Inside the Vinyl Record Industry: Rooky Ricardo’s Records

Story by David Brehmer
Photos by Nissa Nicole

A San Francisco institution for twenty-four years, Rooky Ricardo’s Records at 448 Haight Street is a vinyl lover’s paradise. The 60’s drugstore interior overflows with more than 100,000 classic 45’s and 10,000 LP’s, with local DJ luminaries zealously thumbing through the bins. The store specializes in lesser-known 50’s, 60’s and 70’s Soul, Girl Groups and Oldies, but I did see a Minor Threat LP, so you never know what you’ll find!

Don’t come in asking for Otis Redding expecting to score, though owner Dick Vivian – a popular DJ in his own right and Lower Haight community evangelist – his staff will be more than happy to recommend something similar to and, more than likely better, then direct you to one of the listening stations to check out your finds.

Dick was nice enough sit down with Record Pressing and chat about the shop, the vinyl entity, and why The Beatles are a lot like beets.

Record Pressing: You recently received a small business award from the city. What’s the secret to your lasting success?

Dick Vivian: Ross Mirkarimi (city supervisor) spends a lot of time down here trying to make this area better, and I think I’ve just become, kind of, the glue of this particular block. You know, things come and things go, and I’m always there. I’m one of the few stores that sell things that actually relate to the neighborhood…I’m a part of the Lower Haight Street Merchant Association, and we’re just trying to make this whole neighborhood…get people to cross over from Fillmore Street. (Illustrating his position as glue of the neighborhood, during our interview he paused many times to greet passing shopkeepers, and chatted with the owner of the pizza place next door about watering plants.)

RP: You hear a lot about independent record stores dying…

DV: I don’t know why they would…if they can afford their rent. We’ve got it really sweet down here with the Groove Merchant, and Recycled up there, and Grooves…we all have a niche that we do…What really makes these stores successful is the DJ’s. They buy records in my store, and that sends people into my store…I think [independent record stores] are dying because they’re trying to sell new records, and there’s no mark up on new records. You pay eight bucks and sell it for ten, you’re never gonna make it. You do see a lot of stores closing. Although, a friend of mind just opened one on 24th street…and is doing really well, so who’s to say?

RP: You’ve been in the business for twenty-four years. How has your customer changed?

DV: First five years, all we sold was 45’s. I didn’t know the value of my records, so I was known all over the world, but not here. It was primarily black clientele that came in and bought The O’Jays, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Blue Magic, Ace Spectrum…I only have a few people like that left…a lot of people went to CD. But, now it’s the DJ’s…the big change is that most of my clientele, the median age is 24. I’m ten years older every so often and they’re always the same age. Some are collecting…but they’re buying records because of the discovery. The best thing I do in my store is the listening stations…people can come in and find new things, and hear it before they buy.

RP: Have you found that the majority of your business comes from the serious collector, or are young people finding music through digital sources, and then digging to find more?

DV: Kids. They want to hear the actual record, because they don’t like the sound of the digital…if you’re gonna get something on iTunes, it’s a fake, you know. You’re gonna pay 99 cents. So, for $2 you can have the real thing. And, they like the entity. They like 45’s more so than albums even. It’s got two sides, and it’s just…a thing you can hold.

RP: I’ve heard you do a lot of DJ’ing yourself.

DV: I only really do Hard French, cause it’s during the day. I don’t like DJ’ing late at night. And, I really don’t like private parties anymore, because they only wanna hear “Brick House.” But, Hard French is the best, the funnest DJ gigs I’ve ever had in my life. And, the adoration from people, I mean they’re all stoned, granted, but it’s like the way they look at me…with this love. You know, you play the right song and they just go (hugs his chest) “OHHHHHH!” It’s heaven.

RP: Why do you think Soul and Motown have remained so popular for so many age groups?

DV: They’re infectious. They always sound good. That’s one of the gimmicks at the store. I don’t really sell Motown much anymore, cause everybody has it. But, every artist, every major label tried to do Motown, or Stax/Volt. There was always these soundalikes…and people like Stevie Wonder that have great soul songs that people don’t even know. Flipsides of records are really the way to go…great finds nobody knows of. People walk into my store, they say Motown, but they want, I tell you, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and, uh, Serge Gainsbourg, whoever the hell he is.

RP: What got you started as a collector?

DV: Just when I was young. I was always a dancer, and I was, you know, the one they turned to for parties. I grew up in Walnut Creek, and I was the one with the 45 box with the good records, so I just got invited and one thing led to another.

RP: As other media formats have come and gone, why do you think vinyl has such a lasting appeal?

DV: It’s all about the sound and the entity…There are so many instances, if you get an old song or something that’s been digitally touched up, or re-mastered, they just rob it of all the energy. It’s just dry, and drained, and there’s no fidelity. Being a dancer, I like things to pop out of the turntable. You need to hear “In the Still of the Night” on a record or a 45 and not a CD…there’s nothing to like about it on a CD.

RP: I’ve heard you have a special relationship with Beatles collectors. What’s the story?

DV: I was a waiter for 35 years, do you know what foodies are? They would come in and be, “Oh, excuse me. I know there are 97 types of beets. What kind of beets are on my salad?” I would say, “I don’t know, but it’s a half of one.” Same with Beatles collectors…they ask a question so they can answer it themselves. I mean, I certainly don’t mind selling a “She Loves You” on a 45, but don’t take up my time. I don’t want to get involved in someone’s conversation they need to have by themselves. That’s the perfect quote for The Beatles.

RP: Okay, last question: Is there a Holy Grail 45 out there for you?

DV: Not for me. What really amazes me, after all these years of collecting records…it’s unbelievable how much is still out there. I have a lot of records, and that you can still find these amazingly great things you never somehow…in the space of everything they passed you by. I just discovered two songs recently that I like as much as anything I own. But, my favorite song of all time…is “Please, Mister Postman” by the Marvelettes. When that song came out…it was so different and was so alive compared to anything else I had heard in my whole life. It just came on, and I was like, “Oh, my God. I just died and went to Heaven.” That was probably the most changing moment in my record collecting, in my world. And…as much as it’s been everywhere, it’s still fresh.

To cap off the interview, Dick handed me a homemade comp CD titled Sassy, Sexy and Demanding (one of many he has in store to aid curious collectors to discover new tracks in their favorite genres) filled with great, lesser-known Girl Group cuts from a young Etta James, Dorothy Berry, Baby Washington and more. He said, “That CD will tell you more about me than any interview.” You have to admire a man who lets his music speak for him.

Rooky’s also offers turntable maintenance, retro buttons, camera film, dance lessons for the rhythmically inclined or curious, and, apparently, locally made pretzels on Saturdays.

For more photos, check out Record Pressing’s Facebook page here.