Vinyl words farewell to the record shop

For half a century they've been a refuge for beatniks, a safe haven for misfits, truants, rebels and romantics. They've shaped the lives of teenagers and put many of the world's greatest bands on the road to success. But the times, they are a-changing - and record shops are fading away. Chris Maume sings the blues
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The Independent Culture

I guess you'd call it a rite of passage: taking the train into Liverpool city centre after school in Crosby and heading for Virgin's minuscule emporium in Bold Street. We'd heard that you could get stoned in there simply by breathing in.

We were a band, of sorts, still in thrall to The Beatles, who'd only split up a year or so before, and the Virgin shop felt like a living chunk of the Sixties and all that decade stood for. Along with the News From Nowhere bookshop, this was the counterculture with a Mersey beat. Others remember scatter cushions and protracted stoner debates; I simply recall a tiny space crammed with records.

Perhaps there was an inner sanctum to which we, acned and bum-fluffed, were denied access. When we breathed in it wasn't dope smoke assailing our nostrils, but it was just as heady.

Record shops, particularly the poky ones run by the town Cool Guy, have always been safe havens for the out-of-step, the drummers of a different beat; or just the place to go to get the stuff that didn't register on WH Smith's pathetically weak radar.

My first purchase from Richard Branson's Bold Street broom cupboard was a Ravi Shankar LP, which doesn't deserve the indignity, 35 years on, of being stashed in the Maume family cellar. It awaits resurrection on a midlife-crisis record player to be bought as soon as the 'where are on earth are you going to put it?' question has been resolved.

Twenty miles up the coast, in my home town of Southport, Town Records was the place for kindred spirits, coming into its own when punk crashed on to the streets. And though it didn't have the same cutting-edge cachet, there was Record Supermarket on the corner of Princess Street, where a pound would get you three singles, all with the plastic middles that signified a previous existence inside a jukebox. And it was de rigueur to spend Saturday afternoons hanging out among the second-hand bargains and garage-band imports at Discount Discs in Anchor Street. It's a garage now.

Sometimes, the town Cool Guy wasn't cool at all; he was a superior taste fascist unable to make a sale without a sneer. The High Fidelity movie, with Jack Black's obnoxious Barry, had it right: some record shop assistants possessed a scarily intimately knowledge of the products they were selling, and had every disc in the store firmly ensconced in a mental league table. The extent of the lip curl that accompanied the transaction depended on where your purchase ranked in his internal hierarchy.

Not that, in any way whatsoever, am I still smarting from an encounter in a shop in Newcastle 27 years ago.

My hero Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, had hanged himself in May 1980, and a couple of months later the band's second album Closer came out. In the North-east at the time, I went into a friendly looking store in the town centre, picked out the LP in its sombre white sleeve, and went to the counter.

The top lip curled; the nostrils, scenting blood, flared. 'And are you buying this because he's just killed himself, then?' enquired the dolt whose face still flashes past the mind's eye in idle moments. Because it wasn't a question, a request for information, a passing of the time of day. It was a man-trap. I've got my speech ready now.

It goes: 'What kind of a stupid question is that? If I say, 'Yes, I'm only buying it out of morbid curiosity,' you'll sneer and say, 'Yeah, I thought so.' And if I say, 'No, actually, I've been into Joy Division since I saw them on Granada Reports nearly two years ago and it's entirely coincidental that the album is coming out a few weeks after Ian Curtis committed suicide,' you'll sneer and say, 'Yeah, right, that's what they've all been saying.'

'So I can only conclude that you're asking the question in order to be able to sneer, which makes me think that in order to justify the fact that you've got a dead-end job with no prospects in a poxy little record shop, you're forced to assert your soi-disant musical and moral superiority over your customers, you nonce. Now could you just do your job and sell me the record, please?'

Mmm, that feels good. Twenty-seven years. That's told him at last, presuming that he reads The Independent.

Instead, you will deduce, I mumbled something about being a fan, endured the 'Yeah, right' treatment while he took my money, and then skulked away.

But swines - swines! - like that aren't the reason record shops are going under all over the place. Blame the internet and supermarkets. In 2004, there were 774 'independent specialist' shops in Britain, as classified by the Entertainment Retailers' Association. In 2005, there were 10 fewer; last year, there were 578. Nearly 200 stores vanished in two years. The ERA estimates that half of the country's music stores have gone in the past 10 years. When I was a student in Birmingham in the late 1970s, there were nine independent record shops; now there are two.

