“We have to be unique. People expect it — and we want to be.”
Those are the words of Jim Salzer, and that is what, in a nutshell, his music store has meant to the local community for half a century. Salzer’s Records turns 50 this year, and it has always done things a little bit differently. Whether it was decking out the store with leather couches and Flower Power décor, stocking music of every genre (in all its physical forms), selling silly gifts and memorabilia or offering pipes, rolling papers and other . . . devices for discerning customers, Salzer’s has always sat pretty comfortably on the fringes of pop culture.
“For me, it’s all about the counterculture and alternative lifestyle,” Salzer says. “I’m not a hippie, but they call me one. And I support that lifestyle.”
Salzer may not have been a hippie, but he was in the thick of things during the late 1960s and early 1970s. His Arcade Record Shop in Oxnard’s Carriage Square became a hangout for music lovers of all ages, and that spirit persists to this day. Salzer’s maintains that funky vibe, offering a little bit of everything . . . and a whole lot of music and memorabilia. It’s not merely a shop; it’s an experience.
Salzer’s first record store, opened in 1966, was actually in South Oxnard and lasted just six months. The Carriage Square location was more successful, and laid the foundation for the Salzer legacy. (There was a Thousand Oaks store for a time as well.) In 1972 he and wife Nancy (the two married in 1970) opened Salzer’s Old Fashioned Mercantile on Valentine Road, where Victoria Ave. met the 101, the same location it maintains to this day. That store would eventually become the true landmark.
Originally designed to look like a saloon from the Old West, the bottom floor was an ice cream
parlor and restaurant with a 1909 Victorian back bar and a 14-foot marble counter and soda fountain. “When I first built the store, I wanted it to be nostalgic,” he says. “Nostalgia isn’t how it really was. It was how it should have been.” The store upstairs sold records and tapes as well as candy, gifts, jewelry, clothing and stereo equipment. There were also a pipe shop and a penny arcade. “From day one, I diversified. That’s why we’re still around,” Salzer says.
The soda shop eventually went by the wayside, and numerous remodels and revisions have done away with the “old barn.” But Salzer’s heart of rock and roll continues to beat strong, and today, its colorful, modern structure is arguably one of the most recognizable buildings in the area. “It just evolved,” says Nancy Salzer. “Like our merchandise.”
Sounding the Sixties
For those who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Salzer was more than just a shopkeeper: He was an integral part of their musical education. Initially he was best-known as a band promoter who got his start as something of an ersatz union organizer. “The people that ran the rec centers and school dances didn’t want to pay the bands anything,” he says. “So I made an effort to organize the bands and had them call me their manager. We’d get $125 a night for the guys.”
Eventually, he started booking his own shows at Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren Showgrounds and the Starlight Ballroom in Oxnard, as well as venues throughout Southern California. These shows became legendary. Salzer featured acts such as Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds and most of the bands Eric Clapton played in — usually before their careers took off, or shortly thereafter. “I think I charged $2.50 for the Jimi Hendrix show,” Salzer recalls. “But I only paid him $1,200.”
He also became friends with many of these musicians. Salzer is full of stories, like hanging out with David Crosby in Haight-Ashbury, attending barbecues at Steven Stills’ house or partying with the Grateful Dead. “They kept trying to dose me — they never did manage to,” he says with a laugh. Salzer’s business took him to San Francisco frequently, and he got to know promoter Bill Graham quite well: The two “shared” acts, and Graham became something of a mentor. Salzer bonded with Clapton over his 1967 Excalibur (which Clapton would eventually purchase) and saw Ravi Shankar at the Monterey Pops with Jimi Hendrix. “Jimi was a gentleman. He was one of the best people I ever worked with.”
Then there was Jim Morrison and The Doors. Salzer was a friend of Ronnie Haran, a booking agent for the Whisky à Go Go who is credited with discovering the iconic band, and she asked him for some help. So Salzer booked some shows and even managed them for a time. (Later, he would consult on the 1991 movie The Doors.)
