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San Diego's successful Thrift Trader

Hang on. We must have it somewhere. We've got everything.

Owner 
Jeff Clark 
on the roof of the 
Thrift Trader in North Park
Owner Jeff Clark on the roof of the Thrift Trader in North Park

These boots clearly belonged to a Beatles fan, possibly a musician of sorts, before they (the boots) arrived here…except, the heels are too low. No, no, these belonged — I see it now — to a member of the Sherlock Holmes Irregulars. It’s a Spanish boot style, ankle-high, an English-made job with expandable canvas separating the heel area from the front of the boot. Exactly the kind of footwear Holmes favored. The price is $14; I end up getting them for $6. I would attribute that to my redoubtable bargaining skills, except I haven’t any.

Meanwhile, I hunt around the 9000 square feet of items for a stylish coat. Here’s one: a brown leather, wide-lapelled, calf-length deal that would be perfect if I were in Chicago or New York. I’m not. And here’s one next to it, almost identical, only black. It is obvious that the previous owner was a rabid Nazi with delusions of being an SS gruppenführer. I wonder if his jackboots are in here somewhere.

This leads me back to thinking about the Holmes Irregular guy’s boots — which I’ve already told you I’m about to buy. I picture this guy smoking, not a calabash pipe as he is so often mistakenly pictured, but a straight-stemmed briar. Of course, he’d be in his imitation Baker Street flat (located in El Cajon), dressed in a mid-thigh, burgundy silk smoking jacket and probably hovering a magnifying glass over a small pile of Turkish, opium-laced Latakia tobacco, shouting, “Ah-hah! Quick, Watson, the needle!” His wife, infant on her hip, calls out from the kitchen, “Cut it out, Larry. And stop calling me Watson!”

Meanwhile, back to the coat search. I want nothing heavy, just lightweight, San Diego–appropriate, yet something without hibiscus or bird of paradise design. Here’s one, promising. A calf-length (again) black leather with too-wide lapels. Belonged to a pimp. No question. His disco platform shoes (the heel possibly transparent Lucite with live — or dead — goldfish swimming around or floating in ’em — I once saw a guy named Sugar Boy in New York wearing exactly that) are probably next to the gruppenführer’s jackboots over in the shoe department. This coat’s not for me…

Next to it, same length, is an almost identical coat with thin lapels, beautiful condition, and no buttons — anywhere. Perfect for San Diego on, say, a slightly cool day. The previous owner was clearly a man of taste and probably an extrovert. Maybe a hip scientist or professor of modern American poetry. Of course, he rode not a Harley but a Norton or a Triumph. His female students liked him, but he was ethical. Or was he? Hmm…no buttons. Maybe his secret vice was exhibitionism. Yes, there is a quiet mystery and danger about this coat. I paid $6 for that item, too. So far, I have resisted the temptation to wear an ascot or white silk scarf with the thing, but it’s only a matter of time.

Wandering through this most unusual curiosity shop, I hear “See See Rider,” performed by the Animals. The last time I heard the Animals’ recording of that was more than four decades ago. I did see Eric Burdon live in San Diego some years ago, at [1990’s] Street Scene, with Robby Krieger from the Doors. They made hash of the identifying riff in “See See Rider” by employing a bottleneck slide on the fretboard. This reminded me of Barbara Ann DelVechio at a high-school dance in 1967, dancing erotically — that is, shaking her upper torso as she leaned forward for the benefit of my band (me, particularly, I figured), “The Yard Dogs.” The thought of Barb, now my age and maybe as shot-out, gave me a shudder.

I moved quickly on to the CDs and LPs. There were a hundred thousand or more LPs alone, plus an equal number of CDs. Probably more.


A walk through the secret record rooms of Thrift Trader.

Here were obscure bands from the ’50s and ’60s. Dean Martin and Julie London just inches away from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and the Rivieras, the Count Five album with “Psychotic Reaction”… I looked at the staff in this place and saw some very pretty, possibly eccentric young ladies to whom Bo Diddley’s name would mean nothing. Eccentric in the sense that, first of all, they were working here, and, secondly, several of them sported goth-type items (studs in uncomfortable looking places, for one), hair dyed the color of radioactive material. One girl clearly was a fan of Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands, her hair a riot of bituminous spikes that gleamed in the overhead lighting as if waxed, her face in subliminally changing aspect the closer she stood to a lava lamp some 20ish customer had set next to the antique cash register. The girl plugged in the lamp, checked it out. Bought it. The hollows beneath her eyes like semicircles of ash.

