On any given weekend, it’s not unusual for me to visit up to five or six record shops. Here, in London, there’s still an abundance, although, unlike when I first arrived here in 1994, Berwick Street in Soho is no longer the discerning collector’s main destination. A suburbanite, I live in the South East but I’ll gladly endure over an hour on two or three trains to visit Alan’s Records in East Finchley, up in N2, or wander even deeper South, to Wanted Music, down in Beckenham. And yet, despite spending hours treading the map, as was the case today, it’s not so rare that I can come away without a single record. I suspect this dejection is akin to supporting a football team who play perfectly decently for the whole ninety minutes but the end result is still 0-0. The Germans must have a word for it.
The lure of the record store is a magical thing, a neon light that silently beckons one across the city. Record shops thrive on compulsion, that record collectors like myself are invariably either excitedly looking to plug a gap in their collections, or to discover something new that might just open a door, even change their lives. We instinctively know that the racks of, particularly secondhand stores, change frequently, so there’s always a replenishment of mystery. And thus, we keep coming back, like virgins to a school disco.
My average time spent in store is probably only around the 10 minute mark and during that time, I can usually exhaust my preferred genre sections : new wave, post-punk, ambient, electronic, modern composition, avant garde, industrial, new releases, even goth. The soul, jazz, funk, dance, reggae sections, I leave unruffled. I am here for what I know, for names that have a familiarity, for – and perhaps here is the problem – surefire bets. With the average vinyl record in the UK costing anywhere from £21 new to £150 plus for something much rarer, unless one has a large disposable income, we take few chances.
Several years ago, I found myself at a party in Notting Hill, where my friend and I were the English minority. The rest, Japanese, mostly in their early 20’s, most on six month sabbaticals from their real lives. Some of the guys in this group had been out record shopping that day and were keen to get the thumbs up from us as to whether their vinyl hauls were cool or not (at the time, my friend worked as a photographer for NME and I was label managing at Rough Trade Records so, I suppose those credentials implied we might have at least a modicum of good taste). What struck me, however, about their purchases was not what they bought but how much. They had carrier bags bursting with records, buying between five and ten records at any one shop. Years of saving up had culminated in this one, feverish sweep. I envied them their passion, one that I’d obviously lost somewhere along the line.
At most, I’ve probably only ever bought four records, maximum, during a record shopping trip. Invariably, I’ll buy just one or two. But five out of ten times, I’ll come back with absolutely nothing. Have I reached an age and a point where I really don’t need any more records? To paraphrase the late, great Derek Jarman : won’t the ones I already have see me out of this life?
I’ve been flicking through record racks since I was a teenager but back then, my pace was much, much slower. Then, the band names were invariably unfamiliar to me. It was a whole new world. I was fascinated by sleeve designs, by the way “pop stars” looked on the covers, their hair, their clothes, their faces, their bodies. But the records I buy now are invariably faceless, impressionistic. It’s rare that an artist I like will actually be on the cover of their own record. Some (and I, too, have frequently been guilty of this), don’t even put their names on the front. These days, I flick through at the pace of the knowing – most names will be familiar to me and thus, I already have their records or know not to buy them. The other names, the new bands, well, I will invariably pass them by unless I’ve heard something I liked on Bandcamp, Spotify or elsewhere.
Then why go to record shops at all? Again, as we did when we were kids, collecting Panini football stickers, we want the full set. I want every Felt record. I want every Durutti Column record. I want every Harold Budd record. These are my things – the artists that bring me joy, the ones that have (so far) soundtracked my life. And although I’m well aware that I’m missing out on a million new experiences – be they jazz, reggae, soul or funk – I’m perfectly contented with my limitations.