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March 2023
Vol. 22, No. 6
32nd Annual San Diego Music Awards

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

The Lou Curtiss Era

by Lou CurtissJuly 2014

Well, as I sit here writing this it’s June 20, 2014. In 10 days I’m going to close the doors at Folk Arts Rare Records at 2881 Adams Ave. and they won’t open there again. I’m retiring for the old time record biz. On September first a gentleman named Brendan Boyle will reopen Folk Arts Rare Records at a new location on El Cajon Blvd. in North Park. Looking back, it doesn’t seem like I’ve been doing this since the shop first opened at 3753 India on July 31, 1967. I was 29 years old and I’ll be 75 this coming July 2nd. It’s been quite a ride.

It all started shortly after we did the first San Diego State Folk Festival. Carol McComb, Gerrie Blake, Stan Smith, and I were sitting around in one of those long booths at Rudfords on El Cajon Blvd. ,I was doing my standard then complaint that it was hard to find a Record Shop in San Diego that carried folk music or, for that matter, blues, or jazz, or bluegrass, or Cajun music, or other kinds of ethnic music. Someone suggested why don’t we open our own shop. It could be a headquarters for the folk festivals, and fill some holes that needed filling in the local music scene. So the idea for Folk Arts Rare Records was born. The four of us found a place on the corner of Washington and India and the first Folk Arts Rare Records opened its doors that July. With a room full of records (mostly my own collection), a small gallery, some hand-crafted items on consignment, and me as the shopkeeper.

I don’t know what really led to the breakup of the partnership but before the second year was up, I was the sole owner of Folk Arts Rare Records. We had done a few concerts (Mance Lipscomb, Bukka White, the Skragg Family) and a second festival but I was getting all the kicks, I think, of being a shopkeeper and they had to keep their day jobs. At any rate, my new wife, Virginia, and I continued to run the shop, did some concerts (Big Joe Williams at the Heritage, Lightnin’ Hopkins at the Bifrost Bridge, Howlin’ Wolf at the Palace, Jesse Fuller and then Brownie McGhee again at the Bifrost Bridge, Johnny Shines at In the Alley in Escondido, and T Bone Walker at Funky Quarters). This was our big blues era; we also brought to the next couple of festivals Robert Pete Williams, John Jackson, Juke Boy Bonner, and Model T Slim. We also started to bring Sam Chatmon out from Mississippi for extended periods of time (as we would for the next 15 years or so).

The shop continued and we added to our stock when Norm Pierce of Jacks Record Seller in San Francisco came by and gave us a whole pile of records on consignment (all the small specialty labels like Arhoolie, Biograph, Folk Legacy, Historical, and other labels that dealt in old blues, traditional jazz, old time country, cajun, and traditional folksong). We were really on our way; however, it was at that moment a greedy landlord decided to triple our rent and so we moved up into Hillcrest to 3743 Fifth Ave. It was a little bit bigger and as we had room we started to do concerts in the store (the Heritage had recently closed, as had In the Alley and the Candy Company, and there wasn’t a place for acoustic music in San Diego so we filled that space). In the next three or four years we featured local folk and blues singers like Fiddlin’ Red Simpson and the Old Scratch Band, bluesmen Thomas Shaw and Robert Jeffery, Tom Waits, Sam Hinton, Johnny Walker, W.B. Reid, John Bosley, and Lani Kurnik (AKA: Del Rey), Tomcat Courtney and Henry Ford Thompson, and so many others. People who came to town for the folk festival also often did a gig at Folk Arts like U Utah Phillips, cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin, Jon Wilcox, Rita Weill, and others. After awhile we moved the concerts out of the store and into Orango’s Natural Food Restaurant on Washington in Mission Hills. It was also about this time that the guy who ran the Real Estate Office next door to Folk Arts started complaining to the landlord about the music coming out of the record store and all the dope fiends who bought records there. At any rate when our lease came up for renewal the landlord booted us out: Virginia, me, the records, new baby Ben, and all.

We found an old house that had formerly been a kinky massage parlor in Normal Heights at 3611 Adams Ave. It fit not only the shop, but we could also live in the back part of it and in April 1977 we moved in. We were still doing the Orango’s Concerts than but they were sort of winding down, so in early 1978 we started doing concerts at the United Methodist Church and, in fact, we did the first San Diego Blues and Black Music Heritage Festival there in 1979. When the folk festival at San Diego State discontinued in 1987 I took some time off to get the shop and my tape collection in order and give some time to set and form my radio show Jazz Roots on KSDS 88.3FM (Sundays 8pm to 10pm). In 1994 Scott Kessler of the Adams Ave. Business Association asked for my help in the booking the Adams Ave. Street Fair. I agreed and also proposed a Folk Festival. The result was that for the next 15 years I would book the Adams Avenue Roots Festival in the spring and a good part of the Adams Avenue Street Fair in the fall. During all this time Folk Arts Rare Records continued and thrived. Virginia went back to college and got her doctorate in microbiology; Ben also got his master’s degree in the classics. Soon it came time for my final move.

This one was maybe the hardest move of them all. This outfit called Curves decided they wanted to locate at 3611 Adams and offered my landlord a substantial amount to boot me out on my keester. And so it came to pass that after 27 years at that location and figuring I’d be there for the rest of my career, I was out the door and hopping down the street to 2881 Adams Ave. in the year 2004. That’s where I’ve been ever since and will be for 10 more days, when I RETIRE to my home in El Cajon (actually Granite Hills just east of El Cajon) where I’ll continue to put my radio shows together, write these missives for the Troubadour, work on the digitization of all my tapes for the Library of Congress and UCLA Collections, and maybe write a book.

And so Mr. Brendan Boyle will reopen Folk Arts Rare Records on September first over in North Park on El Cajon Blvd. He’’s adding quite a bit of stock from his own collection and ought to have some real nice additions to the store. I’ll probably be around some. I’ve told him I’d shop sit when he wanted a break. So, maybe I’ll see some of you there. Lets all wish Mr Boyle a long and extended career at Folk Arts Rare Records and a special Thank you to the folks who have come into the store over the years and helped us do what we loved doing. May you help Mr. Boyle along the same way.

Lou Curtiss

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