Like the vinyl rarities that fill the shop, Groove Merchant is rare survivor -- dozens of old San Francisco record retailers have either closed for good or retreated to largely online sales. But Groove Merchant celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a compilation album on Ubiquity Records and a whole lot of memories -- not all of them good. Staff members have been robbed at gunpoint, thieves have stolen merchandise, and lean times make the business a barely profitable endeavor. Yet Veltri says he can't complain: People are still buying records.
Naturally, Veltri has stories galore about the famous and infamous figures that have trolled through Groove Merchant's bins: People like Ninja Tune artist Mr. Scruff, who dropped nearly $400 one visit and politely requested that his records be shipped back to the U.K. so he wouldn't have to lug them around on tour. Or Belle & Sebastian's Chris Geddes, who likes to hunt for international obscurities, and Stones Throw's Madlib and J Rocc, who smoke weed at a nearby cannabis dispensary before their hours-long Groove Merchant hunts. Then there are the times actor Matt Dillon dropped by.
"He's probably been to the shop three or four times. He's a real down-to-earth guy," Veltri explains, noting that Dillon's knowledge of Latin music is peerless. "He knows the roots and origins of every rhythm and who invented it. Talk to him about Latin music and you're gonna get schooled." One afternoon, when Dillon was behind the counter previewing records, it caused a bit of a commotion. "People were walking in off the street and doing double-takes," Veltri laughs. "It looked like he was manning the register."
According to former Groove Merchant employee and Ubiquity Records A&R man Andrew Jervis, the store's longevity stems from being able to provide both connoisseurs and average music fans with consistently groovy vintage music. To supply the shop, Veltri developed an international rare record trade network, and he notes that a good portion of the store's incoming stock comes from its customers. Occasionally the store moves a really rare item for a decent sum. Veltri says he recently sold an album titled The Blackout for a little over $3000. The release was a 1970s Oklahoma high school talent show recording -- certainly an unlikely choice for a goldmine. But knowing which obsucre records will sell for high prices is a passion of Veltri and his staff.
Groove Merchant's knowledgeable crew includes active DJs Vinnie Esparza, Josh Bea, and Sweater Funk's John Blunk. But it is Veltri's laid-back personality that gets the most compliments. "Cool" Chris' decidedly non-snobby demeanor is apparently atypical in the nerdy record-collector world. According to his friend and trading partner DJ Shadow, the rare record business attracts "overanxious characters of dubious moral intent." But, he says, buying, selling, or trading records at Groove Merchant is never a problem. "No gripping, no bullshit, no sweating every last nickel," Shadow says. "I take care of him, he takes care of me, end of story."
Another satisfied customer and trading cohort, Lucas MacFadden, also known as Cut Chemist from rap group Jurassic 5, agrees with Shadow's assessment: "Every [collector] I know says the same thing: 'Chris hooked me up.'" MacFadden points out that like previous owner Michael McFadin, who started the Luv N Haight and Ubiquity Record imprints, Veltri not only sells music, but shares his findings through DJing and releasing album projects like Groove Merchant Turns 20, a compilation of rare disco, folk-funk and boogie tracks. Veltri and Esparza also release music on their own Dis-Joint label, and Veltri has collaborated on a few releases with Stones Throw/Now-Again impresario Eothen "Egon" Alapatt, who calls Groove Merchant "one of the last record stores I'm excited to go to."
Young or old, famous or not, vinyl-savvy shoppers have kept the store going for two decades. "Don't change" seems to be Veltri's secret. He says the same jazz, funk, soul, disco, hip-hop, international, and reggae music that's always sold well at the shop still moves today, and notes that the price of most rare records is only going up. Despite the predictability, Veltri finds the endless quest for rare vinyl worthwhile. "I've never been bored with this job," he says. "I'm always enthusiastic to learn new stuff. "
Meanwhile, the Groove Merchant concentrates on what works. Whether its selling a psych-rock record by The Left Banke to Masters At Work's Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, a soul rarity by Skye to DJ Spinna, or a copy of Johnny Hammond's Gears to a local customer on a Tuesday night, the groove goes on.