Searching for the perfect record shop (Pt 4) : World Of Echo interview

It’s fortuitous (at least for my wallet) that my favourite London record shops are at least an hour from my house. One of them, World Of Echo, pointedly named after the Arthur Russell album, is nestled amidst the decidedly bourgeois gift stores and gastropubs of Columbia Road, home to “the world famous flower market.” It may seem an odd location for a record shop that specialises in esoteric, leftfield albums but a few minutes walk in either direction, there’s Shoreditch, Hackney and Broadway Market – all much frequented by artists, students and musicians.

I arrive on a lovely Spring, Friday afternoon during the school run and so, directly adjacent, a sizeable queue of patient parents snakes along the wall of the local primary. Inside World Of Echo, co-founder, Stephen Pietrzykowski, chinks beers with friend and regular customer, William Doyle (formerly known as Mercury Prize-nominated East India Youth and now recording under his own name for Pietrzykowski’s Tough Love label).

Glen : So it’s just you and (co-founder) Natalie (Judge) running the shop?

Stephen : It’s solely us two.  We are life partners, as well as in work.  In the first year of the shop, I had a job but that slowly became untenable.  So, this is basically what we do now.  There’s labels connected with it too.  There’s the shop label (World Of Echo) and my own label (Tough Love) which predates this by something like 16 years now.  There will be someone starting to work with us in the shop pretty soon because right now, we can’t even go on holiday.  He’s one of our friends and he’s a musician, which is good, so he’s going to be doing a few shifts. 

Did you come from a record shop background?

Stephen : I never worked in a record shop in my life.  Natalie worked in HMV when she was at university.  She used to run Matador Records and I basically had exactly the same job but for Fat Possum (American indie label).  And I’d previously worked for 4AD as well.  Prior to that, I was in academia and that was music culture-related stuff, so it’s been in the blood for a long time. 

Are you from London?

Stephen : No, from Coventry and Natalie’s from Rugby, although we met in London, so we’re Midlands rejects. 

Spacemen 3 country…

Stephen : Yeah, Pete Kember’s mum lives about five doors down from where Natalie’s parents live.  Jason (Pierce of Spacemen 3/Spiritualised) still comes in here.  He called me the other day about something he’d seen in the window. 

I was going to ask whether you had any notable regulars….

Stephen : John Coxon (Spiritualised/Spring Heel Jack) comes in.  And he’s got his own amazing record shop (Atlantis in Hackney).  Lawrence from Felt.  Jarvis (Cocker) has been in.  Bobby Gillespie’s been in.  We had a bag of Bobby’s clothes in that cupboard for about six months and then a woman came in and said, “I’m here to get Bobby’s clothes.”  I had no idea they were in this cupboard.  I went through it and his leather trousers were in there. 

From his Creation days?

Stephen : Yeah!  I should’ve sold those.  First pressing. 

Will : First trouser pressing! 

Stephen : I suppose Jarvis is the biggest name.  And our friend who was working with Brian Eno – though Brian didn’t actually come in the shop – he had a picture of one of our stickers which said, “Ambient is a lie” and he put it on his cabinet and posed with it.  Liam Gallagher actually posted the shop on his Instagram as well, so that was pretty cool.  Liam’s fiancée is one of Natalie’s oldest friends.  Lots of connections.  A lifetime in music sort of leads you to this. 

If someone had never been to the shop before, how would you describe what kind of stuff you sell? 

Stephen : I’d say it’s esoterica really.  You see where we are? You see this road outside? On a Sunday, there’s a world famous flower market, so there’s a very affluent footfall.  We could just put Amy Winehouse or Taylor Swift records in the window and you’d sell thousands or whatever but I have absolutely zero interest in that.  When you work for labels, as great as they are, you’re at the behest of what the people who run it want to do.  Big indies are now tied into this system that’s actually kind of slow moving.  It’s not connected with how music appears, manifests itself – they can’t respond to it.  So, the idea was : if we open a shop, we want to do it our way.  We don’t want to take the path of least resistance.  When we started out, we could’ve taken the easy way out by saying, “What’s on the (BBC) 6 Music playlist?  Let’s just sell that.”  That’s an easy win but as I say, we’ve got zero interest in it. 

