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Amoeba co-founder uses teen literature to wax on the past, look to the digital future

January 28, 2010 |  6:10 pm

A few days before Christmas, Harper Teen released the young-adult novel "The Vinyl Princess." While Pop & Hiss doesn't cover the intersection of literature and music nearly as much as we should, "The Vinyl Princess" instantly caught our attention -- and not just because of the striking cover. Yvonne Prinz, the book's author, was one of the founders of Amoeba Music, and her retail experience is reflected heavily in the book. Issues facing indie retailers even crop up in the novel, although they're filtered through a teenage lens. Here is an extended version of a story that will run in Friday's Calendar section. Prinz discussed the book, and shared some of Amoeba's plans for 2010.

Amoeba_Ber_Exterior

Young-adult novel “The Vinyl Princess” doesn’t sugarcoat its description of the independent record store. Many of the regulars? “A ragtag group of desperadoes.” The staff? “Underpaid, overworked” and a “lion’s share of the craziest people in the universe.”

And when the book’s main character, the 16-year-old, vinyl-obsessed Allie, notes that she sometimes comes home from her gig at the fictional Bob and Bob Records smelling “like an octogenarian’s closet,” the appeal of buying music online seems apparent.

The_vinyl_princess_cover Yet Harper Teen’s “The Vinyl Princess” was written by one of the most ardent supporters of indie retail, who also happens to be one of the industry’s biggest success stories. Twenty years ago, Yvonne Prinz and her husband, Dave, helped found Amoeba Music in Berkeley, the real-life store that still stands on the same real-life street, Telegraph Avenue, and that inspired the fictional Bob and Bob Records.

Prinz, who also has penned three books in the Raincoast Books’ Clare tween novel series — “Still There, Clare,” “Not Fair, Clare” and “Double Dare Clare” — drew on her first-hand experiences for the novel, a teen take on “High Fidelity” that offers a loving portrait of the indie outlet, described early in the book as a “house of worship.” The remaining customers are split between the weirdos and the diehards, but all are looking for a place to “find community.”

“It’s a church,” said Prinz, speaking by phone from her home outside Berkeley. “You meet people who never have been in a record store, and you meet people who have never left a record store.”

Sales at Bob and Bob Records aren’t on the level of those at Amoeba, one of the country’s most successful independent outlets, and Allie lives in constant fear that the store’s curmudgeon of an owner will call it quits. It’s a storyline that will sound hauntingly familiar to music fans.

Over the last several years, the physical retail market for music has been vastly diminished, as evidenced by the closing of Tower Records, the Virgin Megastore and key local shops such as Rhino Westwood and Aron’s Records.

In Allie, Prinz has a character facing many of the same issues as the retail store owner. A vinyl-obsessed junkie with a love with music history, she views Wal-Mart with skepticism, and iPods are tools for “tinny-sounding crap.” Yet it’s not spoiling the book to reveal that Allie must learn that she “can’t hide from the world in a record store,” and starts a blog with the hopes of seeking out other vinyl geeks.

Likewise, Amoeba Music will this year take its boldest stride yet into the online world, launching a digital download store this spring or summer. Amoeba will join the likes of Other Music in New York and ThinkIndie.com, a digital outlet that represents a consortium of the nation’s top indie stores, including Fingerprints in Long Beach, as one of the few independent retail outlets trying to claim a slice of the digital marketplace.

“I think the indie music scene missed the boat on the whole MP3 scene, and for an obvious reason — no one wanted to embrace it,” Prinz said. “We were purists. We thought the brick-and-mortar record store would last forever. We were almost arrogant about it. Now, after spending years ignoring the whole thing, we thought we could approach it like we approach our stores. We can be purists, and collect everything an artist has done.”

Yvonne Prinz said Amoeba’s digital outlet will focus on rare, out-of-print and deep catalog material. The company is in the midst of readying hard-to-find works from Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt and Billie Holiday, among others, for its digital counterpart.

“It’s a music-obsessive music collector’s foray into that world,” said Amoeba’s general manager Karen Pearson.

Not that the online marketplace has been completely welcoming, notes Other Music owner Josh Madell. His famed indie store launched a download branch in 2007.

“In New York, so many stores have closed in the past few years,” Madell said. “I am not confident that there is an infinite future for stores doing what we do. It’s a lot harder for a small store to challenge Amazon and iTunes than I imagined. In the real world there a lot of people who listen to underground music who want to go to an independent store to buy it — a place that they can talk to people about it and focuses on the kind of music they like. I haven’t seen that on the Web.” 

“That’s reflected in the book — the loss of the indie store,” Prinz said. “The sense of, ‘I just cannot do this anymore. I cannot fight what is happening in the music industry.’ I do think now things are going to turn around and come back, but we’re one of the last stores standing."

With “The Vinyl Princess,” the retail-maven-turned-author has glimpsed first-hand the marketing prowess of Amazon. Those who order the book via Amazon’s e-reader, the Kindle, can access a play list of music that includes selections from Elvis Costello, Joe Strummer and Tom Waits.

“They’re the online monsters, and they do a beautiful job,” Prinz said of Amazon. “So for the indie record store to try and catch up? That’s a really difficult project. But we’re going to tackle it, and we’re making headway.”

“We have no intention of going anywhere,” Prinz continued. “We love what we do, and we’re planning to do it forever.”

-- Todd Martens

Top photo: Amoeba Music in Berkeley. Credit: Amoeba Records. Middle: "The Vinyl Princess" cover. Credit: Harper Teen. Bottom: Yvonne Prinz. Credit: GJ Pelissero / Allana Images

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