Now the house sound system was playing “Mystic Eyes,” by Them, Van Morrison singing.

After picking up a Little Feat album and The Most of the Animals, I continued my tour.

Naturally, I was attracted to the book section: nice editions, cheap, but on my way I was arrested by a woman’s mini-skirt. Unfortunately, no one was in it; it was hanging on a rack. A multi-colored item, rainbow hues, and finished with colored bangles, now flaking off the garment in sad, small numbers.

You may have noticed that I am psychic about the previous owners of much of this establishment’s stock. As I fondled the skirt, eyes closed and murmuring ancient Egyptian phrases from The Book of Thoth, I got a jolt of what I call my “Auto-Bio Mesmeric-Imagery.”

I could see, as clearly as I could see the traffic on University Boulevard (only yards away), that a girl named Loretta whom everyone called either “Peaches” or “Boom Boom” wore this skirt. Her classmates in Moline, Illinois, gave her a hard time, and a fictional reputation was woven around her, no doubt due to her upper-torso endowments and cheerleader-muscled legs.

Loretta eventually gave in to peer pressure and a quarterback named Bud. She later had a secret abortion everyone knew about and fled from the Midwest to Los Angeles. At the bus station, friendly men, some in colorful costumes, greeted her, some with feathers waving from their wide-brimmed hats in the Santa Ana winds.

Loretta found ecstasy in a pill coincidentally called ecstasy and found she could make a living by being bad. Only it didn’t feel bad until one guy…well, that part is fuzzy but definitely unpleasant. She then fled to San Diego, where she got a job dancing, mostly with a pole but often solo. The Blue Hawaiian drinks helped much with her early embarrassment at dancing for large groups of men while wearing so little. Almost nothing, really.

Eventually, Loretta gave up “the life,” as the other girls called it, and married a heating-and-air-conditioning man and moved to Lakeside to a trailer, where she raised two fine if somewhat slow boys named Dougie and Sponge Bob, whom everyone later called “Dimmy.”


It was then that I began to snap out of my Auto-Bio-Mesmerism (or ABM as “top scientists” refer to the phenomenon), but not before accidentally touching a pair of size-11 brown wingtips at the top of a rack on my left. I saw, as plain as day, the balding and paunchy auto-parts salesman to whom these had once belonged. An affable man, the clown cried inside him, and sometime in the past year he committed suicide by bathing with a Sanyo clock radio. He went out to the song “Moon River.”

Far too depressing. I removed my hand quickly, but not before glimpsing the future owner of these shoes: an aged hippie alcoholic who’d once owned a chain of “head shops” and would be looking for work in these shoes, trying to turn his life around. He would eventually be hired as the drive-through window man at Sonic Burger in Vista, where he’d ogle the roller-skating waitresses, all the while sensing that he was walking all over the sky in his proud shoes.

The last image I had of this man named, I’m thinking, Emmett Sandoz, was of him handing a bag through the window to a woman driving an SUV full of kids. As they pulled away, Emmett shouted, “Don’t let the rapture pass you by!” Smiling. Waving.

I was saved from these visions (some call it a blessing, yet I call it a curse) by a 31-year-old rock ’n’ roller named Gian Carlo (long blond hair, great tats), the untitled but virtual assistant manager (my phrase, not his) at Thrift Trader at 3939 Iowa Street. Just off of University Avenue. He asked me if I was all right.

Gian Carlo, one of several musicians who work at Thrift Trader.

“Yes, yes,” I said. “One my spells. It will pass.” I thumbed open a prescription for Xanax, tossed a handful down the old trachea. Gian disappeared while I was gagging, then reappeared immediately with a glass of water. I told him, “I’m not a well man.”

“Yeah, I can see that, man. Can I help you find anything?”

I asked for any possible recordings of the ’70s Brit rock band featuring Steve Winwood’s brother, “Muff”: The Fabulous Poodles.

