After operating in Berkeley for almost 75 years, Reid’s Records will close this fall.
Owner Diara Reid told Berkeleyside Monday that she plans to close the store on Oct. 19. She posted a “For Rent” sign outside of its Sacramento Street location back in December.
Opened in 1945, Reid’s Records is California’s oldest record shop as well as one of the few remaining black-owned businesses in Berkeley. It lasted through decades of ups and downs, and outlived megastore competitors like Tower Records and Leopold’s. But Reid says that her store couldn’t beat the effects of technology and Bay Area gentrification.
“The African-American community we served for 75 years doesn’t exist here anymore,” she said on Monday. “No one buys CDs anymore. Today I made four sales and we’re not talking $100 sales. So it’s time to call it a day.”
A new market known as ‘race records’
Years before she was known as “the nation’s oldest park ranger,” Betty Reid Soskin, Diara Reid’s mother, opened Reid’s Records with her then husband, Mel Reid, in the basement of their duplex at 3101 Sacramento St.. The music-loving couple — who came together while growing up in the East Bay — had the bright idea to sell “race records” to the Bay Area’s African-American population, which ballooned during World War II.
“Mel met a man, a wonderfully kind man, Aldo Musso,” Betty told the East Bay Express in 1988. “Mr. Musso had a jukebox route, and he brought Mel in to show him the business ‘cause Mel wanted to go into business for himself when the war ended. He was going to have a black jukebox route.”
Instead of starting a route supplied by local distributors like Bob Chatton, Mel continued to work odd jobs so he could buy records, which Betty sold through a window in their garage. They were one of three stores in the area that sold popular records by black artists, and they found real success by being the first to advertise their wares: when blues shouter Wynonie “Mr. Blues” Harris released his first 78, “Around The Clock Blues,” the Reids bought time on KRE to play the song and inform listeners that they could buy it from them.
“That very day,” Betty recalled to the EBX, “people were lining up in front of the place to buy that record. We sold ‘em by the box. That launched the shop.”
A hub for gospel music
Reid’s Records didn’t sell much gospel until Mel’s uncle, Paul Reid, started a gospel show on KRE called “Gospel Gems.” Because of the show, Paul became the Bay Area’s leading gospel DJ. He also became a promoter, booking artists like the Staple Singers, Blind Boys of Mississippi, and a teenage Aretha Franklin at the Oakland Auditorium.
With his uncle acting as a fulcrum in the gospel world, Mel had the inside line on what would break big in the gospel scene and stocked his store accordingly. Before long, Reid’s Records moved into a storefront next door to Reids’ duplex and it became the biggest dealer of gospel records in the state.
The gospel clientele would be the store’s saving grace years later when local, white-owned stores began filling out their stock with the blues records Reid’s had monopolized for so long. Reid’s tried to compete by embracing the hippie culture of the late ‘60s. But the water pipes and blacklight posters didn’t sell; they were stolen. By the early ‘70s, Mel was struggling to keep the doors open.
Despite having divorced Mel and remarried, Betty took over the shop in 1978 after she found her ex-husband in a coma in the back of the store. Right away she ditched the drug paraphernalia and focused on what her best customers wanted most: gospel. The store was still seen as the place to find it.
“What I found was a paradox; on the one hand a total failure and on the other, a neighborhood institution that had developed a life of its own,” Betty said.
Over the next few decades, Reid’s Records evolved into the one-stop-shop for all things gospel — be it the newest releases, choir robes or tambourines. The renewed focus didn’t make the family millionaires, but it kept the store alive.
Years later, when Betty passed over ownership to Diara — then David — Reid tried to tap into what made it into a gospel institution: gospel concerts. Reid started promoting shows at the Richmond Auditorium that featured the genre’s biggest names, like Shirley Caesar and Lee Williams and the Spiritual QC’s. To her horror, the crowds didn’t come out for the shows like Diara expected.
“The gospel scene is gone. It’s been gone,” Reid said. “Local people don’t appreciate it. They’re like, ‘I can go to church to hear you sing for free.’”
Reid said what’s destroyed the Bay Area gospel scene, and moreover the local African-American community, is gentrification, which she equates to previous issues like the crack epidemic. Over the years her customer base moved away, and now she finds people coming into the store more to reminisce than to buy anything. Even worse is the response she’s received since she put up the “For Rent” sign. More people call to ask when the store is closing rather than asking how to help, which makes her feel like a carcass being picked over, she said.
“There’s no black culture left here and this used to be a black enterprise zone. It used to be where black people thrived,” Diara said. “Now I can count how many black neighbors I have on one hand. All we have left is the Byron Rumford statue in the middle of the street. ”