About 1988, my friend Papa Freddy told me he was going into business. He had met a young man from the Midwest who had been working at Stern's in London while a student at the London School of Economics and was going to open a branch of Stern's in San Francisco. I was excited and said I would like to work there part time. I met Robert and, after his decision not to franchise Stern's but to be an indie, and much debate about a name and so on, the store opened in the suddenly trendy Mission district of San Francisco (dubbed the New Bohemia by the papers), on a side street. I designed & painted the window sign (note that Globy is listening to Africa!), and also drew the lettered neon sign which hung in the window when we moved a block up the street.
This was in the days before CDs had taken a firm grip on the musical imagination and, being a Cancer, I was not about to give up my records for these new-fangled enigmatic plastic thingies that were only a third the size. So, at first I only wanted African vinyl and soon had as much as I could carry out of there. On a trip to London Robert found some dead stock in the Sterns basement and suddenly I owned some incredibly rare Lassissi albums on the Sacodis label that cost me about $5 apiece. I tried to hide my excitement but the other employees soon twigged what was up so none of the Lassissi material made it out onto the shelves. We even got East African bootlegs of Franco albums which had poor sound, but were real rarities, including material from 45s that was only issued in Kenya. For three years I refused to get into CDs until "Pirate's Choice" by Orchestre Baobab came out with two bonus tracks on the CD and I started down that road. I made good friends while working there, mostly other deejays like Cheb i Sabbah who was our Middle East expert, and Ian de Silva who started out, I think, as our Brasilian expert. Fred invited us all to KUSF for a year-end roundup of our favourite releases and, when I took over as host of the weekly radio broadcast, I frequently asked IJ to be my guest. The Round World clientele were largely Hispanic (because of the neighbourhood) and so salsa became our main seller, despite the presence of Discolandia and other salsa outlets in the vicinity. But we focussed on classic Cuban music, as well as new releases, and built a solid customer base.
New stuff arrived all the time and we would excitedly open the boxes, like kids at christmas, and play the most promising things. There was a problem with this, because if something really hot came in, we would be excited and the customers would catch the vibe and everyone in the store would want a copy. If there were only five copies that meant two staff members and three lucky customers got it, then there would be no more for weeks till the re-order arrived. Frequent worst case scenario: there were no more copies. So we learned not to play anything hot until no one was around so the other staff members got to hear it too. We left notes about new arrivals and warnings not to let on until more copies came. This way the store became more and more like a private club, for often only the staff ever got certain rare imported CDs.
We found the store sound system was a great sales tool too. Robert had bought these small but mighty Siefert Research speakers that were made by an engineer who had worked for JBL and Harmon. He had gone back to building quality speakers in his workshop and someone nearby sold them. Nothing ever sounded as good at home as it did in the store, so I decided to buy the same speakers, though they would cost more than my car had. I called the dealer and told him I worked at Round World. He told me he would give me a discount and also was having a sale that day. So I went to his warehouse after work at 6 p.m. on a Saturday. The room was full of that smoky blue fragrance we all know and love. I got the speakers for about half of retail and he even threw in some monster cables. As I was leaving he scratched his head and said I don't think I made any money on that deal. (I later blew out the speakers and had to pay a lot to have them reconed.)
At first I worked on Saturdays with Fred. He was methodical and quiet and hated to get ruffled. One busy afternoon a tall Frenchman pushed his way to the counter. He was holding two LPs that Chebiji had put out used to sell cheaply, by someone a cut below Jacques Brel, like Serge Gainsbourg. The Frenchman was probably the only person on the planet who would want to hear them again. 'Ow much are these? he demanded. -- Priced on the back, muttered Fred. He proffered a ten dollar bill. 'Ere, take ze money, he insisted. Fred said, Can't you see I am helping this other customer? The Frenchman spluttered, But I am double-parked, he exclaimed, just take ze money. Sorry, said Fred, I have to calculate the tax. Take it all, he insisted throwing the ten down. Sorry sir, said Fred, taking the LPs as if they were treasures, you can't buy these without a receipt... If you will just wait your turn. The Frenchman stormed out & the records remained unsold. On another occasion Fred was having a quiet morning listening to post-Ramadan picnic music when the "waterbed king of Petaluma" came in for his weekly fix of salsa. He wanted to hear something & brandished it. But a customer was using the headphones. We had a lot of slackers who just wanted to hang out and listen and if we weren't busy and if they didn't smell, we didn't mind. "Put it on the store system!" insisted the Waterbed King. Fred could tell the arabic music irritated him, so refused, and as he started getting shirty, Fred kicked him out. Though when the real "anoraks" showed up (usually in raincoats) Fred would disappear and leave me to handle them. Fred got tired of the store and sold out his quarter share to Robert after a couple of years. Other people gravitated there and after being fanatic customers, came to work for the employee discount. Joe, a brilliant lawyer from Uganda, was a welcome addition to the small staff. Hilda showed up -- a real jazz buff and a stunning babe -- which was good for business. We each had our coteries.