Gian indicated no immediate familiarity but said, “Hang on. We must have it somewhere. We’ve got everything.” I was to learn that what he had just said was almost literally true. We began talking about rock ’n’ roll; Gian is a guitarist looking for a band. He indicated a guitar case, his, leaning in a corner. It contained a replica of the guitar Randy Rhoads used while playing with Ozzy Osbourne. This was, of course, before Rhoads’s tragic, violent death. But Gian’s was not the only guitar case here; obviously, several employees were musicians. Gian himself was a former studio session man and guitarist with San Diego’s “C0 de” (a zero for the o) and Flatland.

“I love my job here,” he said. “I’m surrounded by music.” How much music, I was to learn, was something like a dozen times what was on the floor, and that was the largest collection of LPs and CDs I’d ever seen in one place. “You’ve got to meet Jeff, the owner,” Gian said. “I’ll try to set something up.”

He did try, though proprietor Jeff Clark proved elusive. He has two other stores, one in Ocean Beach, one in Pacific Beach. Neither are the gargantuan size of Thrift Trader in North Park.

Some weeks later, I caught Clark onstage (in the Trader’s parking lot) during the North Park Art Fair. He was singing backup for a band, most of which comprised the members of Clark’s longtime ensemble, Ten Sugar Coffee.

The following week, Clark gave me an interview.

The entrepreneur is 50 years old, his hair clipped close to the skull; his goatee is also clipped short. He wears a single small earring in his right ear. Clark wasted no time in showing me the entire facility.

“We’ve got 9000 square feet of retail just on this floor. Everything I love [LPs, CDs, books, clothes] is $5.99, or sometimes four for $20 or less. There’s probably a good 200,000 items on this floor alone.”

As we walk, I notice unusual items I can’t imagine happening upon at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. If one were searching for a feather boa, a pair of spats, or, well, a lava lamp, this would be a good place to start.

In 1987, Clark was former owner (at age 23) of the Music Trader chain. A subject he is fond of speaking of, and one I needed to steer him away from periodically. Clark’s 13 years at that enterprise seemed to be his halcyon days.

“I wholesaled for a while after that. Then started the Mojo Sound stores, a couple of locations. I had stuff in storage everywhere. The origin of this place…see, I was paying thousands of dollars a month for storage, and I completely lost track of what I had. When I say I had a lot, I mean, again, I had hundreds of thousands of items stashed and not doing me any good. I had to get it all back in play.

The North Park Thrift Trader staff

“So I happened to be looking at this real-estate magazine I’d never seen before. ‘Large storage space. Great deal.’ Something like that. I came here one night, and the weeds were six feet tall, the place was covered with really bad graffiti, the windows broken — people were actually living in the building. It scared me to death, plus, I couldn’t really see in; the windows were boarded up. I completely dismissed it.

“Then I woke up, bolt upright, one night. This is months later; I’m still laying out thousands a month for storage. I couldn’t remember where this place was. I contacted this real-estate person I know. I got the address. The owner let me in, and the first thing I see is all this dental equipment. Stuff everywhere. The second floor was a dentist’s office, where, plainly, several dentists once inflicted oral hygiene and necessary barbaric procedures.

“Turns out, the place was sold to a condo developer. But they gave me a year. I didn’t figure I’d open the doors to the public, just wholesale out of here. With my retail background, I had an eye on University, and I thought, Hey, we’re not that far.

“I’d looked into zoning, to see if we were okay for retailing, which we were. Furthermore, I decided to open three locations at the same time.”

An aside here: Clark is one of the most energetic men I know. Aside from his commercial enterprises, he has his Ten Sugar Coffee CDs, and a solo country album (all of which he gave me free, and which I accepted as a scofflaw of journalistic ethics). I now listen to them for pleasure, not research. Each CD indicates much accomplishment and studio time. A Van Morrison instinct, influence, or both are apparent in Clark’s voice on each recording.

“Let me take you in the back, then upstairs. [We’ll go up to] the roof for a while and chat.

“The entire building is 27,000 square,” Clark says as we enter the sporadically lit back area. There are 33 rooms back here — which our customers don’t know about. Most of the stuff that you’ll see in this building, about 90 percent, was brought in over the past four years. Of course, a good lot of it comes from the old Music Trader days. We think we have about a million records.

