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By Reema Bahnasy
"Music is the most important thing in life," says Art Casares, an employee at Streetlight Records on 24th Street at Noe since 1996. "Few things are more gratifying than being able to expose people to music they don't know about."
A self-professed fanatical record collector since the age of 6, Casares, 43, is one of a crew of employees whose passion for music has made Streetlight a long-playing institution in Noe Valley.
Billing itself as the "music and movie lovers' store," Streetlight has been peddling its new and used wares for 31 years, selling everything from vinyl LPs, 45s, and cassette tapes, to more recent additions of CDs, DVDs, and used Xbox and PlayStation games.
Assistant Manager Mike Dineen, 34, who plays guitar in local indie band Top Critters, is one of a number of musicians and creative types working at the store. Having grown up just three blocks away at 25th and Noe, Dineen, still the proud owner of his boyhood Winnie-the-Pooh record player, has been with Streetlight for 12 years. He recalls a time when Noe Valley was a more tightly-knit neighborhood. "Everyone used to know who everyone's kids were," says Dineen. "Noe was its own little town within San Francisco. There was a huge sense of community."
But the times they are a-changin'.
The only music retailer in the neighborhood, Streetlight has not been immune to the economic ups and downs and technological advances affecting the music industry in recent years--from CD burning to file sharing to Internet downloads.
"The industry is in turmoil and the store is put-putting along," says Dineen. "Our biggest foe is technology--and younger people not being used to buying records but downloading off iTunes instead."
After the dot-com bust, vacant storefronts, soaring living costs, and a fall-off in disposable income in turn hurt the store. "We definitely felt the pinch," says Casares, noting a steep decline in foot traffic following the 2003 closure of the Real Food Company a few doors down on 24th Street.
So what keeps music fans coming to Streetlight? Customer focus, knowledgeable staff, and the employees' desire to share music with others.
"There is a transference of energy, an enthusiasm which you just can't get online or in most chain stores where turnover is too high, and a human interaction you don't get downloading off the Internet," says Casares. "The whole advent of technology isolates people in the name of progress and convenience."
The store also has a large inventory.
"The strongest thing about the store is how many categories it carries," says Manager Sunlight Weismehl, 38, who has worked at Streetlight for more than 22 years and considers the store to be like family.
While changes in fashion and technology forced deep-pocketed chains like Tower Records and Warehouse Music to close their doors, Streetlight "forgot to go out of business," quips General Manager Jeff Moss, 53, who's been with Streetlight for 30 years. "Others came and went. We ignored the music industry and paid attention to the music customers."
The Early Components
Owner Robert Fallon, described in turn by employees as an eccentric, sculptor, itinerant junk collector, and history buff who splits his time between a mountaintop Big Sur retreat and a house in Thailand, opened Streetlight in 1976 as an expansion space for his components shop.
As record sales progressed, Fallon opened additional component-store-cum-record shops on Market Street at Castro in 1980, in San Jose in 1981, and finally in Santa Cruz in 1997--the first of the Streetlight family to be opened strictly as a music store, leaving the component business behind.
In the '70s and '80s, Streetlight attracted legions of record buyers and traders to 24th Street. Musician and former neighborhood resident Bobby McFerrin was a frequent customer; he even thanked the store on his first album. More recently, local politicos Angela Alioto and Matt Gonzalez, District Attorney Kamala Harris, activist and Noe Valley resident Medea Benjamin, entertainers Carlos Santana, Robin Williams, and Noe Valley's own Tracy Chapman, who'd been in the store the day before this reporter, have all been sighted getting their music fix at Streetlight.
A Trove of Hidden Gems
"Part of the joy is looking through everything," says Kristina Martinez, 27, who stops in the store up to twice a week on her way to and from work at Haystack Pizza and the French Tulip. "I have found a lot of gems in the vinyl LP section, random records at good prices. It always makes it worth it," says Martinez, scouring the dollar bins to reclaim punk rock records she'd once sold to Streetlight.
"It makes me scared that these places will disappear," adds Martinez. "It's better to do the neighborhood thing first. It would be a scary world if people ordered everything online."
While she has visited Streetlight's sister store on Market Street, Martinez says the Noe Valley store is her favorite.
"This one's not as picked over. It's more hidden, so you find better stuff," says Martinez. "It's a good store. I hope it stays around for a long time."
Art Casares, Mike Daneen, Sunlight Weismehl, Jeff Moss, and the rest of the longtime, music-loving crew at Streetlight second that emotion.