Ian became my new Saturday partner. Robert figured I was orderly and Ian was not so it would balance out. I called him Hurricane Ian because at the end of the shift there would be CDs strewn all over and worse, CDs in the wrong cases. And alphabetical filing -- forget it! One busy Saturday I was putting product out and asked a woman browsing the Brasilian section if she needed help. No, I am just looking, she said. Then she caught sight of Ian. Do you work here? she asked. Maybe you can help me pick some Brazilian music. Hmm, the melanin man strikes again. Ian lived across the street from the store for a while and, at the time, was dating at least three different women a week, so we could keep an amusing tally of all the comings and goings. Wisely he didn't tell them where he worked.
Lulu loved salsa and though she was a schoolteacher and not a deejay, she could throw down a set to knock your socks off. Her parties in the sedate Excelsior neighbourhood were always a mob scene of wild dancing. One day Lulu and I were running the shop looking through all the stuff that hadn't sold. We decided to try to find the worst CD in the store. This is what happens when your taste becomes jaded. I voted for Salsa Romantica, but after digging we came across SAPPHO OF LESBOS. It was not traditional Greek music as you might imagine, just really trashy Euro disco. But then an evil idea occurred to us: Let's see how quickly we can sell this! We awaited the right moment. A couple came in who were just browsing, they had a few world music CDs and wondered what else they might like. We said, check this out! We put the CD on loud and immediately started dancing like it was the best party music ever, waving our arms in the air and laughing at the ridiculous moves we were making. That is good said the woman, I'll take it.
I lived round the corner for a couple of years then moved up the street ten blocks. I could walk to work on Sundays. Since the employee discount was pretty much the wholesale price we always took our meagre wages in product, so after a day's work I would come home happy with a clutch of new CDs. I called them the "Magic Beans" as in Jack and the Beanstalk, while my girlfriend shook her head.
One Saturday night my phone rang about 11 p.m. It was the police to say the burglar alarm was going at Round World. Robert was in Cuba and the other numbers given to the police by the alarm company didn't answer, so they had reached me. I had been drinking wine and was over the legal limit but nevertheless drove down the hill to the store. The police asked me to unlock the door and step back, then they entered the darkened store with guns drawn. I followed them in and turned on the lights and turned off the alarm. A window in the stock room had been left ajar and a gust of wind had blown something over tripping the motion detector. All was quiet, except, because Robert was gone, one of the employees had stashed a large amount of herb in the store room and the smell was overpowering. One of the cops sniffed knowingly. I gestured at the open window with a "what can you do in this neighbourhood?" look on my face and shrugged, quickly shutting off the lights.
One of the entertaining local characters was Tim, a wino who sat on fireplugs and hassled people for change. When he was drunk he had penetrating insight and made funny cracks about everything. He came in regularly and we gave him a dollar for wine, sometimes he left money with us for safekeeping and forgot about it, so we were able to pay him out of his own funds. We learned he was a veteran and from Los Angeles, but couldn't tell his age. When I saw him on the street I would pass the time of day with him. One day I said to Robert, You know who Tim looks like? Lee Perry. --Yes, he does. A lot. Let's do an in-store appearance. Invite Tim and play the music so loud folks can barely hear and then have Tim sign albums, I suggested. I think we'd have to clean him up a bit, said Robert.
My girlfriend referred to herself as a Soukous widow, and recognised it in other girlfriends of fellows who were Congolese music nuts. A customer called Tony Z regularly drove up from Santa Cruz to shop when I was there because I had turned him onto Franco and Papa Wemba and he too loved that sound. So he always wanted my recommendations. His girlfriend was long-suffering and stood looking bored while he listened to a stack of new things and found the ones he wanted. OK OK, he would say, I am ready to go shopping. No she said, you spent all our money, we are going home so you can listen to the damn stuff. One day he came in all smiles. What's good? he said. I pulled out a few things. What else? Soon there were twenty CDs on the counter. He added a few classic Francos. I'll take them, he said. What happened? Did you win the grand prize on Jeopardy? I joked. Yes, as a matter of fact, I did, he said. How did you guess? He was a smart guy and had gone to Hollywood and won the TV quiz show.