“A lot these rooms represent Big Buys [a retail chain which is now defunct], after they bought large quantities and then sold out. We got a lot of [their stuff]. We also buy from wholesalers. We’re completely open-minded.”

Clark pointed to seemingly countless boxes of CDs. “There was a guy I know who had a store, and I used to buy CDs from him, back when CDs still had a pulse. He had ’em stored in a kind of makeshift structure in his backyard. I bought four or five hundred CDs. So, when records started getting a real pulse again — records are our number-two category, clothes being first — ah, anyway…once again, much later, I tried to remember where this guy’s place was. I drove the streets in the area and knocked on doors. I found it, and it turned out the guy had had a heart attack. Everything was still there. But there was another structure in his backyard. It was tragic. He had built a structure and the covering was tarps and garbage bags, and 40,000–50,000 records were lost from rain and exposure.

“The good news is we were still able to salvage 60,000 records. In great shape, incredible titles. There are 30,000–40,000 cardboard-covered DVDs in this room here. Back in the time that CDs were huge, we were so blessed at Music Trader to have these incredible contacts for outside buying. About ’96, ’97, I bought about a half-million CDs on the theory that we would put them out in a case for a dollar or two. We had tons of Pink Floyd, for example. We used to buy a lot of overruns and returns from, like, Best Buy — even lost mail from the record clubs, after we discovered the postal auctions.

“I remember I went to the San Francisco postal auction and bought 8000 CDs for 50 cents [each]. It was all, like, Bob Marley and Offspring or the record of the month or whatever. Like, the military would order a lot of these and then move on, and these things got lost, but nobody knew about it. We had great radio connections, too. We were incredibly blessed, beyond any explanation.”

Rig Rag, Thrift Trader’s vinyl buyer.

We continued our discussion on the roof. We talked of obsessive collectors. “Real obsessive vinyl people,” Clark said, “they don’t mind moving boxes and getting underneath stuff. Every box has something interesting in it. That’s the beauty of it.”

I heard about the good old days at Music Trader, and indeed, there were some stories there, and also more tales of uncanny luck, all worthy of writing down some other day.

We adjourned with a handshake and an invitation from Clark to come back any time, and he would “take care of me.” I reluctantly recited the journalist’s vow of poverty, and the shame, ostracization, and dishonor that accompany the accepting of gifts, or even discounted merchandise. As already noted, I did accept his own band’s CDs and a rare copy of The Most of the Animals, to confirm his claim of quality. Still, I listened to the thing less than two dozen times. I believe I detected no flaws.

As I headed to the parking lot, I reached out to steady myself. I felt an episode of ABM coming on.

Beneath my right hand was a CD of Muddy Waters’s album Got My Mojo Working. An image of a man at the top of a ladder and holding a paintbrush assailed my inner eye. The man was wearing a white jumpsuit and painting the ceiling of Chess Records studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. A young Marshall Chess was rattling the ladder. Laughing. The man upon it was Muddy Waters himself. What was he doing painting the studio, the very one where he’d recorded such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (another Van Morrison cover), “Baby Rock and Roll,” and “Long Distance Call”? Surviving songs that everyone from the Beatles and Stones to my own garage bands played and recorded.

It came to me. Chess Senior had Waters doing odd jobs around the studio to pay for his recording time.

It didn’t seem right.

A little angry, I walked to the bus stop for the Number 7, where a black man in his 70s was sitting, leaning forward on his cane. I could not contain myself.

“Stick it to the man, brother!” erupted from me. For several minutes, the old man watched me closely, one eyebrow arched. He was perhaps expecting another outburst of Tourette’s syndrome, or possibly some bizarre violence.

When the bus arrived, I murmured quietly, “I just meant, you know, don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Silence.

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Superbloom lays claim to best café location in the city

On a patio overlooking Mission Bay, even boring mochas taste good
Owner 
Jeff Clark 
on the roof of the 
Thrift Trader in North Park
Owner Jeff Clark on the roof of the Thrift Trader in North Park

These boots clearly belonged to a Beatles fan, possibly a musician of sorts, before they (the boots) arrived here…except, the heels are too low. No, no, these belonged — I see it now — to a member of the Sherlock Holmes Irregulars. It’s a Spanish boot style, ankle-high, an English-made job with expandable canvas separating the heel area from the front of the boot. Exactly the kind of footwear Holmes favored. The price is $14; I end up getting them for $6. I would attribute that to my redoubtable bargaining skills, except I haven’t any.

