In October of this year, Aquarius Records in San Francisco turns 30 years old.* Four years ago, long-time employee Windy Chien bought the store from its second owner, Butch Bridges, and moved the store from its Noe Valley location to the Mission District. Since then, Windy and the small, knowledgeable staff have continued to foster an already entrenched dedication to quality underground music, and to develop the ideals of community and support that she brought to her management of the store back in its Noe Valley days.
From the forming of the Dead Kennedys (who met through a flyer on the bulletin board) to in-store appearances by bands as varying and influential as the Residents or Souled American, Aquarius is somewhat legendary.
Any given Saturday will bring in musicians and music-lovers from all over the city, looking for new stuff to listen to and probably finding good conversation to boot. Aquarius is a hangout and a place where learning about music is as important as listening to music.
C: How did you become such a huge music fan?
W: All I listened to for the first 16 years of my life was Top 40. My parents forced me to go to the most exclusive private high school in Hawaii, and I felt like a total outsider. As soon as you start to feel like an outsider you sort of become even more of one. That's when you start listening to REM. REM in 1981 was fully alternative. When I got to college, I got a show on the college radio station. I was just so interested in what was going on. I remembered about Subterranean Records being a really influential label, so I volunteered there. It means something to me to be involved with really good music, to be able to take part in making sure that it continues to happen and continues to have an audience and to add to an existing community. I feel that the store I have now has had a strong impact on the music scene in San Francisco. I consider that a really strong achievement.
C: Has the development of the music you carry changed with your move to the Mission?
W: When we were in Noe Valley, there was a mainstream record store 3 doors down. They carried the new Madonna record and we didn't. Now that we are trying to look at ourselves as a community store as well as one that champions underground music, we will carry the new Madonna record because we know that there are going to be some customers who are going to want it. We never want to make anyone feel stupid about their taste in music because if somebody loves music that is a good thing. Liking one kind of music can only open them up to liking other kinds of music.
C: What kinds of things do you do at the store to make your customers feel comfortable while they are surrounded by challenging and unusual music, music that may seem foreign and weird?
W: We write little tags on all of the records, and it's gotten to the point where we get really extreme about it and write three paragraphs about a new record that we all love because we want to turn people on to things. Everyone at the store makes a lot less money than they could working at a dotcom or something, but they do it because they like to turn people on to music. I only hire people who are like that. There are lots of plants in the store, and I have tried to make it really warm and cozy and inviting for people - especially for women. Rock music and punk rock have been this very male thing, and it can be really intimidating to walk into a store and ask some surly record clerk for help or their opinion on a record and just get some poo-poo sort of attitude back. I have tried hard to make the store not be like that.
C: Let's talk about your extraordinary employees: Allan Horrocks, Andee Connors, Jim Haynes, Elisabeth O'Connell, Byram Abbott, and Cup Iwata.
W: I strongly believe that to be a good owner and a good manager of people, you need to treat your coworkers like your equals. I treat my co-workers like my family, and I honestly care about them as people. I want to support whatever it is that they are doing because for me, Aquarius is my creative project. But I understand that for someone like Andee, his music is his priority. So, it's fine if he needs to go on tour for two months. It's fine for Jim to go away to to have a show of his art. It's important to me that everyone's priorities are taken care of and understood. There is a lot of mutual respect that goes on in the store, and I think that's so important. Although our workplace might be sort of neurotic, I don't think it is dysfunctional. I feel really lucky that I have amazing people who work for me, and I couldn't do it without them.
C: How has your presence on the Internet increased and changed your store and the way you do business?
W: If someone is going to do a Web search on their favorite band that no one in their town has ever heard of, like the Boredoms or something, chances are they will come up with our store. Our catalogue is online with over 4000 entries. People see that there are reviews of six different Boredoms records, and maybe they will feel like this is a place where they can get these things. We do tons of mail order, and we also send out a list to over 4000 subscribers every two weeks of all of the new records that we have in the store. We try to be really honest in the reviews. We try not to carry anything we don't like because I don't want to have to slag a record. We'd just rather not carry it if we don¹t like it. The email serves to inform all of our local and mail order customers about what is new. It's been a good thing, and I haven't seen any other stores do this. Other Music, a high-profile store in New York, specifically started one to compete with ours. But, you know, the more the merrier.
FROM the WITHITGIRL ARCHIVE
Cory Peipon was the Editor in Chief at withitgirl + Maya Hayuk was the Photo Editor at withitgirl.
Since publishing this article in 2000, Aquarius has sadly closed its doors in 2016
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