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Indie Chains Are Slump Proof

California’s Amoeba and other retailers succeed amid industry nightmare

“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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