Let’s give it a spin

Keith Blackmore only went in for a record and ended up buying the shop …

Last summer I bought a record shop. I didn’t expect to but I did. I tell you this not just to boast, nor, alas, to interest you in our fine range of products, but because I think it is a sign of something important. The shop was just sitting there, facing probable closure after 70 years of loyal service to record-buyers.

The Record Album opened in 1948 but its real identity was established a decade later when George Ginn, newly demobbed from National Service in the Royal Air Force, took it over and began to shape its character.

George loved musicals and soundtracks and as he moved the shop from one location to another, it acquired a mighty reputation for those kind of records, as well as for respectable selections from classical and pop genres. And I do mean records. Vinyl records. None of your digital nonsense. I’ll come back to that.

By the time it had found its current, and perhaps final, resting place in the unhelpfully named Terminus Road in Brighton, the shop was sufficiently famous to be referred to as “Europe’s foremost supplier of soundtracks” in Garth Cartwright’s 2018 excellent chronicle of the UK record shop, Going for a Song (on sale in the shop now).

But last winter, George, then 88, fell ill and the shop’s opening hours, never extensive, became erratic. The stock, once regularly refreshed, grew stale. You could still wander in on a Saturday and find a celebrity buying Erich Korngold records but you might just as easily find George shivering and alone, lamenting the lack of custom.

As you might expect, the shop was hardly a humming example of modern retail. The website was flat and its long, undifferentiated lists of albums had not been updated for years. And George only took cash, so if you really wanted to spend £150 on, say, a first mono pressing of Love’s Forever Changes, or £75 on an original soundtrack of The King and I signed by Yul Brynner, you had to march over to the railway station nearby and take out the cash from a machine, giving you an unlooked-for opportunity to consider again whether your significant other might think this was a wise use of your joint disposable income. The impulse-buy defence was severely compromised and who knows how many sales were lost in that cash vacuum.

So when one day, after I had dropped in just to say hello, George asked if I’d like to buy the whole shop, rather than just the expensive and obscure individual records I usually went for, I was nonplussed. I knew nothing of retail and had exactly no experience of running a small business. But then again, I was facing a few months off and a friend, David Chappell, said he was prepared to become my partner in the enterprise so we thought … let’s give it a spin.

Four months of legal wrangling later, ably assisted by my more knowledgeable son, Ben, we were opening the place as proprietors, with George headed gleefully for retirement. And it’s been a wonderful experience.

Buying records, selling them, developing a modern jazz speciality, learning about soundtracks, learning what we don’t want to stock and what we would like to have, dealing with accountants, the council, business rates, VA bloody T, finally obtaining the key to our (outside) loo – this was our new life.

Of course, it took a bit of getting used to: the long hours standing behind the counter or humping heavy boxes of dubious vinyl around the back room could be tiresome but any fatigue melted away every time we made a sale. And there was a special pleasure in selling something we had acquired ourselves.

I had worried that supply, in a business selling second-hand records, might be at least as big a problem as demand. But, touch wood, that has not been the case. People stop by the shop with boxes they have inherited or found in the loft. Sometimes they are clearing a deceased relative’s house or perhaps moving abroad. Occasionally we are asked to go and look for ourselves at a collection.

And owning a record shop has taken care of all my small-talk requirements. It turns out that everyone is interested in a record shop. Why is that, I wondered. But I know the answer. They used to say everyone had a book in them (a dubious claim in my experience) but nowadays everybody thinks they have a business in them. And preferably a business selling things.

Things as in objects.

Our shop is basically an antiques shop specialising in old records. We don’t actually sell 78s (almost no one has the equipment to play them any more) but we do sell records that play at 33⅓ and 45rpm, large and small. Of course, they sound better than the thin stuff you are getting out of your iPhone or your streamer or even from your CD player, but that’s not really the point. They are beautiful to hold and behold. They need care and attention.

You have to put them on the turntable holding them by the edges, making sure the needle is clear of dust or other rubbish. Then you have to listen because when the music stops you are going to have to lift the needle again and turn the record over. You have to handle them.

Our customers are largely, but by no means exclusively, male and come from all age groups. We had a promising year in 2018, and 2019 has not been bad so far, either. That trend has been true of new records, too, and the recent vinyl boom is hardly news.

In its February issue, Long Live Vinyl, the newer of two specialist record magazines (like Record Collector, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, it’s available on newsstands and digitally), noted that last year one in ten of all albums sold in the UK were on vinyl and more than 12,000 titles were released on the format over the year. The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) reported that 4.2 million albums were sold in the country, up only 1.6 per cent because pressing plants had reached capacity. By contrast, at vinyl’s lowest ebb, barely 200,000 albums were pressed (tending to make them more valuable on the second-hand market now, by the way).

Worldwide, more new records have been sold each year since 2010 or thereabouts; and in 2017 the total sale of vinyl topped $1 billion globally for the first time in the 21st century, according to Deloitte. Last year, sales rose by 12 per cent to almost 10 million albums. All this for a format that seemed done back in the early 1990s.

So why is this cumbersome 20th-century – analogue – technology thriving in the digital age? After all, you can stream almost any piece of music on your phone and listen on your headphones almost anywhere, anytime, anyhow, as The Who might have put it. True, the quality of the sound will probably be inferior to a properly set up record player but then you can’t carry that around with you and these days, convenience is all.

Or is it? Doug Putman, whose Canadian company Sunrise bought 100 of the 127 HMV stores for an undisclosed price in February, told the Financial Times: “Vinyl hits so many age demographics, it’s cool and retro, you have eight and nine-year-olds who grew up in the digital age coming in and wanting to buy it.” He plans to increase the emphasis on vinyl.

But all that is numbers and business. It misses the sheer love that a record can inspire. Not long ago, a mono copy of Revolver, one of the Beatles’ great masterpieces (oh yes it is) arrived in the shop. It was in fine condition and its famous cover, created by the band’s friend from their Hamburg days, Klaus Voormann, was pristine. The vinyl shone as if new despite the 50-odd years that had passed since its pressing.

Then we played it and there, at the end of side two, track seven, Tomorrow Never Knows, was a tiny snippet of piano that you won’t hear on the streamed version on your iPhone – and not just because its sound has been digitally compressed. Legend has it that when the album was released, John Lennon took his copy home, put it on his record deck and realised that the mix of Tomorrow Never Knows was the wrong one. He rang the record company and production was stopped while the right mix was added. But not before perhaps 600 copies (estimates vary) of the wrong version were pressed. 

What we had in our hands was one of those. Of course, we couldn’t stop talking about it in the shop and the record never even made it into the Beatles bin before somebody bought it for a lot of money. But we miss it every day.

A version of this article was first published by Tortoise in February 2019. You can find out about a new kind of slow news at www.tortoisemedia.com

Photograph by Carlotta Luke