Amoeba Music's 10th Anniversary: When You're Broke and Need a Fix, This Legendary Hollywood Store Has Had Your Back
|Amoeba Records: 10 years on Sunset Boulevard|
"I just needed to get well," explains Frank Humphries, a 36-year-old punkabilly musician-turned-junkie who, since kicking the habit, works as an archaeologist. "My story is sad, but it's true. I used to have to take CDs and records to Amoeba because I already sold my car for drugs."
This month marks the 10th anniversary of the opening of Amoeba Records' Hollywood location. For a decade, Angelenos have gone to Amoeba to sell their vinyl and used CDs. It's where they've gotten the money to get well -- and to get sick.
"I used to skateboard to Amoeba from Echo Park to sell my shit for money, just to get well," Humphries brags. "One time I went in there and had my Pussy Galore record. It was from 1987 and it had 'I Just Wanna Die' on it. The guy who was working there was, like, 'No way!' He looked at it. Took it out of its sleeve and blew it off. Then he said, 'I'll give you 20 bucks for this right now.' ... He took a $20 bill right out of his wallet and gave it to me. That's how much he wanted that damn Pussy Galore record."
And Humphries was able to buy his drugs. "I got five dollar bags, around eight of them," he recalls, quite proudly.
Some people just need a quick meal.
"I was having my gas turned off at my house, and I remember thinking, 'I better not have my electricity turned off, because then I won't be able to use my microwave, and I won't be able to cook my macaroni and cheese,' " explains a former record company executive, 45, who tells his story on the condition his real name not be used. "So I made a mad dash to get the CDs together, get to Amoeba and pay my electric bill so I could eat my macaroni and cheese. That's all I needed to do that day, eat my macaroni and cheese."
With the collapse of the economy in 2008, Anthony Forkush, 46, a special-needs teacher, found himself literally searching for loose change between his couch pillows. He was determined to keep his feline family -- Sasha, Pinky and Kitty -- eating in the style they were accustomed to: Fancy Feast marinated morsels of turkey in gravy.
"I stood in line for hours. It was a massive line out the door," Forkush says. "Everyone was bringing their stuff. From every sad sack to every homeless person to every broke-ass musician" -- even a film student talking about Terrence Malick.
"He went on and on and on about Terrence Malick," Forkush says. "At first he loved Terrence Malick, but now he hated Terrence Malick. Then he said he just quit film school because of Terrence Malick. He had just two items in his hand. Two DVDs, that's it!"
But that wasn't it.
"There was a homeless woman who just stood there, and she didn't have anything! Nada. You know what it was like?" Forkush asks. "It was like being in a line to die."
Unlike other successful businesses, at Amoeba Records the customer is not always right. Many times the customer is wrong. Many times they'll get upset. Many times they act out.
Daniel Tures, 39, is a floor manager at Amoeba on Sunset. In school in Berkeley, Tures took what he thought would be a summer job. That was 15 years ago. "I helped to start the San Francisco store in 1997," he recalls with pride.
The store's record buyers have to stay cool under intense pressure. "Even if they want to fight with the customers, they can't fight with them," Tures says. "It gets violent sometimes. There's screaming, fighting. Mostly with customers screaming at us."
In the past, customers have jumped over the counter and gone after the buyers. "Often it's like a junkie or someone on meth who's got shitty stuff and they want to argue about it. There's people digging CDs out of Dumpsters and trying to sell to the buyers," Tures says.
In this huckle-buckle world of buying and selling used records for badly needed cash, there is heartbreak in parting with valued treasures. The emotional toll on sellers can be enormous.
And as the economy has crumbled and downloads replaced albums, the price of used CDs has fallen precipitously. Discs that once retailed for $10 at Amoeba now sell for $5 -- meaning the original seller makes even less.
"I had two giant old suitcases," Forkush recalls. "I had probably about 70 CDs and lots of DVDs. I had Frank Zappa and Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, Lalo Schifrin and all my jazz-fusion stuff, which for me was really important. It broke my heart."
In the end, despite being offered a measly $70 instead of the $200 he was expecting, Forkush simply accepted the buyer's financial verdict.
Many sellers maintain the "someday-I'll-get-it-back" psychology of the perennial pawn-shop patron. But trying to get your jewels back from Amoeba can be financially untenable.
"I'd sell a record for $2, $4, $6 or $8, and when I came back I'd see the record on sale for $80," Humphries moans. "Very depressing. I used to make a list of everything I sold, vowing to buy it all back. In the end I never bought one thing back."
The buyers at Amoeba are part psychologist, part detective and part poker player. Tures fully admits that they try to beat down the sellers they find undesirable. In fact, he says, record-seller profiling is going on all the time.
"You can tell," he insists. "If someone is selling us a whole collection that doesn't fit their vibe at all, like, 'There's no way this guy can be a country music fan.' Or they don't know what it is they have. In those cases, we would lowball them."
The store has its reasons.
"We don't want to encourage them to keep coming back. So if they want to take a shitty deal from us, then they can. Usually they get the idea," Tures says defiantly.
Many folks live by their wits in this town and have relied upon the Amoeba cash machine to keep them going. During the past decade, Amoeba has served as a cultural ATM for the so-called wide boys -- those who are perpetually wide-awake, sharp-witted and living day to day.
For wide boy Rich Mullins, bass player of the venerable desert rock/stoner metal band Karma to Burn, Amoeba Records holds fond memories.
"Well, one day after my friend and I sold his CDs to Amoeba, he handed me the $150 and dropped me off at Hollywood and Sycamore to get crack," recalls Mullins, who is now clean. "I ended up getting into a fight with these black dudes who sold the crack." The details are gory, but it ended with Mullins being rescued by one of the Amoeba clerks. "My nose was bleeding, and I had blood all over my shirt. He then asked if I wanted to come into his apartment to get cleaned up and I said yes. While I was in the bathroom, he yelled if I wanted a beer. I said yes. When I came out of the bathroom he was beating off on the couch."
Mullins was so pissed he threw the beer at the guy's head and bolted. "I walked three miles back to my friend's dad's place and climbed in his second-story window. I still had all the crack I took off the black dude after I knocked him down and broke his windpipe.
"So we all got high, thanks to Amoeba," he adds, like it's a happy ending to a children's fable.Follow @LAWeeklyArts on Twitter.