In 1994, several months after the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of California sold its Novato distribution center and moved into a larger space in Benicia, office manager Sandi Niccolson continued to get phone bills for the new owner. 

“After trying and trying, I finally got the phone company to stop billing me,” she recalled, laughing.

The building’s new owner was the iconic psychedelic rock band the Grateful Dead, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this summer with a series of concerts in Chicago and Santa Clara, Calif.

The 32,000-sq.-ft. building in Marin County – about 30 miles north of San Francisco – served as the Dead's home base from 1994 until 2003. A team of 35 or so employees managed the band’s business affairs, merchandising and customer service operations out of the sprawling, high-ceilinged facility. The retrofitted warehouse also stored the group's equipment and touring gear, and housed a recording studio, rehearsal space and, perhaps most importantly, a fireproofed and highly secured vault containing thousands of carefully curated Grateful Dead concert recordings.

“The best way to describe it would be Grateful Dead headquarters, because that’s where everything was,” said David Lemieux, the Dead’s official audio/visual archivist since 1999. “It was a booming operation and a huge hub of activity.”

Grateful Dead amp
A tie-dyed guitar amp in the Grateful Dead's former headquarters in Novato, Calif. The retrofitted space housed the band's equipment, archived recordings and licensed merchandise until 2003, when Marin Bikes purchased the property.

Bob Minkin Photography

From the street, however, the building was nothing special. Its stucco façade was void of any signage or logos indicating its famous owner.

“Even when you walked in, it just looked like a normal office except it had really cool people working there,” recalls Bob Minkin, a photographer and graphic designer who has worked with the Grateful Dead since the early 2000s. Minkin, who lives in Novato, has designed cover art for several of the band’s CD and DVD releases and published a collection of concert photos titled Live Dead.

“When I’d go there, it was the coolest thing for me because I usually met with David in the vault about an upcoming release, so I knew about something before just about anyone else,” Minkin said. “I’d wander the aisles of reels and reels and more reels and take pictures."

The Dead’s offices occupied the front of the building, with rows of cubicles. A doorway led into into the merchandising area where pallets of t-shirts, CDs and other licensed goods were stocked on metal shelving, ready to be packed and shipped to Deadheads worldwide. All orders were fulfilled in house.

Grateful Dead Road Case
A road case belonging to Grateful Dead guitarist and vocalist Bob Weir.

Bob Minkin Photography

Through a conference room that included a large wooden table the band brought back from a 1972 European tour was the freestanding tape vault, which only Lemieux and studio engineer Jeff Norman could access via a top-secret security code that unlocked a steel door.

The band’s music equipment – amps, instruments, lighting rigs and more – were kept in the rear of the warehouse, next to a practice space with a full-size soundstage and mixing room. 

The Dead bought the property a few months before front man Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and the space was finished soon after his passing.

“Jerry came up shortly before he died to check on the vault and construction, and thought it was really cool,” Lemieux recalled.

After Garcia passed away, the remaining Grateful Dead members would rehearse there either together or with their respective side projects. The band would also rent out the space to other artists – from Steve Miller to Huey Lewis. Some even cut or mixed records there.

Grateful Dead Organ
Pigpen's organ. Members of the Dead, as well as other artists like Bob Dylan, used the former Coca-Cola distribution plant as a rehearsal space.

Bob Minkin Photography

“We once had a visit from the Edge and U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, who spent several hours with us,” Lemieux said. “We’re all so close to this, so we forget how big the Dead are, but when you have the Edge knocking on the vault door, you realize the band is in some pretty good company.”

Lemieux recalls Bob Dylan spending a few days rehearsing in the space before starting a tour in San Francisco. “There were a lot of people coming through all the time from different parts of the music world,” he said. “It was a really lively place to be.”

Before purchasing the Novato building in 1994, the Grateful Dead ran its business operations out of an old Victorian house in downtown San Rafael. Its studio equipment and tape vault were in another house about a mile away. 

“By getting the Coca-Cola plant, they could put everything under one roof and own a building in a very good market,” Lemieux said.

Grateful Dead PIano
A grand piano is flanked by skeleton marionettes featured in the Grateful Dead's 1987 music video for 'Touch of Grey.'

Bob Minkin Photography

Its convenient location right off the Bel Marin Keys exit, plentiful parking and built-in loading bays were other key selling points.

“We could roll merchandise or equipment out of the warehouse and straight onto an 18-wheeler,” Lemieux said. “That was the only thing that indicated it had been a Coke distribution center. It also had a huge parking lot in the back where you could fit 10 or 15 semi-trucks. We painted lines on the pavement and built a tennis court.”

In 2003, the Dead decided to downsize its operations and sell the Novato building to Marin Bikes. “Our founder was good friends with many musicians in the area, including the Grateful Dead,” said Chris Holmes, brand director for Marin Bikes. “When he wanted to move the company he thought it would be a great opportunity to pick up this building given the connection. It's been a great space for us." 

The Dead temporarily leased back part of the building from Marin to maintain its studio and vault, and rented a smaller office in San Rafael. “It was cool that a good Marin-based company – just like the Dead – ended up buying it,” Lemieux said. “They were our landlords for a few years.”

In 2006, the band gave up the space completely. “Nothing is left in the Bay Area,” said Lemieux, who now lives in Canada. “The band still owns its tapes, but they’re housed in Los Angeles in a terrific vault with the Warner Music Group." 

Holmes sent us a few photos of the space, some of which hint at its prior occupant (see gallery above).

“Those bring back lots of great memories,” Lemieux said after I forwarded them to him. “I still drive by there a lot… it was a building with good energy because what we were doing was so much fun, as I’m sure it was when Coke was there and is now.”