If pushed, I consider myself a decent bloke – courteous, presentable, occasionally even charming and on this particular occasion, I have a fair few London pounds burning a hole in my pocket. But all this is lost on the two guys behind the counter on my first visit to their seaside record shop, one I’ve made a laudable effort (a good two hours on various trains from my home) to visit.
“What?” snaps the little, bald one from behind his surgical mask. He glares at me, his tone, I imagine, similar to that in Wetherspoons immediately prior to a glassing.
“You’re playing A.R. Kane,” I repeat. “Cool.” (Their dreamy but patchy ‘i’ spins on the counter turntable).
The two of them continue to glare at me as if I’ve just told them I know their mothers a little too well.
“Can I see that Go-Betweens record on the wall, please?”
They are not happy. A customer has asked for something which requires them to not only turn around and locate an actual record and its inner sleeve but to potentially take the outer sleeve down from above head height.
As I remove the record from the inner sleeve and turn it over in my hands, above their masks, beady eyes follow my every move, like vultures awaiting the last gasp of a dying man. Luckily, I am well-versed in handling records, having worked in an establishment not unlike this (and just as unfriendly) for many years. I leave no fingerprints, I do not drop.
“I’ll take it.”
They seem surprised. Did they really think I, with these hot London pounds burning a hole in my wallet and a well-documented predilection for antipodean indie pop, was yanking their chain? Evidently.
Despite my find, it’s a soured experience. The shop is easy enough to locate, there’s a good balance of new and used records, the prices aren’t ridiculous (I see nothing “Discogs median”) and I’m actually tempted by a good few things. On the counterbalance, the best of their used records – the ones I’m most likely to spend my hard-earned cash on – are lower than knee height, so one has to get down on the floor to flick through them. I mean, I get it – that £3 Colourbox 12″ isn’t going to pay the rent but if you’re going to hide it away, you might as well not be selling it at all. And I just don’t have the knees.
As I exit, there is no goodbye and by now, I don’t expect one. There will never be an hello either. They have lost a customer.
Outside, my crate-digging friend and I make light entertainment of the experience, of course. If you run a record shop and don’t really want customers interrupting your conversations, you are, unwittingly, a joke.
Onwards. Along the seafront, anoraks zipped up tight to the wind, we are blown toward the next stop on our Google map, this one stamped with an impressive median of 4.9 stars by its regulars.
Situated on a grim, charmless street, dotted with the odd kebab takeaway and plumbing parts shops, the record store is marked by the obligatory box of £1 albums on the pavement, the stuff of charity shops. Beside it, a box of well-thumbed Uncut and Mojo magazines for 50p each. “Someone will want these,” I tell myself, unconvincingly.
A “back in 2 mins” sign bars the door, so we kill time in the nearby Army Surplus shop, the likes of which I haven’t frequented since the mid-80’s. I buy MOD-approved boots and socks. The staff are friendly, informative and probably able to kill us with just two fingers. 5 stars.
The 4.9, as we’ll call it, finally opens and we pile in. We don’t get far. It’s a small shop obviously overwhelmed by far too much stock. From the door, I can barely make out the figure behind the counter but a friendly, “Hello!” greets us as we inch our way in. On one side of the room, tightly stuffed racks – my bugbear. I pull out the first 10 or so records and lay them aside so that I can flick through the others and actually read the artists and titles. The rack dividers are vague. ‘American’ says one. ‘Male singer’ says another. Half the wall is taken with the genres that least interest me – jazz and soul/funk. This is going to be a tough one.
“If you want to hear anything, just let me know,” comes the voice behind the counter. At this stage, I would’ve preferred, “If you want to find anything, just let me know.”
Behind me, my companion sets about shifting a horizontally piled (!) mountain of random, unpriced vinyl from one heap to another. The Beatles mingle with Judy Tzuke, The Family Cat with Steel Pulse. It is, I know, some digger’s idea of heaven. For us though, it’s a chore and a bore. Friendly it may be but poor genre division, lack of prices and involuntarily physical exertion don’t make for a great record shop experience. We leave with nothing. The 4.9 is sunk by my 2.0 when I get home later that day.
The third and final stop on our coastal trek is a good 25 minutes walk out of town. Although only 4pm, it’s already threatening darkness but our way is lit by the bright lights of nail salons and chip shops.
We hesitate before going in – the window display is decidedly classic rock and given the name of the shop, we’re in no doubt that favour has been given over to the likes of The Beatles.
“Hello! Don’t mind the boxes on the floor! We’re getting ready for a record fair tomorrow!”
Plastic crates of outgoing stock bar the way to some of the racks but undeterred, we stride over them.