Meanwhile, I hunt around the 9000 square feet of items for a stylish coat. Here’s one: a brown leather, wide-lapelled, calf-length deal that would be perfect if I were in Chicago or New York. I’m not. And here’s one next to it, almost identical, only black. It is obvious that the previous owner was a rabid Nazi with delusions of being an SS gruppenführer. I wonder if his jackboots are in here somewhere.

This leads me back to thinking about the Holmes Irregular guy’s boots — which I’ve already told you I’m about to buy. I picture this guy smoking, not a calabash pipe as he is so often mistakenly pictured, but a straight-stemmed briar. Of course, he’d be in his imitation Baker Street flat (located in El Cajon), dressed in a mid-thigh, burgundy silk smoking jacket and probably hovering a magnifying glass over a small pile of Turkish, opium-laced Latakia tobacco, shouting, “Ah-hah! Quick, Watson, the needle!” His wife, infant on her hip, calls out from the kitchen, “Cut it out, Larry. And stop calling me Watson!”

Meanwhile, back to the coat search. I want nothing heavy, just lightweight, San Diego–appropriate, yet something without hibiscus or bird of paradise design. Here’s one, promising. A calf-length (again) black leather with too-wide lapels. Belonged to a pimp. No question. His disco platform shoes (the heel possibly transparent Lucite with live — or dead — goldfish swimming around or floating in ’em — I once saw a guy named Sugar Boy in New York wearing exactly that) are probably next to the gruppenführer’s jackboots over in the shoe department. This coat’s not for me…

Next to it, same length, is an almost identical coat with thin lapels, beautiful condition, and no buttons — anywhere. Perfect for San Diego on, say, a slightly cool day. The previous owner was clearly a man of taste and probably an extrovert. Maybe a hip scientist or professor of modern American poetry. Of course, he rode not a Harley but a Norton or a Triumph. His female students liked him, but he was ethical. Or was he? Hmm…no buttons. Maybe his secret vice was exhibitionism. Yes, there is a quiet mystery and danger about this coat. I paid $6 for that item, too. So far, I have resisted the temptation to wear an ascot or white silk scarf with the thing, but it’s only a matter of time.

Wandering through this most unusual curiosity shop, I hear “See See Rider,” performed by the Animals. The last time I heard the Animals’ recording of that was more than four decades ago. I did see Eric Burdon live in San Diego some years ago, at [1990’s] Street Scene, with Robby Krieger from the Doors. They made hash of the identifying riff in “See See Rider” by employing a bottleneck slide on the fretboard. This reminded me of Barbara Ann DelVechio at a high-school dance in 1967, dancing erotically — that is, shaking her upper torso as she leaned forward for the benefit of my band (me, particularly, I figured), “The Yard Dogs.” The thought of Barb, now my age and maybe as shot-out, gave me a shudder.

I moved quickly on to the CDs and LPs. There were a hundred thousand or more LPs alone, plus an equal number of CDs. Probably more.


A walk through the secret record rooms of Thrift Trader.

Here were obscure bands from the ’50s and ’60s. Dean Martin and Julie London just inches away from the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and the Rivieras, the Count Five album with “Psychotic Reaction”… I looked at the staff in this place and saw some very pretty, possibly eccentric young ladies to whom Bo Diddley’s name would mean nothing. Eccentric in the sense that, first of all, they were working here, and, secondly, several of them sported goth-type items (studs in uncomfortable looking places, for one), hair dyed the color of radioactive material. One girl clearly was a fan of Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands, her hair a riot of bituminous spikes that gleamed in the overhead lighting as if waxed, her face in subliminally changing aspect the closer she stood to a lava lamp some 20ish customer had set next to the antique cash register. The girl plugged in the lamp, checked it out. Bought it. The hollows beneath her eyes like semicircles of ash.

Now the house sound system was playing “Mystic Eyes,” by Them, Van Morrison singing.

