You've all seen the news stories: "Millennials push vinyl sale to 26 year-high!", "Young people are buying records!" and "Vinyl sales are soaring!". We are living in a beautiful time, a renaissance as it were. And as the interest in vinyl collecting rockets, new record stores have opened up and down the country to accomodate the demand, some of them boasting to be the biggest vinyl retailers in the world. It's almost as though we're living in a new golden age of the record store.
As someone who has never forgotten their first experience in a one such shop – the musky scent of dusty cardboard sleeves and cheap coffee, shelves towering high above, and extra-terrestial waves of sound – I was determined to check out this new wave of record stores. After all, a good one is a breeding ground for the most fascinating, passionate characters, and the beating pulse of our musical principles. Y'know, the sort of thing Nick Hornby talks about in High Fidelity, or the glorious moment of discovery that's been cemented into history in that iscene from Pretty in Pink, where one record store clerk dances around to the sound of Otis Redding.
So, with the wind in my sails and the news that huge establishments selling vinyl were sprouting up all over Britain, I decided to clear my Saturday schedule, wolf down a bagel, and set off on my travels; eager to meet the auteurs of tomorrow and get used to where I would be spending my weekends from here on out. I packed a bag (always important for carrying records home in), booted up my Google Maps, and headed out into the wilderness.
SAINSBURY’S, EAST DULWICH
First on my list: the latest in the new-wave of record collecting behemoths, a Sainsburys superstore. Unlike some of the back alley dungeons I've become accustomed to, it turns out that I don't even need Google Maps to find the joint – it's absolutely massive. A little surprised but unpeturbed, I grab two coffees – one for me and one to introduce myself with (another important aspect of record collecting) – and I head over for a chat with one of their staff members about the vinyl they’ll be selling soon.
They got my name wrong, but you have to learn to forgive people.
“Hello Maryan, I got this for you," I say to the clerk behind the counter, handing her a coffee. She looks surprised but thanks me. “I was wondering what records were coming in tomorrow and what you’d recommend?”
“The vinyl records. I’m local, a big music fan, and really excited about having a new place to hang out. I'm looking for some East Coast Canadian stuff.”
After pausing and looking at me sideways, Maryan has a eureka moment and we share relief, “The vinyl records, yeah! I heard about it, are we doing them here? I hope it is good stuff.”
That didn’t go exactly how I imagined it would. So I try Susan further down the counter, but she doesn’t even believe what I’m saying is true. A tad flustered, I head over towards the audio section to find someone who might. After strolling back and forth through barren aisles of PC games, televisions and DVDs, I’m relieved to find the nearby staff counter. So, I take a sip of latte and start picking the brains of my potential tastemaker.
“Anything I can help you with?” He replies.
“Records wise, I suppose I’m looking for prime Turkish cuts to blow a party away next weekend. Could you recommend anything?”
“Erm… I’m sorry mate, we basically just do British stuff.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
We rally back-and-forth for a few minutes until a duty manager emerges and starts pointing aggressively at a map of a cow. I’m not sure why, but it felt as if I should leave. Walking out of the door, a smiling store manager chases me down to clear some things up. Despite not being sure exactly what “classic albums” they’re going to be stocking, he knows that they will be selling around “twenty” and takes me to the place they’ll be living from Monday.
Home to the hot cross buns today, your listening future tomorrow.
Just twenty albums and no idea on titles is not really what I’m looking for. With my dreams of wasting afternoons sipping coffee while digesting music for the first time fast slipping from reality, I crave the warm bosom of a proper record shop. Is this really what the new trend of record collecting is about? I'm not sure, so it’s time to cleanse my pallet and head to what Google tells me is a trusted, “on-trend” and “hip” place in town. They sell turntables, commission their own music books and even press their own records. I mean, these guys are the Real Deal. So with that skip back in my step, I jump on the number 12 bus and make it happen.
URBAN OUTFITTERS, OXFORD STREET
I don’t understand this place. There’s lots of stuff, but not really a cohesive thought or connection tying it together. Think TK Maxx, but without the practicality, cheap designer products and items that function. Kind of like a car boot sale hosted by Wayne Hemingway. Skirting past blackboards, rugs, and groups of people pressing small cameras without film in, my heart sets alight at a sight.
Looking at its wonderful arm, delicate needle and fresh slip mat, I can breathe again: a turntable. But there, on the horizon above and beyond… Records! Rejoice! Those most beautiful of things. Tossing down an owl-shaped cassette, I run over. My initial anxieties were wrong, this is a small pocket of heaven; a place I can belong. I see Deerhunter’s Fading Frontier and Bowie’s Blackstar shining bright, but a closer look reveals most of the 42 LPs on display are reissues. Just the tip of the iceberg I’m sure, not to worry. So I search the fresh and eccentric faces for my musical wizard. Eventually I’m pointed in the direction of Jack who is “in charge of homeware”.
