fortunately, my friend found me amidst the bulging aisles and gestured that we should leave. "I've found it unwise and financially unsound to spend more than an hour in here." Which is probably good reasoning (I did leave my place in line to check for one more thing).
Anyhow, if you're ever in Cali, Amoeba is a must. I can't imagine that being my local record store, though. Living in California is expensive enough as it is!