After picking up a Little Feat album and The Most of the Animals, I continued my tour.

Naturally, I was attracted to the book section: nice editions, cheap, but on my way I was arrested by a woman’s mini-skirt. Unfortunately, no one was in it; it was hanging on a rack. A multi-colored item, rainbow hues, and finished with colored bangles, now flaking off the garment in sad, small numbers.

You may have noticed that I am psychic about the previous owners of much of this establishment’s stock. As I fondled the skirt, eyes closed and murmuring ancient Egyptian phrases from The Book of Thoth, I got a jolt of what I call my “Auto-Bio Mesmeric-Imagery.”

I could see, as clearly as I could see the traffic on University Boulevard (only yards away), that a girl named Loretta whom everyone called either “Peaches” or “Boom Boom” wore this skirt. Her classmates in Moline, Illinois, gave her a hard time, and a fictional reputation was woven around her, no doubt due to her upper-torso endowments and cheerleader-muscled legs.

Loretta eventually gave in to peer pressure and a quarterback named Bud. She later had a secret abortion everyone knew about and fled from the Midwest to Los Angeles. At the bus station, friendly men, some in colorful costumes, greeted her, some with feathers waving from their wide-brimmed hats in the Santa Ana winds.

Loretta found ecstasy in a pill coincidentally called ecstasy and found she could make a living by being bad. Only it didn’t feel bad until one guy…well, that part is fuzzy but definitely unpleasant. She then fled to San Diego, where she got a job dancing, mostly with a pole but often solo. The Blue Hawaiian drinks helped much with her early embarrassment at dancing for large groups of men while wearing so little. Almost nothing, really.

Eventually, Loretta gave up “the life,” as the other girls called it, and married a heating-and-air-conditioning man and moved to Lakeside to a trailer, where she raised two fine if somewhat slow boys named Dougie and Sponge Bob, whom everyone later called “Dimmy.”


It was then that I began to snap out of my Auto-Bio-Mesmerism (or ABM as “top scientists” refer to the phenomenon), but not before accidentally touching a pair of size-11 brown wingtips at the top of a rack on my left. I saw, as plain as day, the balding and paunchy auto-parts salesman to whom these had once belonged. An affable man, the clown cried inside him, and sometime in the past year he committed suicide by bathing with a Sanyo clock radio. He went out to the song “Moon River.”

Far too depressing. I removed my hand quickly, but not before glimpsing the future owner of these shoes: an aged hippie alcoholic who’d once owned a chain of “head shops” and would be looking for work in these shoes, trying to turn his life around. He would eventually be hired as the drive-through window man at Sonic Burger in Vista, where he’d ogle the roller-skating waitresses, all the while sensing that he was walking all over the sky in his proud shoes.

The last image I had of this man named, I’m thinking, Emmett Sandoz, was of him handing a bag through the window to a woman driving an SUV full of kids. As they pulled away, Emmett shouted, “Don’t let the rapture pass you by!” Smiling. Waving.

I was saved from these visions (some call it a blessing, yet I call it a curse) by a 31-year-old rock ’n’ roller named Gian Carlo (long blond hair, great tats), the untitled but virtual assistant manager (my phrase, not his) at Thrift Trader at 3939 Iowa Street. Just off of University Avenue. He asked me if I was all right.

Gian Carlo, one of several musicians who work at Thrift Trader.

“Yes, yes,” I said. “One my spells. It will pass.” I thumbed open a prescription for Xanax, tossed a handful down the old trachea. Gian disappeared while I was gagging, then reappeared immediately with a glass of water. I told him, “I’m not a well man.”

“Yeah, I can see that, man. Can I help you find anything?”

I asked for any possible recordings of the ’70s Brit rock band featuring Steve Winwood’s brother, “Muff”: The Fabulous Poodles.

Gian indicated no immediate familiarity but said, “Hang on. We must have it somewhere. We’ve got everything.” I was to learn that what he had just said was almost literally true. We began talking about rock ’n’ roll; Gian is a guitarist looking for a band. He indicated a guitar case, his, leaning in a corner. It contained a replica of the guitar Randy Rhoads used while playing with Ozzy Osbourne. This was, of course, before Rhoads’s tragic, violent death. But Gian’s was not the only guitar case here; obviously, several employees were musicians. Gian himself was a former studio session man and guitarist with San Diego’s “C0 de” (a zero for the o) and Flatland.

