A little more than a decade ago, the decline of the British record shop looked terminal. But, in a dramatic turnaround, numbers doubled in the first half of the 2010s, and even now, after Covid lockdowns, they are at levels not seen since the 1990s: 407 independent stores were counted in 2021. Since it came to the UK in 2008, Record Store Day – celebrated this weekend – has gone from having the sense of a charity appeal for the afflicted, to one of the biggest music industry beanfeasts in the calendar. But behind the vinyl hype, things remain precarious, and a record shop now is rarely just a record shop.
It’s commonplace for them to also be cafes or bars. But how about one with a built-in radio station (Some Great Reward in Glasgow or the Book and Record Bar in West Norwood)? Or with a bakery renowned for its pie and mash (Coffee and Vinyl in Torquay), an entire charcuterie counter (Bradford’s Record Café – whose blunt Yorkshire slogan is “Vinyl, Ale, Ham”), or an organic brewery and record label all in a stable block (Futtle, on the outskirts of a Fife fishing village)? How about one that exists for only a day each month and is as much party as shop (the Re:Warm pop-up in a Bournemouth bike shop-cafe), or one which is also the owner’s home (The Record Deck): a barge, setting up stall wherever it finds itself on the canal system?
The ways in which the shops are founded and run are just as various: quitting a successful 25-year tech career to start a shop with a membership scheme in a sleepy New Forest tourist town (Black Star in Lyndhurst), or setting up an employee cooperative to save an almost 60-year-old establishment (David’s Music in Letchworth). What unites them is very hard work.
Fresh out of prison with £150 to his name, DJ Antony Daly joined a community interest company (CIC) (one whose profits are reinvested into the company to benefit local society). Daly has a location of his own now for his shop 586 Records in a former Auto Trader office in Gateshead, and a thriving mail-order business: he’s in the platinum club of the top 100 merchants on Discogs. But when he started seven years ago, it was only the CIC getting him on his feet, giving him a small space in an old office block in central Newcastle without requiring a long tenancy. He recalls “being in the premises six to seven days a week, never less than 12 hours, plus DJing Friday and Saturday nights until the early hours – all while struggling to get a passport which I needed to apply for funding, and unable to get on the council housing list due to my … previous tenancy.”
Fran Jones of Black Star – who ditched “a great career” in the first Covid lockdown to pursue his passion project – is privileged compared with Daly. But he too reports working 12-16- hour days. “Most people thought I was crazy to leave a very well compensated role for the shop life and the music industry – and most still do. It’s not easy starting a new business at the best of times, but during a global pandemic … wow.”
The staff of David’s Music also committed to their current form during the first lockdown, although, as Ashlie Green says, hardly by choice and “in all honesty, fairly naively”. David’s was a bookshop that had sold music since the mid-1960s with a standalone record department from the early 80s – but when its owners sold up, the staff had to decide very quickly to club together as an Employee Ownership Trust (like the home-audio company Richer Sounds). “There was a fair bit of panic to begin with,” says Green. “This was March 2020 and the shop closed for lockdown just days before we signed the papers to be an EOT.”
But in some ways lockdown was a blessing, she adds. “It gave me time to learn how to build an e-commerce site myself and learn how it worked properly.” Just as Antony Daly had to integrate his initial store with his Discogs selling, David’s Music was dragged into the 21st century, and most shops now are an online-offline hybrid to some degree. Michael Johnson of West Norwood Book and Record Bar says the one thing he wishes he’d known when he started in 2013 was to defy “those thieving bastards Amazon” and put all his stock online to combat their dominance of the physical-music market.
Again, though, necessity was the mother of invention. “The vinyl revival was tentative when we opened,” says Johnson. “So we needed other sales avenues to support it.” In his case, that meant a licensed bar and wheeled record shelves that could be pushed aside to make an events space – then later, pushed by local DJs Alex Paterson of the Orb and Kev “DJ Food” Foakes, creating an online radio station, wnbc.london, streaming live from the shop.
This kind of enterprise keeps shops in the public eye, but also connects musicians and local communities. Antony Daly says having in-store sets brings younger DJs into a shop for the first time and “watching a vinyl DJ has then opened them up to the idea of buying records and learning to play from turntables”. Fran Jones has pledged that when Black Star’s membership scheme reaches 1,000 subscribers (they’ve got 650 in their first year), it will turn into a programme to fund demo recording or vinyl pressing for local musicians.
Sometimes the social and community aspects are the first consideration. Talking to Stephen Marshall about Futtle, which he runs with his partner Lucy Hine, it’s obvious they’re not about hustle, but a quality of life that’s as slow as the cask conditioning of their organic ales. They sell mainly collectible old records and only select new material “either from folk that we know or bands that drop by to play, or things we really want to stock”. They only open at weekends, don’t sell online, and look askance at Record Store Day. “We don’t stock major-label, 10,000-copy limited reissues on coloured vinyl,” Marshall says. “We actually had to stop running our own record label because of RSD clogging up pressing plants.”
Taking it even further is the Record Deck’s Luke Gifford. His entire life is afloat with his record collection connecting to “a constant stream of music and music fans to chat to”, inspired less by anything on the high street than by a community of literal fellow travellers: “a herbalist, bookshops, crafters, artists, floating village halls, a curry boat, pizza boat, a potter, hat maker and blacksmith” roving the UK’s canals.
Gifford’s might not be a replicable business, let alone scalable – but it is emblematic of the sense of mission it takes to run a record shop in 2022. Shops may be ultra-specialist and refuse the commercial pressures of Record Store Day like Futtle, cater to a broad audience and embrace it warmly like David’s or Black Star, or remain ambivalent: West Norwood’s Johnson mutters about “major labels milking” RSD with special edition prices but ultimately accepts that “about a month’s turnover in a day cannot be sniffed at”.
But what links them all – in taking risks, investing savings, navigating post-Brexit import and export taxes, working those 12-hour days – is a total obsession with music needing a physical place in the world to connect around. And it brings rewards. “In a year,” says Black Star’s Fran Jones, “I have made hundreds of friends and am linked by thousands of records sold in person to thousands of real musical experiences. And I genuinely feel that and it feeds what I do – every single day.”