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Records & Reefer: Amoeba Music's Flagship Store in Berkeley Opens Hi-Fidelity Pot Shop to Boost Business
"Weed is just another inspirational product that we can get behind with our hearts and souls," says co-founder Marc Weinstein.
"Music has always been a part of cannabis and cannabis has always been a part of music. At least, American music: rock 'n' roll, jazz, country," says Chris Garcia, curator at Amoeba Music's new business enterprise and next-door neighbor to its Berkeley, California, location: a recreational marijuana dispensary called Hi-Fidelity located on the bustling Telegraph Avenue.
The idea of hybridizing the famed Northern California record shop with a pot shop came to Amoeba's co-founders Marc Weinstein and Dave Prinz in 2012 when they noticed a decline in sales at their first of three locations, which opened back in 1990. "Music, in some ways, is such an uplifting product for humans," Weinstein reflects, "and we thought, weed is just another inspirational product that we can get behind with our hearts and souls." And their hearts and souls were certainly tested.
A six-year slog to completion started with the record store owners seeking the mayor's approval on their medical marijuana dispensary permit (which was subsequently fast-tracked for recreational with the passage of Prop 64). Further complications arose via construction costs, technical snafus with their online menu and wrangling with regulations set by the Bureau of Cannabis Control. Finally, last month Hi-Fidelity finally held its soft open with Mayor Jesse Arreguín attending the ribbon cutting ceremony. The dispensary is now one of six in the city and, due to zoning laws, no other dispensary will be licensed for its district.
The new business, if all goes according to plan, will serve as a significant boon to the iconic record store with Weinstein projecting to gross $10 million in sales per year. (They're currently averaging a little under $5 million annually next door.) This "hope," however, is still some ways off as evidenced by Hi-Fidelity's somewhat tepid opening weeks, due to the unfortunate timing of unveiling their store a day before UC Berkeley's end of the Spring Semester. After almost a year of postponements, though, this scheduling conflict was deemed unavoidable, with the owners fearing that another delay would equate to a "boy who cried wolf" narrative. Plus, Garcia is quick to note that "most businesses don't start showing a profit until 18 months to two years into the opening."
Of course, it's no secret that the record store industry is in trouble and desperate for any form of financial stimulant. Just last year, the Recording Industry Association of America reported a 92 percent plummet in CD revenue since its height in 2000. Amoeba saw its peak sales from 2005-2007 but suffered an unexpected drop during the financial crisis in '08, when sales dropped by about 10 percent and real estate equity fell almost 40 percent. The timing -- as was true for so many -- couldn't have been worse, hitting the store in the midst of building an independent music streaming site designed to compete with iTunes. The project was eventually scrapped once the founders recognized that "the market wasn't going to let us in."
It's worth noting, though, that while Amoeba's CD sales have gone down 40 percent over the past five years and DVDs and Blu-Rays have suffered a similar slump in the last three years, vinyl has seen a recent upsurge. Since 2013, LPs have leapt from 15 percent to 40 percent of total sales and during this year's Record Store Day, their three storefronts sold close to 16,000 LPs in a single day. Weinstein rejoices over the changing trend, commenting, "We love vinyl, so this is really taking us back to our roots."
Oddly enough, the addition of a recently legalized recreational dispensary to an increasingly antiquated record shop, is its own form of returning to the record store industry's roots. Weinstein reminisces on his youth when, as a 19-year-old in 1976, he first got behind the counter. "Those first 15 years that I was working in the business, all the record stores had a head shop in them," he says. "You couldn't go anywhere else."
This also isn't Amoeba's first venture into the politics of marijuana. Back in 1996, Amoeba sided with pot activist Debby Goldsberry in support of Prop 215, which resulted in the legalization of medicinal cannabis in the state of California. The Berkeley location showed support for the measure by sponsoring live concerts at the adjacent People's Park. As for Goldsmith, Weinstein describes her as "one of the true godmothers of cannabis in the U.S." who would eventually become a partner at Hi-Fidelity.
Now, 22 years later, Amoeba's dispensary emphasizes the educational aspect of their store but also, the variety of their product. "We want to be a full spectrum cannabis dispensary," Garcia says. "A hemporium, if you will, where we have everything from pet products to flower." This ethos of stocking "everything" -- whether it be indica gel pens, CBD soap or a "Sleep Nourishing Bath Balm" -- is in keeping with the record store's long held business model. As Weinstein explains, "We don't make much money on 45s but you gotta have them," because it's that seemingly endless catalog of options that keeps the customers coming.
They're also banking on Amoeba's almost three decades worth of retail experience to give them an edge over the competition. "That's one of the things that's been missing since Prop 64 has been implemented," says Garcia. "I go into these dispensaries and it's get in line, check your phone for the menu, know what you want when you get up there and get out." Hi-Fidelity, though, allows patrons to shop at their own leisure, free to peruse the glass cabinets of cartridges, extracts and edibles or sniff some top-shelf herb with one of their expert budtenders. And for those on the go, they offer pre-order shopping with their online menu.
As for whether or not record stores now require a side business to keep afloat, Weinstein says, "It depends on the scale of the store. We have hundreds of staff we want to keep happy but small record stores can probably get by, so long as they do it right. The key is to stay versatile."
In Garcia's eyes, the record store industry's real problem doesn't have so much to do with, say, Spotify cutting into CD revenue but rather, with the music executives themselves. "Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road and OK Computer, all records that are over 20, 40-years-old are still outselling new releases," he says. "Music is pretty much the way it was, in my opinion, in the late '70s. Where it was really commercial, really had no substance, meant to drive sales and then, disappear." This quick-buck, single-oriented mentality is what's pushed record stores to stock, what Garcia calls "meat and potatoes" merchandise, such as posters, coffee cups, T-shirts and other miscellany.
Hi-Fidelity, though, is something more substantial and Weinstein and Garcia see its Berkeley debut as just the beginning. "In the end, we hope to have a cannabis dispensary in each of the three stores," says Weinstein. That reality, however, is still likely some years away. Their Hollywood shop on Sunset Boulevard was sold to a developer for high-rises in 2016 and will be moving in the next year or two, while their Haight Street store falls -- surprisingly -- outside of one of San Francisco's Cannabis Retail "Green Zones."
Regardless of the hurtles, negotiations with the city and building managers are still ongoing at both locations and Garcia, for one, is unconcerned, remarking, "We figure if we can get through Berkeley, we can go through any city, because Berkeley is probably the most stringent when it comes to coding." They even hope to open one (if not both) of the dispensaries inside the record store, likening it to the curtained-off XXX sections in old video stores.
In the end, though, Hi-Fidelity is driven by one ambition: Says Garcia, "We're trying to make this the best dispensary in the state of California."