Noe Valley Voice November 2008

Streetlight Set to Close Local Store

By Joshua Brandt

When Jeff Moss, general manager of 24th Street's Streetlight Records, recalled the store's humble beginnings, he couldn't resist a wistful smile.

"I was just a kid looking for some spending money. It was a placeholder job. We had one sign, about 50 square feet, and saggy cardboard boxes with used records--and this was before anyone understood the concept of used records.

"I was always kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop," Moss said.

Despite his trepidations, for over three decades--from rock to disco to hip-hop to hyphy--Streetlight thrived as a magnet for music collectors. People would come from miles around to sift through the store's dusty bins, crammed with the hottest new--and hippest old--albums, tapes, and CDs.

But that other shoe may be dropping now. After 33 years in Noe Valley, Streetlight owner Robert Fallon gave word to employees last month that he will close the store at 3979 24th Street on Jan. 31, at the end of the holiday season.

"It's really hard to swallow," said Moss, who has been with the shop for all but two of those years. "On an emotional level it's very difficult. I've gone through all the stages, I guess you could say. There was anger, denial, bargaining, and finally, acceptance."

Still, he understands the factors that went into Fallon's decision to give up the store: the sour economy, competition from other retailers and the Internet, and an iPod culture that promotes one-hit wonders instead of whole albums.

"The music industry doesn't promote full-length artistic works like [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side of the Moon anymore," said Moss. "The big-box stores offer the name groups way below cost, and people just download one song per album. It's tough for a small, local store to survive under those conditions. The unfortunate reality is that the day of the neighborhood record store has come and gone."

Losing Steadily

Fallon, who launched Streetlight in 1976, thought long and hard before deciding to close the Noe Valley location, instead of his other San Francisco location on Market Street. (Streetlight also has stores in San Jose and Santa Cruz. Many of the 24th Street employees will be switching over to the Market Street store in some capacity.)

In the end, it was a decision based on hard facts. "I happen to love Noe Valley, and I was a member of this community for over 20 years before I moved to Big Sur. This area has one of the world's best promenades, and I have many fond memories of the store and neighborhood.

"But emotions don't pay the bills," Fallon said, "and we've been losing money steadily since 2001."

The Market Street store had better foot traffic and visibility, he said, so the Noe Valley store was the logical choice.

'Like a Bad Dream'

The reaction from longtime customers was swift and visceral.

"Wow, I'm shocked and stunned," said Dennis White. "Shocked and stunned," repeated White, an employee of nearby Noe Valley Music and a Streetlight customer for 20 years.

"The street is not going to be the same. That's just terrible. I talk to those guys at the shop all the time. They're so passionate and knowledgeable. I thought that some of those guys should run for Mayor of 24th Street.... They would've won in a landslide."

Over at Phoenix Books and Records, store manager James Koehneke was equally dismayed.

"I'm devastated. It's like a bad dream. We consider them old friends because we kind of grew up together on the block. But I guess stores like this may just be the products of another era, where the economic conditions were more merciful and artists and musicians who supported the independent stores could live in the neighborhood.

"I'm really sorry. It's really sad," Koehneke said. "People need to think about what kind of city they want to live in when we lose stores like Streetlight."

Calls for Wake-Up Calls

Neighborhood resident Chuck Hubbell agreed, saying the store's demise should be a wake-up call for Noe Valley.

"People should be pissed about this," said Hubbell, who has made almost daily stops at Streetlight Records for 18 years. "The times are changing, and they aren't changing for the better. This is a real village here, and healthy villages are comprised of healthy small businesses. Without it, neighborhoods are stale and irrelevant. Period."

Coral Reiff, a Noe Valley resident since 1972, called Streetlight's closing "an outrage. I saw many of these employees--mostly young men--grow up, go to college, and get married. They were like family to me. Whenever I walk into the store, someone will call me by name and tell me about a new opera release, or a new digitized Hendrix recording.

"You know, I could easily shop online, but I choose not to because of Streetlight. This is just a microcosm of what's going on in the world, and people have to wake up before more precious institutions are lost."

Don't Discount Passion for Music

Another fan, Kenn Durrence, who drove up from San Jose on a recent weekend just to shop at Streetlight, thinks the store is making a big mistake.

"First of all, sales of vinyl have doubled every year since 2000, and the sale of record players was up 80 percent last year. It used to be that vinyl just appealed to middle-aged guys like me in big Hawaiian T-shirts, but now a lot of kids aged 18 to 22 are getting into it.

"I mean look at these two beauties that just came out," said Durrence, holding up copies of the Pixies' Bossanova and Trompe le Monde.

"This is 180-gram vinyl, which is really substantial. You can feel the magic when you hold it. You can frame it. This is really art. And at places like this store, you can always find hidden treasures like rare deejay-stamped promotional albums that aren't available in other places. I'll tell you one thing--never discount the passion people have for their music."

That's exactly the sentiment that buffers store manager Sunlight Weismehl during a time of "disbelief."

"I've worked at this store for 20 years. I got hired when I brought an old Jethro Tull album back because the liner wasn't in mint condition."

Weismehl laughed at the memory, adding that any "flute-rock devotee" had to be considered an excellent candidate to work behind the counter.

"I have a memory of every nook and cranny in this place. I know where the floors creak or the paint on the walls is chipping. This store is all I've thought about for two decades. I have to admit that my optimism is shrinking, but I still have that little ray of hope that the store will remain open.

"I just can't fully give that hope up."