About Us

Contact Us

Monday, March 4, 2002

When the Music Had to Stop

The Closing of Flat Plastic Sound

By George B. Sanchez

Flat 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 ourselves."

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 interesting."

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 staff."

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."

While 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."