Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: San Jose's Iconic Streetlight Records Stays The Course

SIGN OF THE TIMES: Streetlight Records now offers contactless curbside pickup. Photo by Gary Singh

Approaching 30 years at its current location, Streetlight Records has now entered the next stage of reopening by offering contactless curbside pickup. Customers order in advance and then drive on over.

Since November of 1992, San Jose's most storied indie record shop has occupied a large building at 980 S. Bascom Ave., anchoring an iconic stretch of wide, fossilized pavement accented with sun-cracked sidewalks, decaying half-dead strip malls leftover from the 1950s, vacant lots, weed-infested gutters, ancient tract-house subdivisions with sloping curbs, paint-peeled apartment complexes and ghosts of dive bars lone gone, all as the gritty Burbank district slowly dissolves into Campbell.

"This particular stretch of Bascom has never been, shall we say, high-profile," said Paige Brodsky, Streetlight's manager. Brodsky started working at Streetlight Records in San Francisco in the late 1980s, then relocated to the San Jose store a few years after it moved into its current building.

Back in what now seems like the vanishing Wild West, Streetlight used to be located up the Avenue, in a small house on the opposite side of Bascom, north of 280, surrounded by car-stereo installers, tile stores, thrift shopping and various dinky and constantly changing businesses. There were barely any places to park, but once inside, fans could lurk for a long time. There was even a tiny Metal section—maybe two shelves—in the far back corner, where fans could discover unknown bands like Slayer and Metallica, often scoring promo versions someone had traded in. CDs were the "new thing" at the time. DJs from KFJC and other college stations worked in the place, and since this was before the internet, cell phones and Spotify, fans preferred to interact with other humans.

Nowadays, in its current location, Streetlight remains one of the few constants of that stretch of Bascom, along with Sam's BBQ. Several years ago, the city destroyed Quement Electronics and replaced it with a much-needed library and community center, although right now the only component remaining open is a temporary staging operation to help serve the homeless.

On the other side of Streetlight, many retail businesses have occupied the building across the parking lot. Legions of customers retain memories of the old guy from Accent Carpets, who would dash out and verbally abuse everyone that parked on his side of the lot, all day long, practically giving himself a heart attack. This went on for several years. A place called Airport Appliance now occupies that building. Everything seems to be going OK.

"We actually get more customers wandering over from Airport Appliance then we did from the library or community center," Brodsky said. "People are walking around with paperwork from the refrigerator they just bought, and they're like, "Ah, I think I'll go into this record store and see what's going on over there.' And they're really awesome about sharing the parking lot."

And then there was Murray's, a dive bar that for years occupied the now-vacant lot across the street. For the Streetlight family, Murray's was home away from home. Some employees even scurried over on their breaks, to take the edge off a long night.

"It was a popular hangout for the evening shift after they got off work and walked across the street," Brodsky said. "I was really sad to see Murray's go."

Brodsky says that all in all, while Streetlight finds itself trying to escape the looming quicksand of the Covid-19 era like every other small business, she teeters between optimism and discouragement, with more of the former and less of the latter. Even though the store was fortunate to receive a PPP loan, the money is not going to last forever, but perhaps it will last right up until the final stage of reopening, when normal sales start to return, when bands can someday do in-store appearances again and when people can browse the tactile merchandise, as real music fans are wont to do.

"I feel like indie record stores are the cockroaches of the business world," Brodsky said. "We're just like, 'You can't kill us.' We're going to keep surviving and coming back, we're going to be bigger, and we're going to be stronger. You can't stop us."