In here, there will be records you know.  For instance, there’s a Floating Points record, which we’ll sell a lot of and I’m not particularly interested in it but it’s got Pharaoh Sanders on it, so it’s alright by me.  There are My Bloody Valentine records, which are obviously not that obscure but we wanted to open a shop where, if you were visiting London or whatever and you walked in and you’d think, “Did someone open this shop especially for me?”

That’s actually what I thought the first time I walked in here.

Stephen : Cool!  That’s good!  There are many people like me and like you out there.  I was talking to Will earlier about how every time he comes in, he hears something playing on the stereo and he’s, like, “I have to write this down.” 

Will : I know that it’s always part of the universe that I want to get involved in.  That’s the point of the record shop, isn’t it?  To hear new things.

Stephen : Yeah, you gain something.  It’s a cultural experience.  Genre-wise, there’s quite a bit of jazz but I’m not exactly an aficionado.  I’m not musical at all, so I can talk about feeling rather than form.  There’s very little classic rock.  We really start with art-rock stuff, krautrock, Popol Vuh outwards and then post-punk, a lot of DIY stuff, minimal wave, early electronic stuff, all the way up to ‘80s indie, which I love.  Shoegaze is cool but I really like Jangle Pop.  I really like (New Zealand label) Flying Nun.  And then anything that falls between the cracks, where you’re like, “I don’t know where to put this.  Have I got to make another section for this?” 

I mean, I love The Rolling Stones but we’ve never had a Rolling Stones record in here.  Does London need another record shop that sells Rolling Stones records?  I hate The Beatles anyway, and do you need to have another record shop with ‘Sgt Peppers’ on the wall?  No judgement but that’s already well catered for.  We just tried to make something that didn’t already exist. 

When you started this shop, were there other shops that you took inspiration from? 

Stephen : Well, if you’re a music fan, you’ve spent your life in record shops, so you’ve gained an idea just by osmosis I suppose.  There was a turning point when Natalie was fatigued by working at Matador, where she had some negative experiences at the end and we went on a long trip to America.  New York is amazing for record shops but it was going to San Francisco that was more inspirational.  Do you know Stranded record shop?  Those guys also do Superior Viaduct – amazing re-issue stuff – and we just thought it was so cool.  It’s like Will was saying, you come in and you get a cultural experience.  “What the fuck is this playing?  I’ve been in here for an hour and I’ve heard five things that I didn’t even know existed.” 

So that was great.  And Berlin has always been good.  You know the bar Wowsville? And out the back, there’s this punk/hardcore shop with flyers like the ones we’ve got on the wall here (Black Flag, Minor Threat, etc) and it’s like a universe you want to escape into.  Also, to be fair, Low Company, when it was here, was a window to another world.  Second Layer as well, that used to be up in Archway/Highgate.  Those record shops where you were like, “What even is this music?”  So, I guess it’s the influence of all of those things. 

One of the things I like about World Of Echo is that you walk in and everything is in order and easy to find.  I like a bit of crate digging but I generally find messy record shops too taxing. 

Stephen : Yeah, we didn’t want to be like a charity shop.  We wanted people to come in and think, “There’s only fifty records here but every one of them is interesting.”  In other shops, it’s like, “There’s Dire Straits, there’s fucking Fleetwood Mac, there’s Paul Young or something like that, for two pounds…” Records that are melted down to make fruit bowls on Brick Lane; where they have the actual record, without the sleeve, stuck to the wall! 

Why don’t you sell CDs?

Stephen : I think we’ve only ever had three CDs in the shop.  Like you, I once had thousands of CDs and there’s nothing wrong with them but I don’t get excited about CDs in the same way I get excited about vinyl records.  Maybe it’s purely a physical aesthetic thing?  I guess it’s the manifestation of some kind of fetish – commodity fetishism in a way – but the first pressing always sounds better and feels better.  And quite simply, CDs just don’t sell for us.  And now, because it’s so hard to get records made, these micro-labels are pivoting back to CDs because it’s more practical to do it. 

