Rooky Ricardo's Turns 25

Rooky Ricardo's Turns 25
By Andrew Dudley - Published on June 07, 2012.
"It's a complete surprise. It kind of caught me offguard that it's been that long. There have been so many time periods in this world here..." So says Dick Vivian, owner of Rooky Ricardo's Records, about yesterday's milestone -- the 25th anniversary of his shop's opening at 448 Haight Street.

Opening a record shop had not been Dick's lifelong dream. Instead, it was borne out of necessity. Dick had always harbored a passion for music, and by the mid-'80s, his collection of 45s had swelled to an unmanageable size. He decided he needed to unload some of his ever-growing inventory. At the time, Dick's was working in the restaurant industry, but he was also making a name for himself in the Bay Area via regular appearances on KOFY's TV-20 Dance Party, a local television show on which he and partner Bijou O'Keefe danced to 50's-era hits. It was because of Dance Party that Rooky Ricardo's came to be. "Larry, one of the guys who worked at Nickies, kept [448 Haight] as a junk shop, and it was never open. He was a fan of mine from when I was on TV-20," Dick remembers. Larry offered the space to Dick, and he accepted. And thus, the shop was born. All it needed was a name.
"I was out near the ocean one day, having lunch with a friend of mine. This was years before I opened the shop. I've always loved coming up with names. And we were just sitting there, and I said, 'If I ever open a store, I should call it Rooky Ricardo's.' 'Ricardo' because my name is Dick, and 'Rooky' like 'rookie' because I wouldn't know what I was doing. And I said it without even the slightest idea that I would ever open a store. So when I did open the store, it was just logical."
Rooky Ricardo's Records opened on June 6, 1987, with Larry operating the shop and Dick supplying the inventory. Dick remembers the 400 block of Haight Street being a pretty quiet place at the time.
"Nickies was originally a barbecue place, and it was empty all the time. And then shortly after I opened, it turned into a funk and reggae club, which was great for my business because everyone wanted records. But otherwise [the block] was very deserted. Nobody came to the 400 block."
For the first few years, the shop only carried 45s. But Dick gradually began stocking LPs -- and specifically rock albums, which he admits isn't his favorite genre -- as demand warranted. He now says rock records account for about half his business. Management of the shop also evolved. Larry eventually decided he didn't want to run things anymore, so Dick enlisted the help of Jerry Thompson, a local blues singer with whom he had become close. Jerry watched the store for years. Sadly, Jerry was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease some time in the mid-'00s, Dick recalls, and that's when he began running the shop himself. Coincidentally, that's also when demand for Rooky's inventory began to surge.
"In the last six or seven years, the business has just grown and grown and grown. The biggest requests are always Tom Waits and Lee Hazlewood. And soul -- Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Nina Simone. And because everybody wants them, I never have any, because they sell so quickly."
One key to Rooky's success has been the installation of four listening stations in the shop, so customers can discover new music and sample the audio quality of vinyl records. Dick calls the addition of those listening stations "the smartest thing I ever did."
"People don't realize that vinyl sounds so much better, and once they hear an album that they've known forever on CD, once they hear it on vinyl, they're hooked."
Dick notes that many of his customers are DJs coming to the shop in search of a specific genre, while others are twenty-somethings trying to recreate their parents' or grandparents' collections. And some are European tourists seeking a uniquely San Francisco shopping experience. Rooky's has also had the occasional brush with fame. In recent interviews, musician Nick Waterhouse has credited Rooky Ricardo's -- and Dick in particular -- with helping him discover music and develop his tastes as an artist. And earlier this year, Lenny Kravitz dropped by the shop after hearing one of Dick's mix CDs playing at a Union Square boutique. The past few years have seen some changes at Rooky Ricardo's. For starters, the store now hosts a pop-up camera shop, Glass Key Photo, operated by Matt Osborne.
"Matt helping out has been great. He's somebody I can truly trust. I don't have to be here every minute. And the camera business has been great."
In addition to Glass Key, Rooky's has experimented with some new ways to encourage more foot traffic. There are fresh pretzels on Saturdays, and monthly block parties on Sundays. They're also selling some new t-shirts at the shop, reading "25 years in the Lower Haight." Dick notes that the block has seen more activity in the past year or so, courtesy of new additions like Wing Wings and the popularity of old staples like Nickies and Kate's Kitchen. He has also noticed more tourists coming in search of "The Haight" and starting their journey on the 400 block, working their way westward, rather than the reverse. There have also been difficult times -- a frightening robbery at SF Collection, the fire at Haight and Fillmore -- but his customer base has stayed loyal. "Record collectors are fanatics," Dick notes. "They'll go anywhere." Our chat with Dick yesterday was cut short when some customers came into Rooky's and asked for Dick's assistance picking out records. But that seemed to be an appropriate note to end on. Clearly, despite the changes in the neighborhood and the shop, Dick's passion for helping people find the music they love remains as strong as ever.