“Jim was hard to handle,” Salzer admits. “We’d go for walks to discuss a job, and we’d walk for two or three hours and get nothing done. I had to keep people from handing him drugs; he’d just gobble up anything.” He had to physically muscle Morrison onto the stage on more than one occasion. Salzer was a huge admirer of The Doors, but Morrison’s self-destructive path troubled him. “I was really angry when he died,” Salzer says. “ ‘Break on Through’ was all about dying young.” And yet, Salzer remains in awe of Morrison’s talent. “He did use a lot of drugs, but he was something of a genius. He was a really special entertainer.”
Managing unruly musicians was made easier by Salzer’s less-than-privileged upbringing. The Salzers lived in the rough Chicago neighborhood of Cabrini-Green. “It was one of the most dangerous places in Chicago,” he remembers. “We had a saying: You got to have a tight asshole, otherwise you’ll get screwed.” Money was tight, too, and 8-year-old Salzer would earn extra cash by distributing handbills. The family lived above a tavern where old blues musicians would play, instilling in him a lifelong love of music.
Later, the family moved to Wisconsin, and Salzer, then a teenager, formed a local band (he played guitar and sang) called The Legends. “We’d get crowds of 2,000 kids in a ballroom,” he recalls. The band had a few hits regionally, “Say Mama” and “I Fought the Law”; but it wasn’t ultimately Salzer’s calling. “I got tired of the notoriety. At one point I stopped singing and started helping bands get jobs.”
When the family moved to California in 1962, Salzer first tried to get airplay for The Legends’ hits — unsuccessfully. Next he auditioned for surf-rock outfit Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. “I just didn’t get the music,” he admits.
Salzer left the music business for a time and found work as a drapery solicitor. Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties were his best territories, which brought him to the area. The concert promotions and record stores followed shortly thereafter, along with marriage and children: daughter Sage and son Brandon. Nancy has been an integral part of the Salzer’s legacy since the two met in 1970; handling the books, all non-music buying and human resources. “Nancy helps make everything possible,” Salzer says. “She’s the glue who holds it all together.” For herself, Nancy states simply, “We make a good team.”
Staying in the groove
The music business has changed a lot since the Arcade Record Shop. CDs replaced vinyl, digital replaced all of it, and DVDs and VHS tapes are (almost) archaic. But Salzer’s plays on. The owners’ penchant for diversification has continued to serve them well: Salzer’s does a decent business in gifts and memorabilia, and the head shop has always been a draw. Even the video store has its loyal customers. Son Brandon, who helps manage the family business, has grown its online presence considerably since he came on in 2003. “Being small, we’re able to adjust to changes in the industry,” Brandon says.
A longtime member of the Coalition of Independent Music Stores (Nancy Salzer serves on the board), Salzer’s Records proudly stands outside the mainstream. And like its coalition members, the shop has benefited from the resurgence of vinyl in recent years. “The more our lives get digitized, the more we long for the corporeal, something we can touch,” says Brandon. “Hard copy has value. Try selling your iTunes download back to iTunes! With vinyl, you can take it with you, lend it out, sell it back.”
Salzer knows there are collectors out there, too, who look to stores like his to find rare, out-of-print, collectible music. “I don’t have a vinyl collection of personal records — I want my customers to have them,” he says. “And American people like to collect things.” Collectors will love Salzer’s 50th anniversary celebration: Everything in the store will be on sale, and there will be “free with purchase” offers, giveaways and contests.
“Record stores are iconic communities,” Salzer says. “People need to feel rooted, and record stores accomplish that.”
Thanks, Salzer’s, for keeping Ventura groovy for 50 years. Let’s hope the next 50 will sound just as good.
Salzer’s Records’ 50th anniversary celebration takes place Sept. 2-5. For more information, visit the store at 5777 Valentine Road, Ventura, call 639-2160 or go to www.salzers.com.