Punks on Wax 

Oakland's 1-2-3-4 Go! Records expands to meet the East Bay's hankering for niche vinyl.

Steve Stevenson has found a niche in the vinyl grooves of punk and indie records. If the location of his first North Oakland record store was relative in size to a seven-inch EP, then his new spot, two doors down, could be likened to a full-length LP with awesome cover art.

Stevenson opened 1-2-3-4 Go! Records early last year, and in March he relocated it to a space about three times bigger in the same building on 40th Street. The move means more counter space to display records and other music-related merchandise, more wall space to display the work of local artists, and more floor space to hold occasional in-store performances.

The expansion, albeit modest, is an auspicious move in a down economy — and a suggestion that vinyl-slinging can still be a profitable venture. Or, at the very least, not a guaranteed bust.

Unlike larger record stores, 1-2-3-4 Go! has a specialized selection of punk (and all its subgenres), indie rock, and some classic rock and country records. And while catering to a distinct market effectively weeds out a wider customer base, the sizeable population of punk-record collectors — in the East Bay and beyond — may be enough to sustain the shop.

"It's much safer to be in a niche market," explained Stevenson. "I think being small is very wise, because when a store is too big, you open yourself up to a lot more competition."

Stevenson said even he was amazed when, after starting the business in March 2008, it immediately took off. "The first couple of months were amazing," he said. "I didn't really do any advertising, it was all word-of-mouth, and people were coming out of the woodwork for it."

A year later, the store is still succeeding, he says. It's nearby to the MacArthur BART station and major bus lines, making it easily accessible. And Stevenson said that whenever he turns around, more record enthusiasts seem to move into the neighborhood.

Some of 1-2-3-4's Go!'s success can be credited to the pre-existence of his record label of the same name, through which Stevenson has released a plethora of punk and pop-punk records and CDs since 2001. He now sells his releases in his shop and online — so that even when his physical storefront is closed, he's still open for business.

The success of the shop is somewhat relative considering how small the old store was. The sales floor could only accommodate a portion of the records, CDs, and tapes in stock at any given time — between 800 and 1,000 LPs, and around 200 seven-inches could be displayed at once, while boxes of records were relegated to bottom shelves, out of customers' view.

"There were all these sections that I had to move down to this second shelf, and you had to look at them sideways," Stevenson said. "Any time something got moved down to that shelf, it completely killed sales — I mean it was just gone."

Then there was the somewhat awkward, forced intimacy caused by the store's cramped quarters. The space fit two or three customers at a time, semi-comfortably, and anyone entering the store was instantly face-to-face with Stevenson. Even with his easygoing disposition, the anticipated awkwardness of the space may have deterred some would-be customers.

"I know for a fact that the store kind of intimidated [some people]," Stevenson said. "You don't want to walk into a store where you're just suddenly hanging out with someone." He added that the new space is more like a real store. "You can wander around, there's a guy at the desk. It's more comfortable, so I feel like a lot more people are coming in."

With the added space, Stevenson plans to eventually sell new and used record players, as well as replacement needles, which are hard to find in the East Bay. The Sound Well in Berkeley sells needles, but is only open limited hours.

On March 6, Stevenson threw an opening night art show. The space was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, with a small crowd littering the sidewalk out front. The show featured the work of Oakland artist Shannon Shaw, whose watercolor, graphite, and gold-leaf works hung inside gaudy gold frames on the store's wood-paneled walls.

Shaw lives two blocks from the store and said the new space is much more open and accessible. "The old store was charming," she said, "but this has a brand new kind of romance coming in."

Stevenson said the owner-customer interactions fostered by small stores keeps people coming back — sometimes even when they find a cheaper option at a larger store. "When you start a store, you have to be there, hands-on," said Stevenson, the only employee.

"I feel like so much of the charm of places like these is the clear influence of the owner — it has got their touch all over it. It's not a turnkey business or whatever, where you just open the door and the money gets made and you don't have to think about it."

He added: "After a while, I'd definitely like to start taking the weekends off again."

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