The revolution that killed Soho's record shops

Kunal Dutta
Wednesday 12 May 2010 00:00 BST

Long before it featured on the cover of the best-selling Oasis album (What's the Story) Morning Glory? London's Berwick Street was a mecca for any self-respecting record collector.

Hailed as the "Golden Mile" of vinyl, in the 1990s more than 20 independent stores once lined the street alongside the fruit market and sex shops, earning this corner of Soho a reputation as host to the greatest concentration of record shops in Britain.

But fast forward to the present and the independent record stores which once defined the road number just four. Among them is Vinyl Junkies – once an essential port of call for DJs including Gilles Peterson, Norman Jay, Carl Craig and Groove Armada. After 18 years specialising in selling house music, the shop has filed for administration and will pull its shutters down for the last time next month.

Step inside and the whiff of fish from the nearby market soon transforms into a musty odour of yesteryear. Trendy audiophiles browse through the strip-lit racks of old records, which contain everything from niche Motown offerings to rare albums from John Coltrane and Stan Getz.

Sitting behind a desk where four turntables spin, the store's proprietor John-Paul Cuesta-Vayon drops a needle on a remixed Bob Dylan protest song and reflects on happier times. "This used to be one of the grooviest streets in Soho," he says. "Now it's become something of a ghost town."

Since it opened in 1992, Vinyl Junkies is one of the few stores which have fended off the twin threats of digital downloading and the recession. But it is Soho's inexorable gentrification which has put the final nails in the coffin.

"Maintaining a business here has become impossible," Mr Cuesta-Vayon said. "The overheads are massive. Rent now costs around £35k a year, business rates are spiralling and the constant roadworks and congestion charges are driving visitors away." His sentiments point to a wider frustration among niche music fans that it is also the lack of recognition by local authorities which is hastening their demise. Customers agree.

"There is a unique sense of community here that you will simply never find in HMV," said Paul Argent, 36, a personal fitness instructor from Highbury. "We're seeing a homogenisation of the West End. Landlords have become too greedy and councils are not doing enough to help keep small businesses alive. It won't be long before these shops will be replaced by a string of coffee shops and fast food chains."

The case of Vinyl Junkies almost mirrors that of Sister Ray, which fell into administration in 2008 only to be rescued in a last-minute deal. But its owner, Phil Barton, takes a less sympathetic view. "The problem is that the traditional business model for record shops doesn't work any more," he said. "Most of the old clientele have disappeared – so you need to attract new customers by widening up your lines. Owners have to find imaginative new ways to meet the rates."

News of Vinyl Junkies' closure comes a few weeks after Independent Record Store Day, a global campaign supported by famous artists including the band Blur, attempted to inject a shot of energy into the struggling sector.

Graham Jones, author of Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? attributes the closure of stores such as this to a new market landscape in which record companies put online retailers and supermarkets ahead of independent outfits.

"Many record stores have simply lost confidence that the record companies are looking out for them," he said. "Leases are getting longer, and, when a store's rent is coming up for renewal, proprietors have to be certain that their shop is still going to be there in a couple of years' time. Too many now are unwilling to take that risk."

When Vinyl Junkies closes, its estimated 20,000 specialist records will be put into storage. Among those who will lose out are Simon Murray, a decorator and regular customer who has just bought an exclusive Moodymann LP. "You won't find these sounds anywhere else," he said. "There is so much love in this store. It's one of the few places where big names from Detroit and Chicago will drop in to stock up."

Mr Cuesta-Vayon, who plans to reinvent the store as an online-only business, remains optimistic. "It may seem like the end of an era, but, make no mistake – we'll all have died long before vinyl does."

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