And cassettes…

Stephen : Exactly.  With cassettes, we’ll easily sell five to ten of any given release. 

What do you think has driven the renaissance in vinyl and cassettes in the past few years? 

Stephen : I think it’s an aesthetic thing.  Rock culture has its own accelerated interior history.  It is, by definition, a post-modern form and things like Elvis and The Beatles and The Stones represent the modernist point and that idea of it comes with an authenticity.  I think that vinyl is a signifier of some sort of authentic moment that people want to retreat to.  I think it’s an authentic expression of fandom to consume it in that way.  But we’ve been cultivating this for twenty years.  We can’t just switch back to CDs. 

Some guy came in this morning and he said, “What’s this?  Is it on vinyl?” and I said, “No, it’s on a mixtape” and he said, “Oh, that’s a shame because I would’ve bought it if it was on vinyl.”  I said, “You can buy it on tape” but he wasn’t having it. 

How do you procure your stock?  There suddenly seems to be a lot of people keen to sell their record collections….

Stephen : That’s increasing all the time as well. 

That Brian Eno sticker thing was seen by this older academic and he’s got everything archived digitally.  He sent me a list of every title he was selling – Hassell, Budd, Eno, everything – and we drove all the way down to Cornwall before we realised the car wasn’t big enough to get it all in.  These things sometimes just fall in your lap or sometimes someone will come in and want to trade thirty records for store credit.  People die, people are downsizing and sometimes people have just fallen out of love with it.  They suddenly feel less connected to it.  I’ve never felt that I’d get to the point but like you, I never thought I’d sell all my CDs until I actually sold them.  I only kept fifty or so. 

Do you miss any of them?

Stephen : I don’t have a CD player.  I’ve got nowhere to play them.  There’s only the odd CD where the material isn’t available elsewhere.  There’s some Go-Betweens CDs that Beggars did that have radio sessions on…I kept some American lo-fi stuff.  Silver Jews was another.  I was thinking, “Can I sell ‘The Natural Bridge’ even though I’ve got it on vinyl?”  That CD must be this thin now (puts thumb and finger together).  I’ve played it to death. 

How do you arrive at your buy price and your sell price? 

Stephen : If there’s a massive collection, I average it out.  I know that some of the records are only worth a couple of quid and some are worth, say, fifty quid.  So, you average it out and if you’re transparent about it, you generally get a better response.  I don’t want to mislead anyone.  I’m not Del Boy. 

In terms of what you sell it for – if you go on Discogs and someone’s paid £150 for a record, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth £150.  It’s just worth £150 to that one person who bought it.  Try and look at the median, how available the record is.  There might be a record that’s only ever sold for twenty quid but you literally cannot get it anymore, so is it worth a hundred or is it worth a thousand?  I like to make it so that people don’t come in and think, “Wow, they really pushed that to the limit!”  I want them to think, “I wasn’t expecting to see that for thirty quid.” 

Do you get people coming in and opening Discogs on their phones to compare prices? 

Stephen : All the time!  I don’t mind people doing it to check whether it’s a certain pressing but when they do, “It’s cheaper on Discogs than it is in here,” I tell them, “Well, you know you have to get that posted to you, don’t you?  And it might not be in the condition they say it’s in.”  Discogs is a great tool but in the wrong hands…if used incorrectly, it can be very toxic. 

Some people buy new releases from us and then they go on Discogs to flip it.  We know who they are, so we limit them to buying one copy of anything new.  Sometimes it’s quite funny when they buy something to flip and I know they’re not going to be able to sell it.  So, on those ones, I allow it.  Even with records I put out on my own label, I sell it to someone and within an hour it’s on Discogs for a stupid price, “mint condition,” etc.  They’re just subverting the market.  It’s free market capitalism, but what are you gonna do? 

