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Thursday, June 21, 2012

When Greil Marcus Goes Shopping at Amoeba: A Cashier's Account

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Greil Marcus: Music journalism great, Bay Area resident, Amoeba shopper.
  • Greil Marcus: Music journalism great, Bay Area resident, Amoeba shopper.

[Editor's note: This post has been published anonymously to protect the employment of the writer.]

When Greil Marcus enters Amoeba Music, the record store where I cashier part-time, my impressions of the man based on his work conflict with the sight of him shopping for music alongside so many others. In my mind, Marcus -- one of the world's most celebrated and insightful music journalists -- decodes the social significance of a half-dozen dusty 45s simultaneously. I imagine them dropped to his turntable by an obedient murder of crows that he controls telepathically, or something equally absurd. The truth is that he buys music (mostly CDs) at independent record stores just like other music fans, which is romantic in its own way.

He is unmistakable. Dressed in drab solid colors with horn-rimmed glasses and sparse white hair, Marcus shops with purpose, and I hunker down behind the counter to observe him. If not pausing at first to trade in CDs for store credit, he maneuvers the aisles with an unwavering scowl. He scours the new arrivals and awkward ground-level bins in a hurried manner, but he is not above stopping to read the back of a release that catches his eye before placing it back in its proper section. (Most shoppers do not do Amoeba employees this courtesy with product they pass up.) After accumulating a hefty stack, he then pays with a bottomless cache of store credit.


When ringing up Marcus, I maintain the same passive indifference that I admittedly use in most transactions. Marcus' stern exterior certainly doesn't invite chit-chat, but even if I have some clever remark on his purchases, my throat is dry. I'm wary of a scenario in which I reveal to Marcus that I am a music journalist, and he retorts that I look more like a record store clerk. Of course, it's also just not pleasant for anyone to receive fawning from a stranger. Instead, I simply look at his purchases as recommendations, and the titles he trades in as warnings. A more audacious coworker of mine once asked over my shoulder what new music he enjoyed, and Marcus said he'd been listening to The Roots' Undun all afternoon. I resolved to reconsider my neutral standpoint on the album at once.

After any one of his visits, the significance of small details in our interaction begins to reveal itself. The discs he trades in for store credit become fascinating. Many of the CDs are still sealed. I ponder whether there is a criterion for album art that must be met for Marcus to consider removing the shrinkwrap. Has he developed a sixth sense to determine a group's likely worth based on its name? Its song titles? The typeface that the group's name is written in? If an artist can be assessed by their packaging, Marcus must have knowledge of the required alchemy, and I am set upon a mission to understand it.

His influence is unavoidable: Before a recent encounter with Marcus, I considered Bryan Ferry the singer in a band called Roxy Music, which made four and a half studio albums I adore. But after selling Marcus a selection of Ferry's other solo albums, Let's Stick Together and Bete Noire became more than just annoying bargain bin fixtures. I took home my own copies that evening, and spun the wax with a vengeance. Likewise, I note his selections of classic films, obscure 1950's rock 'n' roll collections, and new releases as items to be looked into.

Although Marcus seems stern and sustains a crinkled brow, he appears charmed by the browsing experience. Considering his work's focus on the elusive history of rock 'n' roll, its not surprising that he returns to the place where music fans convene to browse, swap wit, and slyly investigate each others' purchases. Since my affinity for the writer is known, each time he leaves, an older employee asks why I don't attempt to engage Marcus in conversation. The truth is that I'm simply satisfied to observe, speculate, and dive into the media he unknowingly recommends.

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