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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

After 20 Years, the Vinyl Still Spins -- And Sells -- at Groove Merchant Records

Posted By on Tue, Dec 28, 2010 at 1:18 PM

Groove Merchant owner Chris Veltri with a rare record. - IAN S. PORT
  • Ian S. Port
  • Groove Merchant owner Chris Veltri with a rare record.
Chris Veltri stands behind the cluttered wood counter at Groove Merchant record store. Dressed in a navy peacoat and Levis, with sandy blond bangs draped over his blue eyes, he watches three customers browse his small Lower Haight shop. "Not bad for a Tuesday night," he says casually, his tone suiting his nickname, "Cool Chris," as the customers browse bins filled with vintage jazz, rare soul, disco, hip-hop, and collectible Brazilian records.

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.

Groove Merchant, on Haight between Pierce and Steiner - IAN S. PORT
  • Ian S. Port
  • Groove Merchant, on Haight between Pierce and Steiner

​Opened in 1990 by Ubiquity Records president Michael McFadin, the shop was initially a subdivision within Rooky Ricardo's record store on Haight street near Fillmore. Since then, Groove Merchant - whose name was inspired by the '70s jazz-funk imprint of the same name -- has had three owners and several locations, but a single devotion to rare recordings. Los Angeles native Veltri acquired the store, now on Haight between Steiner and Pierce, in 1997 and contributed greatly to its iconic design and status. "I had been working there four years at that point and I knew the place inside out and what I wanted to do with it," he says. Veltri's eye for stylish kitsch and superb records makes the 700-square-foot space seem cozy but not crowded; fresh, but also refreshingly old-school.

  • Ian S. Port
With walls decorated with funk concert posters, vintage bar signs, local artist Greg "Pnut" Galinsky's jazz-inspired glass sculptures, and even a 1970s combination keyboard/radio/turntable contraption that seems like some bright inventor's idea gone wrong, the shop looks like a music museum. But its exceptional stock and eccentric patrons have made it a fixture. Shortly after opening, Groove Merchant quickly developed a following from beat-hungry DJs and producers, including Josh "DJ Shadow" Davis; New York hip-hop producer Pete Rock; and even stadium-rappers The Beastie Boys, who gave the store a shout-out in the song "Professor Booty." Along with them, A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip, The Roots drummer Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, and Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea have all sought out dusty vinyl at the tiny shop.

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."


Along with the store's singular devotion to all things rare and funky, the soul revival sound propagated by labels like New York's Dap-Tone and Chicago's Numero Group as well as artists like Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse, and Breakestra has kept interest in vintage Black music thriving. Veltri mentions how younger music heads come in the shop to play him songs off their iPod that they're hunting for on vinyl. "I see a lot of younger kids getting into '60s and '70s soul and also boogie music -- records from '78 to '83 with heavy synths," Veltri says. "Where they learn about [bands] doesn't really matter to them. I think classifications are getting blurred and that's a healthy thing."

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.

  • Ian S. Port
The Groove Merchant Turns 20 compilation is out now on Ubiquity Records.

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