One thing that particularly impresses me about WoE are the little narratives you write about each record.  You obviously spend time with the records and put effort into those descriptions.  I don’t know of another record that takes so much care with their sales pitches.  They’re really well written.  Do people respond to those narratives?

Stephen : I think they do more than we realise.  It’s really flattering.  I get quite shy about it in fact.  It’s a lot of work.  We have a mailing list that goes out on a Friday morning and I usually write it all on a Wednesday, listen to the records, etc but last Wednesday, I got logged out of Mailchimp and I lost it all, 4000 words, so I had to rewrite it all, from memory, in two hours.  A very stressful day. 

Today has been a very slow Friday.  Middle of the month, lovely weather.  But when the mailout goes out, we usually get loads of sales immediately and that’s such an amazing feeling because you feel that all the effort was worth it.  But then again, it can be a rollercoaster.  When you don’t sell anything, you think, “Urgh!  Why did I bother?” 

Do you still read the music press or like me, did you give up on it a long time ago?

Stephen : Why did you give up?

Because I stopped believing it. 

Stephen : And now it’s easy to find out if they’re lying or not!  You just go online and click on a link!

Maybe that’s what pushed me over the edge? I felt I didn’t need someone else’s opinion anymore.

Stephen : I think people trust record shops now more than they trust the music press.  Record shops have a really strong narrative around them.  You know the dinked thing?  We sold loads of records on the day of announcement.  You’ve got 28 shops Instagraming and Facebooking about your records and people buy it all straight away.  It’s an endorsement and even though that endorsement is perhaps a little more dishonest than an objective music press review because they’re trying to flog you something, a music press review is often just a rehashing of a press release or they could’ve been taken out for dinner by the label.  If it’s on one of the big indies, then The Guardian are gonna review but if it’s on my label, they aren’t even going to listen to it.  For most journalists, being on a big label is shorthand for quality but really it’s just laziness.     

I think this is why your narratives work so well.  They’re descriptive.  There’s no hard sell. 

Stephen : The way the narratives came about was that a poet friend of mine in Berlin told me, “You’ve posted about some really interesting records but what the fuck are they?  I know you can write so write.  Do the work.”  And as soon as I quit my job, I buckled down and did it.  And as soon as those narratives started coming out, we saw a big increase in sales because they helped give us a sense of identity. 

People travel to the shop from all over the world. My friend, Matthew, who used to work for Design Republic, executes all our design ideas.  He’s great with the fine details.  I don’t want it to look like a record shop from the 1980s or something.  It’s contemporary but timeless at the same time. 

What would you say your demographic is? 

Stephen : Men.  A lot of men.  I’m being slightly facetious.  Whilst there are a lot of men, there are women too. But it’s men who tend to gravitate toward the weirder, esoteric shit.  If you’re selling weird underground records from Gothenburg or whatever, there’s a particular kind of person who goes for that stuff and it’s usually men, right?  Because there’s something a bit murky and off-putting to women I think.  Probably rightly so.  But we do get a lot of young people, male and female coming in, particularly for things like jazz.  Even though I’m basically about to be really old, well middle-aged, I always assume that everyone’s about the same age as me, although there might be 20 years of experience between you and the person you’re serving.  These people come in and they’re looking for something that you can’t just pick up on Youtube or whatever.  You’re actually an arbiter, or gatekeeper and young people do respond to that. 

On a Sunday, it’s a bit taxing.  You get people who just want to come in and take selfies or whatever. 

I was going to ask about that.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of being smack in the middle of Columbia Road? 

Stephen : Well, status.  You just print that (“Columbia Road”) on a bag and people want to buy it.  Natalie’s mum was in Sainsburys in Rugby last week and there was a t-shirt that said, “Columbia Road Flower Market” on it.  And Natalie identified that when we first opened : put the address on the bags because people want to go back to Asia, America or whatever with evidence that they’ve been to Columbia Road. 

Like Portobello Road?

