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Aquarius keeps the light shining on underground music

There’s a place in San Francisco that brings together the sounds of the world. From Ethiopian Jazz to Brazilian tropicalia to Norwegian thrash metal and even the songs of bats.

It’s hailed as one of the best independent record stores in the U.S. by both Spin and Paste magazines. Aquarius is not only the oldest one in San Francisco; it just may be the most intriguing. I investigated why and how one record store has helped keep the light shining on underground music.

Every other week Aquarius Records sends out a 25,000-word newsletter with music reviews that resemble the poetic jazz liner notes of years past, oozing with sensual detail and personality.

“It was sort of necessary because you know, we’d get this weird record of deer mating or ice melting or some weird metal record that’s made by a dwarf who lives in Norway," says Andee Connors, one of the owners of Aquarius Records. "Those are the elements that are cool and there’s a way to describe it so that even someone who isn’t even a weird music person will be like, ‘That sounds crazy, I totally want to hear that.’”

Connors looks like a metalhead, with his shaggy long locks and multitudinous skull tattoos. But he’s also got a warm demeanor and earnest enthusiasm for the store. Neither he nor co-owner Allan Horrocks makes much money preserving its legacy.

Aquarius started in 1970, when record stores were more of a necessity for music lovers. Connors says it evolved over time: “Not changing dramatically, but always staying in touch with the underground, whether it was in the 70s and it was punk rock or now where it’s garage rock and black metal."

The first time I walked into Aquarius Records to interview Connors, the in-store speakers were blasting Francis Bebey. He’s an electronic musician from Cameroon, Africa. The next time I came in, the featured music was Beach House. They’re a sugary pop band that can also be heard in the fitting rooms of trendy stores like Urban Outfitters. They’re both in Aquarius’ eclectic catalog.

"We used to review things and I’d say, ‘Oh this is totally a guilty pleasure,' and then I realized you know what, I literally don’t feel guilty about anything I like, and nothing I like is ironic anymore," says Connors.

Every year, Connors writes about a thousand of Aquarius’ 2,000 new music reviews. The prose is lush, idiosyncratic, and ecstatic, often verging on poetry – not at all like the crisp, snarky stuff you read in most music reviews. The newsletter is one of the reasons the store has attracted devoted followers from around the world. Instead of hunting down their music via a slew of different labels, people rely on Aquarius to alert them about new under-the-radar bands.

"That’s what we do because that’s what we love," Connors says. "I used to use the analogy of having Aquarius records and owning Aquarius Records, running it and doing the list, was sort of like making mix tapes but turning that into a business somehow. And on some level that’s really what the store is."

I asked Connors if Aquarius ever gets visits from mail order customers traveling from as far away as Japan or Portugal just to visit the store.

"Oh yeah,” he replies. “We have that a lot. Often times they come straight from the airport and they have their suitcases. From my traveling, I’m kind of a super record store nerd, too, but my knee-jerk reaction is to be like, ‘Why did you come here first, why didn’t you go to your hotel room and relax?’ But it’s super cool that people are so excited."

Aquarius is entwined with the history of rock and roll. In the early days members of the seminal punk band the Dead Kennedys met through an ad on the store's bulletin board and hardcore act Husker Du performed at their backyard barbeques. Blondie and the Ramones also made appearances.

Now-beloved San Francisco favorites such as the experimental band known as Wooden Ships and the trance-inducing, cosmic sounds of the group Moon Duo attribute their success in large part to Aquarius’ enthusiastic support.

"Now both those bands are a big deal," Connors says.

The surf pop band Best Coast was one of many to play for dozens of fans at the store’s 40th anniversary party. Connors says it wasn’t long before they were performing for millions on David Letterman.

When I asked Connors about downloads, he said it is a frequently asked question. His answer is always the same: "I don’t think downloading has really affected our store that much. A lot of the stuff that we sell is not readily available on iTunes, or wherever – and it’s not even readily available on blogs or as illegal downloads.”

He’s similarly unfazed by internet radio stations like Pandora, Blip, and Turntable FM. Connors knows the robotic version of a record store just isn’t the same thing.

"And that’s one element, but another element is people who buy records love buying records," Connors tells me. "And that’s really the long and short of it – they love the object, they love having a seven-inch or LP, they love the liner notes, they love how records smell.”

Aquarius isn’t the wave of the future. It’s part of a long tradition of record stores where you not only buy vinyl, but meet other music lovers.  Through Aquarius you can discover where shows are happening, or art house films, or good places to eat. It’s a community hub – a rarity in the modern age.

Independent stores are disappearing rapidly, even in a city as progressive as San Francisco. In 2005, there were 52 specialty record stores in the Bay Area. Eleven are now gone.

The closures include famous shops such as Reverb, a staple for trance, house and electronic DJs, and Shaxul, a store devoted entirely to heavy metal. But Aquarius carries on.

“I think a lot of stores, for better or for worse, have other things driving their business – ‘Oh we have to sell a billion of this’ – and we don’t, unfortunately, have that," Connors says with a laugh. "From a business standpoint it’s probably a terrible idea, but from a cool beautiful art thing, I think it’s much more satisfying."

Before I left I asked Connors about the most unusual record he carries.

“Well, had you come in ten minutes earlier, you would have met one of the people responsible for one of the weirdest records we carry,” Connors tells me. The customer lives in the East Bay and is in a band called Fastest, Connors explains.

“He records totally insane, video game music with weird, growly, metal vocals and what almost sounds like whispered rapping over the soundtrack to the Legend of Zelda. He’s kind of a crazy guy... he's also very nice."

This story originally aired on September 19, 2012.

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