From the worst record shop, to my personal fifty best. Throughout the summer of 2008 I took it upon myself to undertake my last tour of the finest independent stores in mainland Britain, to hear the tales of the owners, and to discover why their competitors have been closing at such an alarming rate.
When I took a map of the UK and picture where the independent shops are, it is clear that the majority of stores are in towns, as opposed to cities. Most are not on the high street. Many are tucked away in hidden side streets, relying on regular customers rather than passing trade. Usually the ones that survive own their property. It is incredibly difficult for an independent shop to survive whilst paying city rates and rents.
First call was Acorn Records in Yeovil. In many ways Acorn Records is a unique store. Surely it must be the only record shop in the world here the all-time bestselling CD is The Best of the Wurzels. Another claim to fame is that it has probably the oldest record-shop assistant in the country in the shape of the evergreen 80-year-old Mavis Salter.
It was formed by two friends, Chris Lowe and Rob Bacon, who opened the doors if their first shop in 1973, and begged and borrowed to get them started. Chris suggested that the shop should have a name that began with ‘A’ so they would be at the front of the phone book and, after bouncing names beginning with that letter off each other, they settled on Acorn.
One of the shop’s earliest customers was the singer and musician Georgie Fame. When he walked in, the staff could not take their eyes off him. It wasn’t because they were in awe of having such a famous person in the shop – it was due to his having his flies wide open and his tackle bulging through some bright underpants. The staff looked at each other to see which one should tell Georgie. The policy of ‘say nothing’ was adopted and Georgie bought his CDs and went back into Yeovil town centre, his flies still wide open.
A few years later, events at Acorn took a turn for the worse. The partners decided to expand and took the decision to open a second shop in the seaside town of Weymouth. As is often the case when you expand, it is crucial to get good staff, but no matter who they had running the store, they could not make this venture profitable.
Worse was to follow when, ten days before Christmas in 1992, the Yeovil store was burgled. The thieves broke down the back door and removed every single CD from the shop bar one. Left in the rack was a single copy of Pail Young’s No Parlez. Maybe the thieves had taste.
Acorn is situated close to the bus station in Yeovil, and next to the store is an escalator that takes people up to another shopping area of the town. On one occasion, when I was in the store, a man popped his head around the door and shouted, “Escalator off”. He made me jump and I asked who he was. “Oh, that’s Escalator Man. We don’t know his name, and he has never bought anything from us, but he just likes to inform us when the escalator is off”.
On another day, a lady popped in and asked if they had any ‘String’. Chris searched the database on his computer, and although he knew of bands like String Driven Thing and The Incredible String Band he could not find a band called ‘String’. “Are you after Sting?” he asked.
“No, string,” the woman replied. Chris asked the lady if she had any more information on ‘String’. “It’s for tying up a parcel”, was the reply.
I asked Chris if his would be one of the ‘Last Shops Standing’. He’d like it to be, but the huge downturn in business and the imminent end of the lease are starting to make retirement look like a more attractive proposition to him.
I hope the people of Yeovil will appreciate and support Acorn in its final years. It will be a sad day for the town when this gem of a record store finally calls it a day.
There'll be more from Graham Jones' 'Last Shop Standing' next week?
'Last Shop Standing', £12.95, is published by Proper Music Publishing Ltd., London