Wednesday, December 8, 2010


In an era where most people acquire their music online, it is a testament to word of mouth, hard work, and a sense of communal goodwill that Groove Merchant, a small boutique record store located in the Lower Haight district of San Francisco has just reached its 20 year anniversary. The folks at Groove Merchant are celebrating this benchmark by releasing a new compilation entitled Groove Merchant Turns 20: 14 Selections behind the Counter. It is a fine selection of modern soul, psychedelic folk, left field disco, and jazzy funk curated by owner and record maestro Cool Chris.

Living in a post-analog music world has had some serious consequences on the livelihood of musicians, producers, and the infrastructure that supports such artists. There has been much documentation on the death of the music industry over the last few years with most of the hand-wringing and eulogizing focused on the money paid to musicians and labels. But one aspect of the puzzle that often gets overlooked is the distribution on the ground floor. As Wal-Mart and Best Buy continue to make record profits on the sale of music titles, the independent local record store flounders and struggles to survive. Chris notes, “In the last 16 years behind the counter at Groove Merchant, I have witnessed no less than 25 independent Bay Area record shops permanently close their doors.” A sad state of affairs, indeed. This is an especially poignant indictment considering that the Bay Area prides itself on resisting corporate market economics to drive out local businesses. Yet, even progressive San Francisco has not been able to evade the realities that the encroachment of digital media has wrought upon the local business owner.

However, Groove Merchant has been a veritable story of David over Goliath; how a small record store continues to thrive in spite of the crushing odds. The key to their success stems not only from the basic principles behind running a successful shop: quality varied stock, reasonable prices, and a good ear; but also from the personalities behind the counter. How many times have you walked into a record store only to encounter a caricature of Jack Black from High Fidelity; that crusty old nerd who is intent on making a mockery out of your ineptitude and lack of knowledge? Or even worse the brusque and indifferent record store clerk who seems to make a career out of not hearing your concerns as he absentmindedly shuffles around the store. If you have walked into a record store in the last 10 years I am sure you have encountered such crabbiness. Which is why it’s so refreshing to spend time at the Groove Merchant, a place that creates a certain vibe as soon as you step in the door. This is in large part due to Cool Chris and staff being at the helm; they have defined the ethos of the Merchant through their laid back, warm and knowledgeable presence.

The Groove Merchant store was opened in 1990 by Michael McFadin, and quickly became the go-to place for finding rare soul, funk, jazz and latin music. Since the 90s were an era in which hip-hop producers were on the hunt to find breaks for sampling purposes, the Merchant came to be an important purveyor of those titles that would end up having a major influence on hip-hop culture. In fact, the Beastie Boys name checked McFadin on Check Your Head: “This one goes out to my man, the Groove Merchant, coming through with beats for which I’ve been searching.” Since Groove Merchant was originally a store that McFadin opened as he was starting Ubiquity Records, the tastes of Ubiquity, Luv N’ Haight and CuBop ran parallel to the tastes of the shop. Funky soul jazz, hard funk, and deep latin grooves.

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