Punk rock dies (again)

The Epicenter Zone was the kind of vital, snotty teen collective that every city needs. Our writer eulogizes the shuttered San Francisco record store.

Published July 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I visited Epicenter Zone only once, a few years ago, and I left wanting to knock the cashier's Mohawk loose with a folding chair. Epicenter was San Francisco's premier underground record store and meeting space, and I was there as an out-of-towner, rifling the bins for old S.F. punk records that I'd missed the first time around. I was happy; I'd found great rare stuff for cheap. I might even have been beaming as I brought my trove to the counter, where the teenage cashier flipped through the pile, made an exasperated "tch!" and droned something like, "More dry bones for the fossil collection, eh?"

He was teaching me a lesson: It was OK to be there as a punk codger digging for memories (I was 25), but the store, the future, the scene and the moral high ground belonged to the youth. Epicenter was their place, and I was only a tourist there. I picked out a random new 7-inch as a souvenir, decided why bother, and left with my passport stamped "expired." Rotten kids.

But he was right, and it was just that sort of youth-centered dynamism that made Epicenter such an important place. It was a nostalgia-free zone in a city top-heavy with radical old codgers -- an Our Gang clubhouse for the anarchy set. The space was run entirely by volunteers from the S.F. punk scene, and in an odd, San Francisco-style inversion of things, they provided an important community resource for the city, hosting meetings of ACT-UP, the Prisoners Literacy Project, Alcoholics Anonymous and Food Not Bombs, among other organizations.

While the place was booming, it was also a vital piece of the local punk rock infrastructure. Epicenter housed a large zine library and put on all-ages shows. It stocked hard-to-find records and literature, and served as an all-purpose gathering spot. It also suffered through a heroic amount of disaster and neglect in recent years, before finally shutting its doors for good late last week.

Epicenter, like the all-ages 924 Gilman Street club across the bay in Berkeley, was founded on the punk rock equivalent of a government grant: The project was initially bankrolled by the late Tim Yohannon and his MaximumRocknroll super-fanzine in 1992, but the space was always independently operated, and as a collective it was subject to all the typical weirdness that goes on in an organization where everyone's sort of in charge, but nobody gets paid.

According to Kate, main coordinator at the first-name-only kind of space, "The store always had a lot of turmoil, infighting. We lived like that even when we were doing well." But three years ago, when Maximum stopped handing out supplementary funding, Epicenter went down a slow spiral into punk collective hell. The store started to open and close at random intervals, and had trouble keeping up its stock of records and zines. Volunteers fled the chaos after someone yanked on a pipe during a show and flooded the building.

The neighborhood (the Mission District) started creeping upscale, and a for-profit record store opened that carried much of the same merchandise. In the end, all that was left was to go out with dignity -- and the collective decided to pull the plug while it was still barely on top of things.

No matter how many codgers the Epicenter kids sneered off the premises, or how much basic turmoil swirled around the place (sign on bathroom door: "Don't Even Think About It, You Fucking Junkie Scum!"), it will be sorely missed. It was a wonderful, rude, sloppy, good-hearted crash-pad of a shop, of a kind that every city should have -- but that few ever love dearly enough until they're gone.

Messages of support and information on future projects: (415) 289-6840.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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