In 2003, we spent just over £2bn on recorded music. Last year, it was less than £1.7bn. At the end of last month Fopp, the small independent chain that always kept a good stock of vinyl, was the latest casualty.

And big boys do cry: HMV, wrestling with a 73 per cent drop in profits, choked over buying Virgin and plans to sell off the Japanese end of its business. 'Our markets are changing profoundly,' HMV's understandably concerned chief executive Simon Fox said. 'Entertainment is being generated and consumed in entirely different ways.'

The Irish power trio Ash are exploring one of those entirely different ways. From now on, they say, they'll only be releasing downloadable singles - none of that boring old album rubbish, except for periodic compilations. Their last physical CD, Twilight of the Innocents, which came out earlier this month, will stand for ever in the Ash discography as a relic of an obsolete culture.

Worldwide, we downloaded 795 million tracks last year (up 89 per cent on 2005) from around 500 legal online sellers in 40 countries. And in January, downloads became the second-most popular singles format in the UK, behind CDs. Globally, digitally delivered music nearly doubled in sales to about £1bn in 2006. A hefty wedge, but not enough to reach what the music companies call their 'Holy Grail' - when download revenue makes up for the fall in CD revenue.

Is there anygood news? When it's not waging war on pirates round the world, the IFPI - the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry - likes to know who's buying what where, and it has come to the rescue with the cheery announcement that Britain rules the roost in the CD department, heading the league table for the fourth year running. Apparently, we bought 2.7 CDs each last year, way ahead of Norway and the United States in joint second place with 2.1.

The ERA is trying its damnedest to act as standard bearers for UK music shops. 'The rise of downloading in the singles market may have captured the headlines over the past couple of years, but when it comes to albums, UK music fans still overwhelmingly prefer the convenience and flexibility of physical formats,' the ERA's director general Kim Bayley said recently. 'Digital still accounts for less than one-twelfth of the UK music market.'

And, according to the ERA, there's a greater choice of music in UK record shops than on the whole of the internet - the association says it found 110,000 different products in high-street music stores, and 90,000 online. Whether that's still the case a year or two from now is another matter.

Magical things can happen among the second-hand thrash imports, the Japanese new wave white labels and the leading lights of the grindcore scene. In 1988, Billy Corgan met James Iha in a Chicago record shop, and in short order Smashing Pumpkins burst upon the world.

In the late 1970s, Greig Norton and Grant Hart were working in a store in Minneapolis when a student called Bob Mould came in looking for indie records he couldn't find at home in Malone, New York. Husker Dü were soon in business making a magnificent and seminal noise.

Not famous enough? Well, Peter Buck was a clerk at the Wuxtry record store on College and Clayton in Athens, Georgia in the late 1970s. In walked a student called Michael Stipe… Always full of possibilities, record shops work for filmmakers, too. In Clockwork Orange, Alex has a three-way liaison with two young de-votchkas he meets in one, while Woody Allen places one of the key conversations in Hannah and Her Sisters in another. In Vivre sa vie, in which Anna Karina plays a shop assistant, bored and beautiful, Jean-Luc Godard pulls one of his 'this is a film and you are the viewer' tricks as she talks to someone, emphasising the camera's movements as he tracks, uncut, back and forth between the two faces.

Arguably the only decent scene in the clubbers' film Human Traffic is set in the store where Shaun Parkes' character Koop, the one who is obsessively jealous of his girlfriend, works in a record shop. A bunch of hoodies slide across the floor to the counter.

'Any jungle in, guy?'

'I've got the Tarzan and Jane of jungle, just swung in on the vine this morning,' he informs them as he slides a record out and puts it on the turntable with a flourish while holding their gaze. 'I'm telling you, this could turn Hare Krishna into a bad boy.'

The definitive record-shop movie, of course, is Stephen Frears' adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity. In John Cusack's rundown store, he says, 'young men spend their time looking for deleted Smiths singles and original - original, mind you, not re-released - Frank Zappa albums.' And I reckon Jack Black, who played the maniac muso shop clerk Barry, must have bought a record from my friend in Newcastle some time.

