May 8, 2013

From Taxi Dancers to Folk Music

Folk Arts Rare Records San Diego

Remembering 47 Years In The San Diego Record Store Scene

By Lou Curtiss


started collecting about 1953 when I inherited my Dad’s old 78 collection (mostly country music) and discovered R & B about the same time. First record I bought was on the Chess label (Jimmie Rodgers: “Out on the Road” with the Muddy Waters Band). That was on a 78 which I bought for a dime in a bargain bin at a drug store in Imperial Beach. My first 45 was about the same time (Big Joe Turner: “Shake Rattle and Roll”) but I bought that at a bona fide record store in Chula Vista. It wasn’t long until I made it to downtown San Diego and all the great stores in that area. I guess it was Rattner’s electric at 8th and Broadway that attracted me at first. I’d discover a 45 by someone I liked and they’d usually have a goodly amount of other sides by that artist, or they’d order them. They also had listening booths where you could take a pile of discs in to try them out. They must have been responsible for 3,000-4,000 of my bought new 45s. They had a second store down on 5th a couple blocks south of Broadway but it was the 8th Avenue store that got most of my attention.
Down at 7th and Broadway there was Thearles Music which was a better source of long play records (I also used to buy my harmonica’s and kazoos there). Occasionally they would get in a big collection of some of the lesser-known stuff. For instance during the period of The Great Folk Scare of the late ‘50s they got in nearly all of the Folkways Library (lots of it stuff that just didn’t have much of a market in San Diego, except for me). I remember a lot of that stuff (the ethnic International, the Southern Appalachian, The Country Blues, etc) was ripe for the pickin’ and as the prices came down I picked up a whole lot of it. Thearles also catered to the San Diego Jazz Collectors and carried a pretty good stock of labels like Riverside, Prestige, Blue Note, etc. That stuff they knew about and could talk about.

Lou Curtiss

Lou Curtiss of Folk Arts Rare Records

At Broadway and Front Street was LLoyd’s Music City which mostly catered to the U.S. Navy trade. Up until the early ‘60s there was a taxi dance floor where you could dance with a beautiful hostess, but at street level they always seemed to have a good stock of blues. I used to find about the best stock of Chess LPs and I even remember finding other Chicago labels like Cobra on 45 there. Not a big stock but always worth checking out.

Along in the mid ‘50s the Jukebox record stores started to open up. The biggest and best of these was Arcade Music at 7th and F Street (two blocks south of Broadway). Lots of 45s, used LPs, and in the beginning vintage 78s. It seemed like a lot of collectors used to hang out there and talk that good rare record talk. Jerry who owned the place told me many years later that that skinny guy I used to talk about Doo-wop records with was in fact Frank Zappa. I had just thought of him as that skinny guy who liked “Speedin’” by the Medallions. He used to greet me with “That’s Alright Buddy lets see your license.” Arcade stayed around until well after I’d opened my own store in 1967. There was another Jukebox place on Broadway up between 11th and 12th but I don’t remember much about it except it was in the same building as the Pacific Ballroom where I saw a lot of great Blues, R & B, and Jazz shows in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Then there was Ken Swerilas’ shop Vintage Music on E Street between 3rd and 4th. Ken was, and still is, a vintage 78 collector. I don’t think he much cared for the Jukebox Records except as a way to make enough to buy those vintage sides for his own collection which was remarkable then and is even more remarkable today. Vintage music wasn’t around for very long but a lot of 78 collectors used to hang out there and it was certainly a part of my learning process.

On 5th Avenue down below Market Street at about K Street was the Two Leslies Record Shop which had been around for a good long time and catered mostly to San Diego’s Afro-American population. I once bought a brand new Blind Boy Fuller on Vocalion from him and he took it out of a box that had two other copies of the same record. He also had brand new Little Walters and Muddy Waters. I sort of lost track of him in the ‘60s (that was my wandering around period).

There were a couple of other places that I’d visit around the county. Wright’s House Of High Fi was out on El Cajon Boulevard in the San Diego State area. They called themselves “San Diego’s Folk Music Headquarters” but with the passing of the Hootenanny era they were gone. The Sign Of The Sun bookstore at the corner of College Avenue and Adam’s Avenue was the first store to carry a goodly bunch of the small specialty folk and blues labels (like Origin Jazz Library, County, Arhoolie, Folk Legacy, etc). They also presented traditional artists live like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, The New Lost City Ramblers, Jean Ritchie, Bessie Jones, etc.). When they shut down it encouraged me to start my own series of music festivals here at San Diego State University in 1967.

One more store worth mentioning is Rogers Record City and its companion Valley Music in El Cajon (Valley Music just closed this year). Owned by veteran country singer-songwriter Smokey Rogers and fiddler Cactus Soldi, they catered to the Country Western San Diego scene. They were a bit out of my stomping grounds but I used to get out there when I could and also visit The Bostonia Ballroom (which they owned). I first saw Hank Williams there in 1952 and after that Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Merle Travis, Joe Maphis, Roy Acuff, Wanda Jackson, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and a lot more.

And that brings me up to July 31, 1967 when I opened Folk Arts Rare Records by putting a good part of my own collection up for sale. After about six months Norm Pierce of Jacks Record Cellar in San Francisco came by the store and after spending a day talking about old records he offered to give me about $5,000 worth of LPs on consignment. All the specialty labels with blues, old timey, traditional jazz, folksong, R & B, etc. and that was the push that really got me going. 47 years later I’m still here at 2881 Adams Avenue In San Diego 92116. Records I had new in the store in those early years have become rare collectibles and others haven’t, but I’ve had a good time and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.


  1. Eric Nielsen

    Great column, Lou, I moved to San Diego in ’72 and there were a lot of great record stores still around. Of course none of them compared to my first walking into Folk Arts Records and meeting you. Your encyclopedic body of record history both in your collection and in your head is, for me, a local and national treasure. Anyone that doesn’t know Lou, doesn’t know boo about the history of recorded music. Catch his show “Jazz Roots” on KSDS at 8PM on Sunday nights or listen at your leasure online at “The Speakeasy” at You’ll be listening to the best there is.

  2. Joe Schmelzer

    Your collection is incredible. I could spend an infinite amount of timing spinning through it…

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