When the Music Had to Stop
The Closing of Flat Plastic Sound
By George B. Sanchez
Plastic Sound has closed shop. Located on Clement Street between
Arguello Boulevard and Second Avenue, the store was a San Francisco
original, born seven years ago out of a love for records and a
miscellaneous collection amassed by three friends.
Stopping by Flat Plastic felt more like visiting a
friend than a record shop. Methodically cluttered, the store had the
aura of a teenager's room at the height of a pop craze. A Ramones
T-shirt hung above the register near an orange R. Crumb "Keep on Truckin'"
poster, and faded record sleeves decorated the walls. Hand-painted signs
directed customers to classical music while a musical selection -
anything from Charlie Parker to the Weavers - playing over the store's
PA system drowned out Clement Street. Conversations with owner Jeff
Davis were inevitable, with topics ranging from San Francisco punk back
in the day, to the mistrust between black and white activists following
Dr. Martin Luther Kings Jr.'s assassination, or the value of a good 78.
That's gone now. All one can see through the window of
24 Clement Street are boxes upon boxes, bare walls, and a window display
no longer attended to. "It's always a shame when a small store like that
goes out of business," said Pete Mulvihill, manager at Green Apple
Books. "I just hope the space will go to more positive stuff."
With partners Marc Goodman and Todd Barrett, Davis first
opened Flat Plastic Sound's doors in October 1995. Having previously
worked at Revolver Records, now the music annex of Green Apple books,
Davis had a solid background in record sales and music. "Basically, me
and one of the other guys put all our records together and opened up a
store," said Davis. "We built the bins and shelving and stuff like that
The small operation quickly found a solid base of loyal
customers, partly because it specialized in buying and selling classical
music. "There was a lot of competition for CDs already and I think we
really did have a niche. A lot of the other stores would send people to
us with classical records, because they just didn't buy them,"
remembered Davis. "For a lot of the people who buy classical, this was an opportunity to get
stuff that they never saw."
Though the genre constituted more than a quarter of the
store's sales, classical wasn't its sole draw. Rarities, such as test
pressings from the Fantasy jazz label, floated through the store.
Records from famous collections went through Flat Plastic Sound as well.
The simple fact that the vinyl market is composed of a
small pool of collectors also made for plenty of regulars and stories.
"A lot of people who collect are pretty obsessive," laughed Davis.
"That's what they do; they collect."
Davis and company also possessed a virtue unique within
San Francisco's record stores: the ability to direct and advise
customers without coming off as music snobs. "There's a certain
satisfaction of putting someone together with a record they're going to
enjoy, something they may not have known about," said Davis. "What you
buy really creates the personality of the store, so it's nice to be
validated in that what you buy is stuff that other people find
Despite his joy in sharing music with others just as
passionate (or obsessive), Davis felt compelled to close shop, a
decision increasingly common among independent businesses. Overhead,
rent, and the economics of street traffic led Flat Plastic Sound to a
financial struggle. However, it was a new player in San Francisco's
record market that ultimately pushed the decision. While music
collectors were sent into a fit of ecstasy following the transformation
of Haight Street's bowling alley into Amoeba Records, record storeowners
all over San Francisco groaned. "Basically, before they [Amoeba Records]
opened, there was about 13 records shops in town and when they opened,
you could have fit all 13 inside the space they opened in," said Davis.
Record Stores around the Haight, such as Reckless Records and Mobster,
quickly fell by the wayside. "It's sad," said Mike Boul, manager at
Recycled Records. "All the small record stores are being bled dry. I
think they [Amoeba] have more security than other stores have whole
According to Davis, Flat Plastic Sound's sales growth
ceased following Amoeba's first year in San Francisco. "We started
losing about ten percent a year and actually in the last couple years,
it has gone quicker than that," he said. "I think in general, most of
the stores in town, the same thing happened."
local stores such as Recycled Records, Open Mind Music, and Green Apple
will continue to sell records, Flat Plastic Sound's absence will be
felt. "It's one of the few places in the city that has a really diverse
selection of vinyl," said Matt Web, one of Davis's employees. "It's
going to be sorely missed."
But even though Flat Plastic Sound will no longer occupy
a space on Clement Street, Davis won't abandon San Francisco's
vinylphiles. He plans to sell, trade, and buy records through Flat
Plastic's website, www.flatplasticsound.com. "I want to investigate
helping people sell their collections," he said. "You know, if you take
your collection to a shop, you're going to get pennies on the dollar.
Whereas if you have the right stuff to sell on e-bay, you can make
really good money."