'Holy shi-ite,' he says as he walks in, pronouncing it like the religion. 'What the fuck is that?'

The new Belle and Sebastian, he's informed. 'It's the record we've been listening to and enjoying, Barry,' Cusack's character tells him.

'Well, that's unfortunate,' says Black, ripping it out of the cassette player and putting on his own mixtape, 'because it sucks ASS!'

No Barrys for me any more, no jumped-up Geordies (swine). Nowadays, I confess, I'm an Amazon addict of several years' standing, all the way down to my one-click button finger. I'm sorry, but it's so quick, so easy. It literally takes seconds, from the moment the thought occurs that you can't live without the latest White Stripes or Mud's 1974 debut album Mud Rock, to that one simple click. I can hear something on the radio and a highly paid operative can be taking it off a shelf in some godforsaken warehouse somewhere before the track's finished, or so I fondly imagine.

Sure, there's the wait for it to arrive. In the old days, the anticipatory pleasure was on the way to the shop - the records you already knew you wanted to buy, and the ones you hadn't met yet. Now, it's waiting for the sound of a small cardboard package tumbling through the letterbox. Perhaps the crucial difference lies in those unknowns, the albums you buy just because the cover looks good or the name of the band is intriguing. Sure, you can browse online, but you can't finger the merchandise.

Still, the last time I went into a record shop must have been some time last year. HMV in Canary Wharf, I think it was. I went in for a DVD for a last-minute birthday present and somehow came out with Motown meets The Beatles for myself as well. I must have inadvertently wandered over to the music section. Old habits sometimes die hard.

My stepdaughter Charlotte, who's 13 years old, last went into one about three years ago, she thinks. She's not allowed to have iTunes, and I'm not entirely sure how she fills her iPod - best not to know - but she also gets a lot of what she needs from the surfers' paradise of MySpace and YouTube, as well as the pop channels on Freeserve.

She also watched the last instalment of the BBC's Seven Ages of Rock the other week, which centred on The Smiths, as it happens, the last great British band to strut their stuff in revolutions per minute.

Afterwards, she asked me if we had anything by them. 'Only on vinyl in the cellar,' I told her.

She looked puzzled. 'Vinyl?' she asked. 'What's vinyl?'

Indie stores still flying the flag

The Record Shak 69 Clerk Street, Edinburgh, 0131-667 7144

Dub Vendor 150 Ladbroke Grove, London W10, 020-8969 3375

Piccadilly 53 Oldham Street, Manchester, 0161-839 8008

Rough Trade 16 Neal's Yard, London WC2, 020-7240 0105; 130 Talbot Road, W11, 020-7229 8541

Bath Compact Discs 11 Broad Street, Bath, 01225 464 766

The Record Album 8 Terminus Road, Brighton, 01273 323 853

Spillers 36 The Hayes, Cardiff, 02920 224 905

JG Windows 1-7 Central Arcade, Newcastle, 0191-232 1356

Harold Moores 2 Great Marlborough Street, London W1, 020-7437 1576

Lamb CD Shop soon to be Micklegate Records 89 Micklegate, York , 01904 625 482

It used to be here... Our Top 50 shops revisited

In June 2003, The Independent ran our selection 50 best record stores in the country. Four years on, it was highly instructive to go back to them and see how many are still going strong and, if they are, how they're managing it.

Eight of our choice have closed - below the national failure-rate of about 25 per cent over the past few years. Another, the mail-order firm Red Lick Records, closed for a while but a relaunch is imminent. And the splendid Reckless Records, which had shops in Soho, Camden and Islington, went into liquidation last year but resurfaced as the aptly named Revival Records.

Many of the success stories are those who found their niche a long time ago and have stuck to it profitably, such as Harold Moores in Great Marlborough Street in London, which specialises in jazz and classical, and The Record Album in Brighton, which sells everything from punk to classical on vinyl only, attracting the likes of Damon Albarn, The Kooks and The Coral.

Otherwise, the internet is God. Many shops already have mail order via their websites, or it's on the way - tributaries of the Amazon, you might say - while the Contemporary Jazz Store behind Marylebone Station has elected to sup with the devil and sign a download deal with iTunes. So the future for record shops is a judicious mixture of the physical and the digital - the way most of us consume music today.