I first came into contact with record shops back in my home town of Wallasey during the seventies. At this time, and into the early eighties Wallasey was like many other similar – sized towns in that it had as many record shops within its confines as Soho does now. That’s a sad state of affairs both ways. There are no recordshops left back home at the moment, (I don't consider The Gravy Train to be one) as far as I know, and Soho used to be so much better, but it’s slowly being asphyxiated by creeping gentrification.
Which is also symptomatic of the current rise in record shops that, by and large, seem to market vinyl as a lifestyle choice rather than anything else. These shops are not specialist outlets anymore, but much more general distributors of sound, specializing in records and, now a whole load of accessories and accouterments to make the listening experience more palatable, such as retro fifties and sixties paraphernalia, all designed to envelop and encapsulate. Soho only seems to have room for a few shops currently selling electronica, Phonica and Sounds of the Universe come to mind. Black Market went the way of the dodo recently, it was a little bit more floor focused than the others so maybe that’s one of the reasons why. Other shops have opened in London since these two came into being, like Kristina and Love Vinyl, but that’s London. The biggest city in Western Europe supports a fraction of the shops it used to, so what does that mean for the rest of the UK?
Outside the big cities some shops remain, and some have opened within the last few years, but I find it hard to believe that they’re going to be around for very long. A couple have opened in the city where I work within the last six months, and one of them has a café attached. This is a good plan because if the records don’t sell hopefully the café can keep the home fires burning until they do. I’ve only been in a couple of times but had the same experience on each occasion. The café was rammed but on going down to see the records there was no one shopping where it mattered, Added to that, the chap, different each time, who was overseeing the vinyl didn’t acknowledge my presence at all. I know that we hate being asked if we want any help in shops, but a quick “Hi, let me know if there’s anything you want” is hardly going to set any alarm bells ringing.
A lot of people used to hate visiting record shops because of the high and mighty attitude of the staff, but for some like myself, this was one of the main reasons for visiting them. I spent half of my late teenage Saturday afternoons encamped in Probe in Liverpool waiting for Pete Burns to rip the piss out of someone, it didn’t matter who. All were fair game. I remember my brother asking what a track playing was in the shop, and Norman Killon, a short arse who used to work there indignantly saying “It’s ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais’. Don’t you recognize Joe Strummer’s voice?’ This was in front of the whole shop, all of whom laughed on cue.
It was all character-building stuff, but I’m not so sure if it’s the stuff of retail survival in this day and age. It would be wonderful if we could turn the clock back and have record shops the way they once were. Not out of a misguided sense of nostalgia, but because the way of consuming music really was better back then. Record shops themselves now need to be more open and receptive. I don’t think they can survive on their own terms now and that makes me sad. However, it’s not wrong to expect some half-decent customer service when you go within their portals.