“Are you looking for anything in particular?” one of the jovial custodians asks, en route to lumbering crates out to his car.
“Postpunk/new wave?” I say. He nods the way to a rack clearly marked with such and I get stuck in. Unfortunately, I don’t recognise any of the artists or titles. In fact, it all looks decidedly “dancey.”
“You’ll have to get through the drum ‘n’ bass at the front first!” the proprietor informs me. I soldier on.
The stock is a mix of used and new vinyl, much of which is still in shrinkwrap but has been opened, signifying that most of it has probably been played at least once. Given that they’re technically Near Mint, new albums linger under the £20 mark or even lower. I pick up Warpaint’s first (double) album for £15. There are diamonds amongst the MOR rough. On the wall, behind the counter, a scattering of 7″‘s.
“Let me know if you want to hear anything!” Always a good thing to hear in a record shop.
I ask to see an early Elliott Smith Kill Rock Stars 7″. It’s not only a song I love but at £10 and 26 years old, I feel like I’m getting a good deal. At this point, sensing that my companion and I are in the mood to spend and most likely not from around these parts, the shop owner brightens up and becomes exceptionally chatty.
“Where are you from?”
I tell him I’ll give him £2 if he guesses correctly. He likes a challenge. “Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first. Not from the place beginning with ‘A’ then?”
“A?” I wonder. “Altrincham? Aberystwyth? Albuquerque?” It turns out he’s actually referring to Australia (my companion is an Aussie and he’s picked up on her accent).
“Nottingham,” I tell him.
“I’d never have guessed that!” he replies.
“That’s why I bet you £2,” I say.
Genuinely interested in these things, I ask him how business is. He tells me that running a secondhand record shop is “a licence to print money right now.” There’s a regular, seemingly endless supply of new stock – people are selling up all the time and the local record fairs are a great source of bargains.
With 3 or 4 records laid out on the counter, he cuts us a deal for the bundle – again, the sign of a good record shop. The only thing that’s missing is coffee. On the way out the door, he asks my name and shakes my hand. The first store we’d visited hadn’t even offered an hello.
It’s one thing to be encouraged to support your local record stores or else lose them but this must cut both ways – the record store should surely support the customer just as much. Turning up to a store and being ignored or dealt with rudely, doesn’t make you want to go back there. As previously mentioned, I worked in a record store for a few years and I’m well aware that a greeting for everyone that walks in the door isn’t always possible – staff are often busy and some counters are a fair distance from the door. I’m not one for saturation – the English generally don’t like being asked if they need help more than once – but social interaction undoubtedly has an impact on whether a customer returns to your store. Rudeness, likewise.
Years ago, I worked in a record shop with a guy called…let’s call him Jeff because Jeff was his actual name. Jeff didn’t much like customers (unless they were his mates). Customers interfered with Jeff’s job, you see and Jeff’s job was buying records cheaply and selling them for a tidy profit. Occasionally, things would get rather heated between Jeff and some customers, on account of him being short or just downright nasty with them. Occasionally, those customers might lean over the counter and punch Jeff in the face. Jeff didn’t last long. And as you might expect, post-Jeff, the shop not only became a nicer place to work but custom greatly increased.
Recently, on my debut visit to one London record store, within a few minutes of arriving, I’d been offered a coffee by the guy behind the counter. I’m not, by any means, suggesting stores should have a pot on the go at all times but it’s these little gestures that make me feel like we’re all in this together, that the store recognises the value of a pleasant crate-digging experience. Frankly, give me a decent coffee and I’ll probably spend at least fifty quid.
If the racks are overstuffed, I’ll spend less time in store. It’s common sense that a customer needs to read what they’re flicking through. If they have to remove records in order to flick through the rest, your racks are too stuffed. Yes, a lot of stock may give the impression that you’ve got much to offer but if I have to work to find something, I’ll most likely give up within a few minutes and go elsewhere.
My favourite record stores are heavy on genre division (and Joy Division). It’s not difficult to break “Dance” down into sub-categories. Same for jazz, pop, rock, punk, etc. Breaking sections down by decades is always a good move. Vague genres like ‘American’ and ‘Female singer’ suggest that a store just wants to rack quickly and not efficiently. The best record shops I’ve visited have even broken some stock down into record labels – Rough Trade, Mute, Creation, 4AD, etc. Again, you can cut straight to my fifty quid by doing this.
I’ve decided to keep the identities of these particular records stores a secret, though anyone very familiar with the ones in question will probably deduce who they are. I consider it just as important to discuss how record shops are getting it wrong as much as they’re getting it right. Ultimately, a record owner will run his/her shop however they think best but it doesn’t mean they’re right.
My thoughts on pricing and condition in a separate post!