Nov. 29--Business is booming at Rooky Ricardo's Records. On a recent dark, drizzly evening when it looks like the rest of the Lower Haight neighborhood is deserted, a steady stream of customers ducks into the cozy little vinyl emporium overseen by doting owner Dick Vivian.
The shop, which has the look and feel of a 1950s apothecary, complete with rotary phones and a retro laminate dining table, has long served as a neighborhood hangout.
In the past few years, renewed interest in vinyl records -- a format of music that was once declared dead and gone -- has made Rooky Ricardo's a must-visit destination for audiophiles from around the world.
"I grew up listening to old-school rock," says Benezra Tegis, a San Francisco native who is one of Vivian's regulars. "When you come back to the sound of the needle hitting the groove it's inexplicable. It's so much better than an MP3."
He's not the only one who feels that way.
Nielsen SoundScan counted 4.6 million vinyl record sales in the United States in 2012 -- up 18 percent from 2011. This year, the number is expected to top 5.5 million.
On Amazon.com, vinyl is the fastest-growing music medium, with recent LPs by Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, and Mumford and Sons helping to boost sales by 745 percent since 2008.
Daft Punk's latest album, "Random Access Memories," registered almost 6 percent of its total first-week sales on vinyl.
Record Store Day, an annual April promotion started in 2008 to draw attention to independent music retailers by providing them with exclusive vinyl-only releases, has been a driving force behind the resurgence.
This year, organizers are holding a Black Friday edition, pushing vinyl-only offerings from big names like U2, Bob Dylan and Lady Gaga. You can also pick up new vinyl pressings of old music by the Grateful Dead and Sly and the Family Stone.
What prompts the renewed popularity of the outdated format after all these years? The same drawbacks that nearly drove the shiny black 12-inch petroleum-based discs to extinction still exist: They're unwieldy, easy to damage and require actual physical effort to work.
"It's the most fulfilling way to play music," says Sohrab Harooni, one of three co-owners of the vinyl-only electronic music boutique RS94109, which opened last month in the former White Walls Gallery space at Larkin and Geary streets.
"You can have 10,000 songs on your computer, but it's different when you put in the time and passion in finding that piece of material you can hold in your hands," he says.
'Not fun anymore'
At 24, Harooni was born after physical LPs were supplanted by one-click downloads. But like many people his age, he is seeking a deeper, more meaningful connection with his music.
"Digital is not fun anymore," he says.
It's a sentiment shared by many music fans drawn by the superior sound quality and artwork that LPs offer.
"The digital age has made music disposable," says Miles Anzaldo, 28, assistant music director and on-air personality at Live 105. "When you buy a record, you're really committing to it. You're holding something that is tangible, thinking about it, spending time with it."
Vivian sees it firsthand. "I have kids come in here all the time who only want to buy vinyl," he says. "They want complete albums. They want the songs in the sequence they were originally presented to the world. They want to hear the music the way it was really meant to be."
In an age of rampant music piracy and reduced revenue for artists, buying vinyl also serves a larger purpose.
"I buy records because I want to support the artists," Anzaldo says.
The Bay Area has always been a hotbed for vinyl enthusiasts, with some of the best independent record stores in the nation: Amoeba Music, Rasputin, Aquarius, Mod Lang, Groove Yard and others. Many of these businesses endured a rough patch when everyone started cramming their entire music collections onto their phones. Now their tenacity is paying off.
"It's not easy," says Chris Veltri, who owns the 700-square-foot Haight Street soul and jazz vinyl boutique Groove Merchant, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. "If there's any key to my success, it's that the shop feels like a social center -- there's a scene built around it."
Many of Veltri's regulars are DJs who take pride in spinning vinyl-only sets, forsaking the convenience and portability of digital technology.
"If you're DJing with an iPod, everything you're playing is already thought out," says Veltri, who spins under the name Cool Chris. "Whenever I'm DJing, I go by feeling."
Even major retail chains like Whole Foods, Best Buy and Target are jumping on the vinyl bandwagon, stocking a handful of classic and contemporary releases -- from Frank Sinatra to Justin Timberlake -- in select stores.
"For Whole Foods to have a record section," Vivian says, "that really says it all."
Vinyl sales will never reach the numbers they did before CDs arrived in the 1980s. Physical albums account for just 1 percent of overall music sales, which are mostly made up of digital downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Still, there are clear signs that the renewed interest in vinyl is more than just a fad. Vinyl sales have been strong enough to bring several record-pressing plants back from the brink of extinction across the United States. There has been a boon for turntable manufacturers, too.
"It goes back to records being something for true music heads," Anzaldo says.
Joy of discovery
That is certainly evident in Rooky Ricardo's. With Vivian holding court, it quickly becomes apparent that most of the people in here don't even know what they're looking for -- it's the physical experience, joy of discovery and sense of endeavor that they're really searching for.
"I've become something to do in San Francisco," Vivian, 65, says as he warmly greets another group of people who walk through the door. "We're now hip and happening -- after 26 years."
The customers here, who don't neatly fit into any demographic group, rummage through the meticulously organized 45s that line the walls, mostly by girl groups like the Supremes, the Marvelettes and the Shirelles.
They seek recommendations from Vivian and sample his picks at the listening stations set up in the middle of the store. They almost always walk out with a stack of discoveries.
"They come in here and they immediately get excited," Vivian says. "People are so used to being tethered to their computers. This is one way of breaking away from that. You have to lift up the needle. You have to listen."
Aidin Vaziri is The San Francisco Chronicle's pop music critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MusicSF
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