”We have the Marketplace of Ideas,” a Berkeley philosophy professor lamented some years ago, referring to the town’s original announcement of itself as the Athens of the West, ”but where, where, is the Forum?” ”Three blocks down the street at the corner of Telegraph and Haste,” a student answered. Then ”the Forum” was a dingy coffeehouse; since November 1990, the same building has housed Amoeba Music, as inviting and surprising as any music shop needs to be.
Amoeba buys and sells new and used CDs, cassettes, and, welcome in the age of the disappearing LP, even vinyl (”A great young collector’s market,” says Marc Weinstein, one of three working owners; ”Japanese and German vinyl hunters are here all the time”). It offers a seven-day guarantee and promises to special-order ”anything we think we can get.” There’s a motley range of posters and a small but terrific rack of new and used videos. With ceilings 15 feet high, wooden bins winding through 3,500 square feet of floor space (soon to double to accommodate more classical and jazz), and lighting that’s bright but not harsh, the store feels uncrowded with 50 customers. What’s crowded is the eye, drawn to a flurry of shouts and echoes on the walls: the Siouxsie-on- a-stick promo device over the cash register, rare singles including the Searchers’ incredible 1964 ”Ain’t That Just Like Me,” LPs from John and Yoko’s Two Virgins to Sam Butera and the Witnesses’ The Continental Twist Featuring Louis Prima keeping company with Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain. In this setting, rows of new material joining Bessie Smith to Michael Bolton to the Lemonheads make perfect sense.
On the same block you can find a full-service comix store; Cody’s, Berkeley’s biggest new-books shop; Moe’s, its most reliable used outlet; the Caffe Mediterraneum, a hallowed espresso cavern; La Fiesta, the perfect cheap Mexican restaurant; and the city’s scuzziest derelicts. On the north side of the Amoeba building is a mural charting Berkeley’s street-fighting history; a few steps up is People’s Park, where the battle peaked in 1969. Within a few blocks are the requisite Tower Records barn, the equally enormous Leopold’s (best for black music), and several rip-off emporiums — all certainly carrying more pounds of product than Amoeba. But those spots sell more than music. They sell attitude: hip, sneering, and cool. You almost always leave somehow feeling you bought the wrong thing. Amoeba does not sell attitude. Instead there’s an infectious, eager spirit coursing through the room, on both sides of the counter: clerks grinning and bantering, fans poring through New Arrivals in search of what they’ve never heard of, or what they thought they’d never see again.
— Greil Marcus, the author of Lipstick Traces, has a new book, Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, coming out this fall.