Stephen : Exactly.  The disadvantage is that you get a lot of people coming in who don’t know what it (the shop) is.  For my sins, I’m a bit of a class warrior and I get irritated by entitlement and we do get a lot of that.  Some of the questions we get : “Are people still buying these things?”  A woman came in with a young child who was asking, “Mummy, what are these?” and she said, “Don’t be silly – they’re calendars.”  It was June!  We’re a calendar shop in the middle of June?  It’s just so stupid.  “Look at this Popol Vuh calendar!  It’s just what I’ve always wanted!” 

I’d quite like a Popol Vuh calendar….

Stephen : Me too! 

At this point, we wander down the alley of tactile-music-formats-versus-digital. 

Stephen : What the history of the internet teaches us is that everything has a limited life span.  Ten years ago, nobody could imagine a world without Myspace.  And now, everything that was uploaded there has gone forever.  That will happen to Facebook and Instagram and even Spotify.  But this (vinyl) will still be here.  Unless you break it or snap it or whatever.  There’s a bit of a misnomer about vinyl breaking too.  CDs decay quicker than vinyl does. 

How did you survive the lockdowns last year?

Stephen : Well, it was particularly bleak for us because my dad died of COVID right at the start.  That was April 2020, so we closed the shop.  And then Natalie’s dad got really ill about two weeks after my dad died, so it was just pure survival mode.  But I think we got through with good will.  A lot of things started to disappear and people started not to take things for granted anymore.  I also think record shops became better as a result of the absence.  

What’s your policy if a record simply doesn’t sell?

Stephen : They will sell.  We don’t do sales.  I don’t really like sales because I think music is undervalued anyway.  Spotify and the internet have destroyed the value of music and I think people now expect things to be cheap or even free.  When you start saying “sale,” you put in people’s minds that something was too expensive in the first place.  I don’t think thirty quid for a record is expensive when you pay four quid for a coffee or seven quid for a pint.  And those things last you five minutes. 

I think people often forget how much blood, sweat and tears goes into writing, recording, designing records, etc.   

Stephen : And artists these days are expected to make a record a year.  The anxiety that that must instill in an artist – that you have to constantly produce – is terrible. The way that DSPs are set up is that they favour continuous uploads of content.  You have to be feeding them every month.  What has that got to do with art?  It’s got nothing to do with art but everything to do with commerce and consumerism, which are just fabricated habits anyway.  The falsehood of that I find to be against the way we consume and make music in general.  The culture and the way the culture is promoted are so far apart I think. 

When people come in and say, “What do you recommend?” I want to say, “Literally everything.” Because that’s why it’s in here.  But if something doesn’t sell, it’s because the right person hasn’t come in here yet. 

How did you get into music? 

Stephen : I remember sitting in this art class and you were allowed to play music.  And it was always the girls that played the interesting music.  This one time, they put the radio on and ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ came on and I said, “What the fuck is this?” and they said, “What do you mean?”   It was, like, the fourth single or something from Oasis’ second album.  And I didn’t know who Oasis were, even though they were literally the biggest band in the world at that time.  And I thought, “What else am I missing?”  Whereas everyone else stopped with Oasis and Nirvana, I started there.  And then I just went out and bought everything.  The first music I ever liked was hip hop.  I had ‘The Best Rap Album In The World Ever’ double CD and I knew every word of it.  I loved it.  Hip hop felt alien and  but with Oasis, I thought, “This is happening here and now”  Then it was Mogwai and Belle & Sebastian, then Pavement and Silver Jews.  I spiraled off into the American underground.  Really into the Chemikal Underground stuff, went to the first ATP (All Tomorrow’s Parties festival) when I was still at school.  John Peel told me to fuck off there.  I was watching The Delgados, who I loved but I was complaining because it was sounding so bad and he said, “Why don’t you just fuck off then?”  It was a badge of honour really! 

World Of Echo can be found at 128 Columbia Rd, London E2 7RG and opens Thurs – Sunday.

Thank you to Stephen, Natalie and Will.

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