Indie Chains Are Slump Proof

California's Amoeba and other retailers succeed amid industry nightmare

August 12, 2003 12:00 AM ET

"I moved to L.A. from Long Beach so I could come here more often," says DJ Oscar Meza, a shopper at Amoeba, the mammoth independent retailer, whose sales are booming despite the music-business slump. Last year, Amoeba posted sales of $50 million, with fifty percent sales growth. Why? Because the California chain (with stores in Berkeley, San Francisco and L.A.) makes up to sixty percent profit on used CDs, while commercial chains are stuck eking out a twenty percent markup on new CDs alone.

"Big retailers can't keep business going on those margins," says Karen Pearson, co-owner of the L.A. store, "and the consumer gets cheated and pissed off."

Amoeba started life in 1990 as a 3,500-square-foot retail space in Berkeley before adding the San Francisco and L.A. locations (the latter, at 31,000 square feet, is, it claims, the world's largest indie store). The stores are staffed by serious record freaks who are experts on everything in stock -- an impressive feat considering how much they carry. While a Virgin Megastore might stock 150,000 titles, Amoeba's outposts average more than 300,000, including new and used selections.

Going against all rules of corporate competition, Amoeba even prints a guide to what other local record shops carry. Says Pearson, "The better indie stores do, the better we all do."

Top indie stores:

Sonic Boom (Seattle): Indie-rock acts such as Stephen Malkmus and the Shins make Sonic Boom a tour stop -- the store has a stage for frequent live shows. It recently opened a third Seattle location.

Twist and Shout (Denver): This sprawling store features a listening station with bar stools where you can lounge for hours. It's specialty is jam bands, but it also stocks loads of jazz and classical.

Waterloo (Austin): A mecca for record geeks during the annual South by Southwest festival. The store is especially strong in its wide selection of local roots and rock bands.

Vintage Vinyl (Fords, New Jersey): Known for its top-notch array of hard rock, metal, emo and punk albums, Vintage Vinyl also draws raves for its in-store gigs: It has even hosted Ozzy Osbourne.

Newbury Comics (Various locations): With twenty-four stores, the New England indie chain is the largest in the U.S. Also stocks toys, comic books and Dr Martens.

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