When people were true enthusiasts I would help them, but if they were just picking our brains we called them "TW"s, our code for Time Wasters. I was pretty impatient with them and got a reputation as "the crank who works on Sundays." I came to recognize the TOWER records employees who would pick our brains then leave with a list of things to order. The bored girlfriends were the worst because they didn't know what to do while their boyfriends were buried in the headphones going through a stack of new releases trying to decide which to buy. We had some very expensive musical instruments, handmade locally, which were more for show than sale I think. One day a 3 year old had beat on a $300 conga drum with a CD and ripped the skin so all the congas were put up on top of the CD shelf, about 8 feet from the ground and reaching to the high Victorian ceiling. A bored girlfriend noticed them. Let me see that drum, she said, indicating one of them. Don't bother, I snapped, you can't afford it. She blew up. Never been so insulted in all my life! We are leaving at once, etc etc.
But miscommunication often led to other outcomes. A Cuban immigrant came in regularly for a musical fix. He was a big shortsighted fellow who drove a MUNI bus! One day he wanted to buy some things and handed me a VISA card. I called the credit card line and typed in the characters. Do you have ID? I asked, which was a matter of course on credit card purchases. He was indignant. What? You think it's stolen? He said. He didn't want to show me ID. I can't sell you these without ID, I said. He was furious: Because I am black and my name is Paul Miller and not Pablo Molina you think it's not my card? he demanded. I didn't say that, it's our policy. His English wasn't too good so it was hard to explain to him. However we made it up, and he soon became a regular on my day and taught me a thing or two about Cuban music. One day he said "Tito Puente is chit! There are dozens of kids in Havana who can play timbales better than him!" When Munequitos de Matanzas played in Oakland I was excited about going to see them and planned to take BART over after the store closed on Sunday. Paul came in with a couple of dodgy looking blokes. Do you know where is Oakland Paramount theatre? he asked. Yes, take 19th street BART station or exit off 980, I said. He consulted with his friends in Spanish. Are you driving? I asked. Sure. OK, I will go with you. Soon we were flying across the Bay Bridge in a tiny battered jalopy with a group of illegal Cubans jabbering away in Spanish, and one of them hands me back an airline miniature bottle of rum!
My only regret was the little time I spent with Malonga Casquelourd. He was a Congolese musician who started the Fua dia Congo dance troupe and seemed to know everyone in Congolese music. I would ask him questions about the early bands I loved and he knew all the musicians and their stories. He was amused when I would sing along making up Lingala words as I went. I always meant to get him on my radio show or just sit down with him outside the store and get him talking. Unfortunately he was killed by a drunk driver going the wrong way on Lakeshore Boulevard in Oakland. Tabu Ley Rochereau came in one day and I quickly stuck on a Grand Kalle and African Jazz CD. Ah! All of zem dead, he said to me. John Storm Roberts came by. Then the great Quatre Etoiles were in town. Bopol wanted the new Bob Marley 4-CD set which had unreleased live material on it, but we were sold out. On our way to the airport I stopped at my house and gave him my copy for cost. He was boasting to the other band members how cheap it was compared to the price at FNAC in Paris! I figured it was more important he have this music than me.
Robert started a record label with musician and producer Greg Landau. They also set up some memorable encuentros in San Francisco with legendary Cuban musicians. Their very first recording was nominated for a Grammy. This was actually not a good thing because they became so confident they immediately sank more money into recording equipment and went to Cuba and made three more CDs of very esoteric music. I suggested they do a sampler of all the groups they had recorded but they went ahead and released the three albums which lost a lot of money. Then their distributor went belly-up and the CDs vanished. The store was increasingly secondary to Robert's interests and it came to a natural end about a decade after it started.
There's a wonderful novel about working in a record store called HIGH FIDELITY. The movie sucked, but the book is very true to life and we all dug it, especially since we had many similar experiences: Customers we threw out or refused to sell to because they were somehow unworthy owners of that particular album. There was a regular we called "The World's Most Boring Man" who wore a trench coat and carried a shopping bag. He always used the restroom when he arrived. We dreaded him because, apart from the stink he made, he wanted to parade esoteric knowledge & would ask a question in order to provide the answer. Another regular I called "The King & I" because he was short and bald and Thai, and only wanted pristine copies of unopened CDs, so wouldn't buy anything that had been opened. A middle-aged French woman who was a shoplifter held a wad of cash in her left hand like a beacon and kept her bag on her arm to stick things in. A junkie managed to steal the reggae section one day when the store was busy. People would sometimes bring back our empty CD cases which they had found scattered up the street after a shoplifter had realized they were just the cases. Robert was most indignant at the bad taste of the would-be thieves, who obviously couldn't read the signs in English and Spanish saying all the cases are empty. Damn, the whole Tito Puente section is gone, he would say, disgustedly.
More than employees though we became a true family. We joked about a friend who we called "the Father of the Revolution," as he had families in Cuba, Nicaragua and some other Latin American country. But we were a heterogenous group of a Moroccan Jew, an Algerian Jew, A Latina, a Ugandan, a Trinidanian, an Hibernian (me) & Robert, the pasty Anglo-Saxon of the bunch, united by one thing: Que viva la Musica!