Ssshhh – turn it up
It’s 8 p.m. on a Thursday. The parking lot is packed with shoppers checking out the vendors at the monthly Art + Flea event. The rains come and go, so many seek shelter within the loft area in the back, where even more vendors can be found. In the far corner of the loft area, perched on a small stage reserved for performers, are a couple of folding tables topped with plastic crates. These crates are filled with records. Yes, vinyl.
Throughout the night, shoppers young and old rummage through these crates, looking for that special, rare collectible, or perhaps to see if a vinyl issue by a current artist is there. There is even a turntable with headphones set up as a listening station. Back against the wall is DJ Monkey, providing the soundtrack for the night.
The unassuming set-up is a veritable gold mine of coolness. Vinyl for sale? And DJs spinning great music? Together? You may have run into them before at Art + Flea, where they’ve been a fixture since June 2013. You’ll also find them at several venues and events around town.
This is Secret Record Store.
The “they” behind the operation are Kevin Cruze (a.k.a. DJ Monkey) and John Friend (a.k.a. DJ JohnJohn). Cruze and Friend met in San Francisco roughly 20 years ago. “I’m pretty sure it was 1995,” says Cruze. He turns to Friend. “I thought you had told me that you were from Maui.”
“I take offense at that,” says John, and begins to make cracks about hippie communes. It’s immediately apparent that these two have a great relationship, not only professionally, but as long-time friends, too.
Originally from Hawai‘i, Friend had moved to San Francisco to attend college, and remained there holding down various jobs at record stores, galleries and music distributors, as well as performing as a DJ. His work history there also included a stint running Open Mind Music, a popular record store that once resided on Haight Street. It was there that he first met Cruze, a regular customer. Cruze shared Friend’s love and knowledge of music, as well as being a DJ himself.
A Bay Area native, Cruze was exposed to and embraced music at an early age, playing guitar, bass and drums in various bands while in high school and college, and becoming a DJ himself. He met and fell in love with his wife, also a DJ from Hawai‘i, and the couple moved to the islands in 2000; Friend returned to Hawai‘i in 2011, and reconnected with Cruze.
In August of 2012, local record store Hungry Ear put on their first annual Record Fair at McKinley High School. As DJs and music collectors, both Cruze and Friend had amassed thousands of records over the course of 25+ years. They had been selling some of their records on eBay, and saw the Record Fair as a great opportunity to unload even more. It was enough of a success that the pair discussed doing this on a regular basis. Taking the name from the fact that Friend used to sell records out of his house, Secret Record Store was born.
Interestingly enough, the concept of merging the record sales with the DJing side of things didn’t come up immediately. They were separate ventures initially, but Cruze explains that “When we were pitching our store to people, telling them what we do, we kept getting the question ‘So do you guys, like, DJ with the records that you sell?’”
He would regularly tell them no. But after a while, he realized that he didn’t have a good answer as to why they didn’t. “We kept getting that question, whether from people who know nothing about music to people who were music nerds like us. I realized that it’s sort of a no-brainer. We have to do this.”
Today they can be found monthly at Art + Flea, which is where the melding of the pop-up store and performing first really found its footing. At first, Secret Record Store had a table there set up to sell their records. There was no DJing going on. Aly Ishikuni, the producer of Art + Flea, had suggested that the pair spin while selling, a notion that Cruze had also considered. The rest is history. There you can find them expressing themselves musically through their DJ sets while sharing their vast knowledge of music with shoppers.
That sharing of knowledge is a big part of what they do, and they truly get a charge out of turning people on to new music. Make a disparaging remark about disco (like I mistakenly did in their presence), and they’ll be quick to dispel any misgivings, turning it into an opportunity to educate. “That’s actually one of the main reasons we exist, because of people who are like ‘Yuck, disco,’” says Friend. “There’s a lot of great disco; just like there’s a lot of great country. You won’t get that searching on iTunes or Beatport, but give me a genre and I’ll find something you might like.”
It’s a role they both take seriously. Think of Cruze and Friend as archaeologists of music, or time travelers, maintaining a valuable history and experience for all to enjoy. They’re quick to say that they’re not a museum. “We want to sell these records,” Friend says. We want people to actually touch and play these. It’s a conversation, not a museum.”
Much has been written about vinyl making a comeback, but in the eyes of Friend and Cruze, vinyl has never left. It’s been supplanted at various times by CDs, mp3s and other emerging technologies, yet it’s always been there. Today it’s no longer on the fringes, with major artists and publishers routinely issuing new material on vinyl. However, what makes vinyl even more important in this day and age is that there is much material originally recorded on vinyl that will never see a re-release on CD or digitally.
Even the listening station they provide for shoppers harkens back to an earlier time that really was not that very long ago. Whether you remember the CD listening stations at Borders or recall an even earlier period where you would take a stack of vinyl records you dug up and situate yourself in front of the in-store turntable to sample your finds, Secret Record Store strives to recreate (or introduce) those elements from a bygone era for old and new fans alike.
Says Cruze, “We’ve seen several times when someone will look up (from the listening station) and be like ‘Man, it’s been so long since I did this!’ And that’s it. That’s rewarding. That’s what this is all about. When someone says that, we know we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”