“Alright, how can I help you today?”
“Do you mind pointing me to the rest of your vinyl, please?”
“Yeah man, that wall is it.”
“Oh… Can I order stuff in?”
“We don’t do specific orders, we just stick what we get in a batch out on the shop floor.”
“Well, what would you recommend for me from what you have? I don’t think I’m over vaporwave yet, really, so anything in that style would be great.”
Jack sort of half smiles, and I feel vulnerable all of a sudden. “I’m sorry, you’re best just looking at what’s there up there, mate.”
As I walk off, somebody mumbles and the staff giggle amongst themselves from behind the counter. And with that, I’m done with record shops in central London. Pretentious bastards! But with a fire in my belly and not willing to give up hope, I find a place in the far depths of London that has been successfully selling albums since Christmas. And if Berlin rules apply, the most subversive, unusual places always crop up in the East.
TESCO EXTRA, GALLION’S REACH
Reading like the latest instalment in a Philip Pulman saga, Gallion’s Reach is a name worthy of any quest. Taking over an hour and a half of tubes, overgrounds and an eventual DLR, I step off in the bare shrubbery and newly-forged concrete castles of Beckton. A twenty minute walk away from the store, I’m passed by groups of rampant quad bikes and mopeds doing wheelies. I traverse winding roundabouts and Redditch ringroad-esque tricky terrain, eventually reaching a retail park.
The store is gigantic, enormous, I’ve never witnessed anything quite like it. This must be vinyl valhalla! I make my way up the ramps towards the electronics section. Away from the CDs and beside the customer service desk is the vinyl. Staring blankly at the twenty LPs in front of me, I’m confused. It reads "Classic Albums", but that can’t be right as I see copies of Foo Fighters’ Greatest Hits and the Guardians of the Galaxy OST. Is this it? More questions rattle around my subconscious and, in a fit of disbelief and turmoil, a hot flush comes over me. It’s then that I get a tap on the shoulder.
“Can I help you, sir?” the man asks.
“I’m a little stressed, yeah.”
“And you’re looking at albums?”
“If you’re looking to chill out, then you could try this guy?” He says, tapping a copy of Bob Marley's Legend. “You know him?”
I shake my head and murmur, “Kinda.”
“Or maybe if you’re looking for something upbeat, you could listen to these guys, AC/DC? How about them? Do you know them?”
I don’t know why, but I can no longer speak.
“Well they’ll get you feeling better. Do you like rock n' roll?”
We hear a sharp, loud cough from the customer service desk. My friendly clerk looks up from an Elvis Presley album and freaks out. It had slipped his mind that he was in the midst of grabbing the correct steamer for a lady at the counter and now a large queue has now formed behind her. He gallops off. There goes the tastemaker, I think. Battered and broken, I slip on my headphones and leave, with a Bob Marley record in hand. Vaguely dissatisfied.
I decide not to take the bus but to walk instead. Why would I want to speed through a world that’s not worth living in? Dawdling past the large Sainsbury’s where I started the day, I accept that perhaps the culture simply no longer exists. Maybe the days spent skimming through box after box being refined by a soul mate are gone.
I think about my first time in a record store, when Darren from the BP Garage in Washford kindly showed me that Slipknot "Wait and Bleed" CD single I "needed to buy". Clutching it at my side, rushing home and repeating it until it skipped, it changed my life that night. Will music ever touch me in such a way again? As it started to upset me that perhaps these new record stores would never foster a thrilling sense of discovery, I found myself stumbling on a miracle dressed up in the pleasing, comforting scents of yellow and green fuel. If there's nothing else left for me, perhaps this last stop shop, the convenience store at the end of the road, would save me just like it saved me from listening to the same CD on repeat when we were on a road trip all those years ago...
BP CONNECT, DULWICH
“Alright, you look freezing, mate,” the man behind the counter replies.
“You don’t have any music on sale, do you?”
“Sorry, mate.” My heart sinks. “But we haven’t had anything for a while.” I turn away depleted. “Well, we may have one box. There’s some things on top of that fridge.”
I lift it down carefully and slowly undress the mysteries unknown to me. It is a goldmine of foreign treats. Nervous and at a loss what to choose, I ask the man. “Well,” his fingers start flicking, “it’s St Patrick’s weekend. So why don’t you go for this?” An artist I’ve never heard of before, Tommy Flemming, singing Irish songs. Of course! A record to capture and define a moment in time; the Saturday, the first day of spring, where my faith was condemned to an eternal winter but for summer to shine through after all. “That sounds great,” I say.
99p in exchange for hope and a service you can’t put a price on. Thank you, BP, thank you. What a world we live in. Rushing home like a ten year old boy, I speed to my laptop and get ready to have my mind blown like it’s 2001 all over again.
Culture is dead.
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