“I love my job here,” he said. “I’m surrounded by music.” How much music, I was to learn, was something like a dozen times what was on the floor, and that was the largest collection of LPs and CDs I’d ever seen in one place. “You’ve got to meet Jeff, the owner,” Gian said. “I’ll try to set something up.”

He did try, though proprietor Jeff Clark proved elusive. He has two other stores, one in Ocean Beach, one in Pacific Beach. Neither are the gargantuan size of Thrift Trader in North Park.

Some weeks later, I caught Clark onstage (in the Trader’s parking lot) during the North Park Art Fair. He was singing backup for a band, most of which comprised the members of Clark’s longtime ensemble, Ten Sugar Coffee.

The following week, Clark gave me an interview.

The entrepreneur is 50 years old, his hair clipped close to the skull; his goatee is also clipped short. He wears a single small earring in his right ear. Clark wasted no time in showing me the entire facility.

“We’ve got 9000 square feet of retail just on this floor. Everything I love [LPs, CDs, books, clothes] is $5.99, or sometimes four for $20 or less. There’s probably a good 200,000 items on this floor alone.”

As we walk, I notice unusual items I can’t imagine happening upon at Goodwill or the Salvation Army. If one were searching for a feather boa, a pair of spats, or, well, a lava lamp, this would be a good place to start.

In 1987, Clark was former owner (at age 23) of the Music Trader chain. A subject he is fond of speaking of, and one I needed to steer him away from periodically. Clark’s 13 years at that enterprise seemed to be his halcyon days.

“I wholesaled for a while after that. Then started the Mojo Sound stores, a couple of locations. I had stuff in storage everywhere. The origin of this place…see, I was paying thousands of dollars a month for storage, and I completely lost track of what I had. When I say I had a lot, I mean, again, I had hundreds of thousands of items stashed and not doing me any good. I had to get it all back in play.

The North Park Thrift Trader staff

“So I happened to be looking at this real-estate magazine I’d never seen before. ‘Large storage space. Great deal.’ Something like that. I came here one night, and the weeds were six feet tall, the place was covered with really bad graffiti, the windows broken — people were actually living in the building. It scared me to death, plus, I couldn’t really see in; the windows were boarded up. I completely dismissed it.

“Then I woke up, bolt upright, one night. This is months later; I’m still laying out thousands a month for storage. I couldn’t remember where this place was. I contacted this real-estate person I know. I got the address. The owner let me in, and the first thing I see is all this dental equipment. Stuff everywhere. The second floor was a dentist’s office, where, plainly, several dentists once inflicted oral hygiene and necessary barbaric procedures.

“Turns out, the place was sold to a condo developer. But they gave me a year. I didn’t figure I’d open the doors to the public, just wholesale out of here. With my retail background, I had an eye on University, and I thought, Hey, we’re not that far.

“I’d looked into zoning, to see if we were okay for retailing, which we were. Furthermore, I decided to open three locations at the same time.”

An aside here: Clark is one of the most energetic men I know. Aside from his commercial enterprises, he has his Ten Sugar Coffee CDs, and a solo country album (all of which he gave me free, and which I accepted as a scofflaw of journalistic ethics). I now listen to them for pleasure, not research. Each CD indicates much accomplishment and studio time. A Van Morrison instinct, influence, or both are apparent in Clark’s voice on each recording.

“Let me take you in the back, then upstairs. [We’ll go up to] the roof for a while and chat.

“The entire building is 27,000 square,” Clark says as we enter the sporadically lit back area. There are 33 rooms back here — which our customers don’t know about. Most of the stuff that you’ll see in this building, about 90 percent, was brought in over the past four years. Of course, a good lot of it comes from the old Music Trader days. We think we have about a million records.

“A lot these rooms represent Big Buys [a retail chain which is now defunct], after they bought large quantities and then sold out. We got a lot of [their stuff]. We also buy from wholesalers. We’re completely open-minded.”

