Damn these bloody pop up record shops. The music retail equivalent of whac-a-mole, they pop up, they disappear, they pop up somewhere else. Foundations are not required and neither is regular custom. Like ships on castors, they pull into new and evermore exciting ports whenever the mood takes them. Or whenever the landlord throws them out. They float on the tide of life, paying no heed to trends nor trade. They…just…is.
A ten minute walk from the high street, through a bustling food market, is the kind of boisterous, North East London neighbourhood much favoured by hip new, youthful businesses – the vibe is edgy (especially at night) and thus, the rents are cheaper. The shop is tucked away from the street, up two flights of stairs. I arrive on a Sunday afternoon, passing it twice until finally convinced by Google Maps that, yes, you really have arrived at your destination. A chalk board quietly, formally declares, “We buy records. We sell records.”
The shop shares floor space with a busy cafe, within a community cultural centre and bar a few rubber plants, there’s scant separation between the two. Families are chatting over their Sunday roasts, kids squawk and play between the tables and benches. On my arrival, the guy behind the counter gives me the London hello, a short, sharp jerk of his head, before going back to his emails. I’m the only customer. There’s no music playing. The “vibe,” if there is one, is that of the cafe, not of the shop and I immediately find myself somewhat distracted.
Let’s see. Techno. Jazz. Soul. Electronic. I start there but recognise very few names. In the “EBM” section, ditto. No DAF, no Nitzer Ebb, no Front 242. I try the ‘Japan.’ There are, somewhat predictably, a few Sakamoto albums and I am no expert but the rest, obscure to me.
I must radiate trust – the guy behind the counter leaves the shop, I presume to piss and I am all alone with his laptop, the (digital?) cash register and several hundred records by artists I’ve never heard of. I persevere. The average price of a factory-sealed album here is between £25 and £35. Everything in the used section is well-thumbed. It’s only later, after a bit of Googling, that I discover that this particular store is quite literally founded on the proprietors’ record collections. They’re effectively selling their own tastes and hoping that others share them. It’s not a new idea – Geoff Travis started Rough Trade shops with the same one – but to sustain it not only takes a lot of hard work but compromise.
How many records does a shop have to sell a month in other to cover rent, utilities, tax, staff wages, stock, promotion, maintenance, etc? Obviously, where you are determines how much rent you pay and how busy you are determines how much staff you need. Here, in this community hall, the rent is undoubtedly split between the shop and the cafe. On quiet days, the proprietors perhaps take shifts behind the counter. There’s hi-fi equipment for sale too. The store has a Discogs page. There are occasional live events and record fairs. So, potentially, several streams of income to offset minimal overheads. The only issue is that stock – too niche, too personal. A few Cure albums wouldn’t go amiss. And hey, ‘Unknown Pleasures’ sells forever.
I thumb back through the racks one more time. Perhaps there’s something I’ve missed? A dizzying array of questions attack. Am I too old? Have I lost touch with new artists? Why is this all a blur to me? How do I get home from here? Frustratingly, I leave with nothing. On the stairs, I’m passed by two prospective customers, both young, good-looking, stylish. For all I know, this store could be a gold mine for them. But for me, sadly, a depleted quarry. Not every shop is for you and me. Sometimes, it’s for someone else and that’s what its intention was from the start. “We don’t want middle aged bearded baldies coming in here asking for Cluster records. We want hot young things who want to hang out, drink obscure craft beers and discuss the virtues of buftech.”