Clark pointed to seemingly countless boxes of CDs. “There was a guy I know who had a store, and I used to buy CDs from him, back when CDs still had a pulse. He had ’em stored in a kind of makeshift structure in his backyard. I bought four or five hundred CDs. So, when records started getting a real pulse again — records are our number-two category, clothes being first — ah, anyway…once again, much later, I tried to remember where this guy’s place was. I drove the streets in the area and knocked on doors. I found it, and it turned out the guy had had a heart attack. Everything was still there. But there was another structure in his backyard. It was tragic. He had built a structure and the covering was tarps and garbage bags, and 40,000–50,000 records were lost from rain and exposure.

“The good news is we were still able to salvage 60,000 records. In great shape, incredible titles. There are 30,000–40,000 cardboard-covered DVDs in this room here. Back in the time that CDs were huge, we were so blessed at Music Trader to have these incredible contacts for outside buying. About ’96, ’97, I bought about a half-million CDs on the theory that we would put them out in a case for a dollar or two. We had tons of Pink Floyd, for example. We used to buy a lot of overruns and returns from, like, Best Buy — even lost mail from the record clubs, after we discovered the postal auctions.

“I remember I went to the San Francisco postal auction and bought 8000 CDs for 50 cents [each]. It was all, like, Bob Marley and Offspring or the record of the month or whatever. Like, the military would order a lot of these and then move on, and these things got lost, but nobody knew about it. We had great radio connections, too. We were incredibly blessed, beyond any explanation.”

Rig Rag, Thrift Trader’s vinyl buyer.

We continued our discussion on the roof. We talked of obsessive collectors. “Real obsessive vinyl people,” Clark said, “they don’t mind moving boxes and getting underneath stuff. Every box has something interesting in it. That’s the beauty of it.”

I heard about the good old days at Music Trader, and indeed, there were some stories there, and also more tales of uncanny luck, all worthy of writing down some other day.

We adjourned with a handshake and an invitation from Clark to come back any time, and he would “take care of me.” I reluctantly recited the journalist’s vow of poverty, and the shame, ostracization, and dishonor that accompany the accepting of gifts, or even discounted merchandise. As already noted, I did accept his own band’s CDs and a rare copy of The Most of the Animals, to confirm his claim of quality. Still, I listened to the thing less than two dozen times. I believe I detected no flaws.

As I headed to the parking lot, I reached out to steady myself. I felt an episode of ABM coming on.

Beneath my right hand was a CD of Muddy Waters’s album Got My Mojo Working. An image of a man at the top of a ladder and holding a paintbrush assailed my inner eye. The man was wearing a white jumpsuit and painting the ceiling of Chess Records studios at 2120 South Michigan Avenue. A young Marshall Chess was rattling the ladder. Laughing. The man upon it was Muddy Waters himself. What was he doing painting the studio, the very one where he’d recorded such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go” (another Van Morrison cover), “Baby Rock and Roll,” and “Long Distance Call”? Surviving songs that everyone from the Beatles and Stones to my own garage bands played and recorded.

It came to me. Chess Senior had Waters doing odd jobs around the studio to pay for his recording time.

It didn’t seem right.

A little angry, I walked to the bus stop for the Number 7, where a black man in his 70s was sitting, leaning forward on his cane. I could not contain myself.

“Stick it to the man, brother!” erupted from me. For several minutes, the old man watched me closely, one eyebrow arched. He was perhaps expecting another outburst of Tourette’s syndrome, or possibly some bizarre violence.

When the bus arrived, I murmured quietly, “I just meant, you know, don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

Silence.

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Comments
4

I always thought the song was "C. C. Rider." But Googling it, I found that it's also called "See See Rider." And many singers have recorded this old song over the years.

Aug. 8, 2012

The Dead always listed it as CC Rider on their set lists. I think they were doing it as far back as '68 or '69 when I first saw them. One of my Bob Weir sung favorites.

Aug. 8, 2012

Welcome back, John. Auto Bio Mesmerism? Sounds like something I've been looking for...or suffering from, all my life.

I'll have to go check that store out. Sounds like the real magical mystery tour. Sometimes you find a store that is more than just a store. Keeps things interesting.

Aug. 9, 2012

The North Park building is demolished now. But Thrift Trader lives on in other locales.

April 9, 2015

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