It’s a sunny and surprisingly mild early morning in mid-April. I’m stood on Queen’s Road in Bristol, behind nine other people in a queue which begins with three camping chairs. I’m a little disappointed that so many people have arrived before me – it’s currently 6:10am – but pleased to know I’ll be in the first twenty allowed in when the doors open at 8. I have a list in my pocket and an iPod in my bag, but they’re my backup plan in the unlikely event that nobody wants to chat about music. Luckily, both those ahead of me and those to arrive soon after are happy to wax lyrical about, er, wax and the relative merits of both the Low and Bill Callahan back catalogues are explored in some detail. It’s now a little after seven and some exceedingly good cakes are passed down the line by the staff as the sun starts to grace us fully with its presence. Various people, or to be specific – men, nip out of the queue to peer through the glass, trying to locate their desired items ahead of opening so as to finalise their plans of attack. With the moment of truth nearly upon us, lists are clenched and muscles flexed ahead of the charge.
And, when the doors did open, it was all perfectly civilised and everyone around me seemed pretty chuffed with their hauls. This was to mark the beginning of what was to become Record Store Week, a largely improvised tour of ten record shops across the South West or thereabouts. Rise Bristol deserve an enormous amount of credit for how they organised, priced and arranged every element of Record Store Day. Having been privy to some of the discussions about where to put stock (“From a geeky perspective, make sure all of the Third Man stuff is with the White Stripes singles”) and how the morning would operate, I’m pleased to report that the experience as a customer was great. I might not be quite so chuffed if I’d got there at eight and found the enormous queue ahead of me, but it’s not like the need to be there early for the special stuff wasn’t made clear in advance. The community spirit was a delight to behold and a number of us were keeping an eye out for various things we knew others wanted. The only brief hint of tension came when I advised a fellow vinyl obsessive about the location of the Doctor Who 7” in earshot of someone rather more manic and slightly less keen on my queue-chum getting hold of this particular item. Luckily, there were two so geek meltdown was narrowly averted.
Music chit-chat and compliments about the store and stock were clearly audible throughout and, when I returned six hours later for a little live music and a rattle through the normal vinyl racks, the atmosphere was even better. Regular customers and first timers bustled about clutching all sorts of goodies, with the limited stock not a priority for many. The staff were beaming throughout and frequently engaged in conversation with delighted customers. It was clear how important this day is for our nation’s indies, providing as it does a chance for shops to reach out to the masses and remind them why it is they’re so very important to anyone who likes a good tune. The buzz that got so many record collectors hooked in the first place, that certain sense of occasion which hangs in the air as people are connected with music that will go on to soundtrack key events in their lives, was there in abundance and it felt very good indeed. In the 21st century, its accepted that the vast majority of record shops cannot expect to have the heaving footfall of Saturday afternoons and Monday mornings of fifteen, twenty years ago, but this particular day evoked some very fond memories and it seems to, once again, have given many shop owners hope.
Things were a little less glittering in the centre of Bristol, where Head are trading in what anyone who knows the area still thinks of as the massive Virgin Megastore site in what anyone who knows the area still thinks of as The Galleries. In its old incarnation it was a haven of massive chart displays, vinyl racks and eclectic back catalogue titles. I have very fond memories of my Britpop years, gazing at ‘Stanley Road’ boxsets and not being able to move for end of row displays for ‘I Should Coco’ and ‘Elastica’. With the demise of Zavvi, it became one of a small number of shops using the name ‘Head’ to clear out the former shop’s leftover stock. Those that lasted more than a matter of months added some new stock before finally being wound up in early 2010. Head, as it is now, belongs to the same stable as the store which opened in Leamington Spa after Fopp’s demise and which was briefly in Hanley. Bromley and Belfast now also have Head stores and any new indies are to applauded. However, the pile-it-high, sell-it-low feel of the place leaves it lacking identity and its crates of discount vinyl were left largely unthumbed. Prices were higher than in competing stores and the sense of celebration was rather muted, relying on largely ignored live music. The small independent chain is still finding its feet and I hope it continues to move in the right direction. On a day which seems to have left many shop staff ecstatic about record takings and with an exuberant atmosphere, the shop and its staff seemed largely unmoved.
Having recovered from the excessive swelling of my record collection on the Saturday, I found myself in Taunton on the Monday, flicking through the racks at the superb Blackcat Records. Residual RSD stock sat on display but the treasure trove of second hand vinyl was where this splendid little shop really won me over. Despite a few items not arriving on time, the big day had gone well for them and they were chuffed with the turnout. Not that you’ll need a special event as a reason to visit: their competitively priced racks contained some irresistible original RCA/Victor pressings of Nina Simone and a shiny looking copy of Colin Blunstone’s masterpiece, ‘One Year’ amongst many other treats. Their new stock was well priced too and, should you happen to be in the area, I’d advise you to pay them a visit.
Having read Graham Jones’ splendid ‘Last Shop Standing’, I was keenly looking forward to both Acorn Music in Yeovil and Raves From The Grave in Frome. Neither were to disappoint. Acorn’s Chris was still beaming about the success of Record Store Day and sounded justifiably proud as he recounted how the square outside the shop had been rammed during some live performances in the afternoon. Having recognised pretty much everyone in his queue, he’d operated a ‘five exclusive items each’ policy and, 48 hours later, was happy with how it had all panned out. Acorn don’t really carry much vinyl for the rest of the year, but the leftover stock was out on the counter and I found myself finally giving in to the charms of the Saint Etienne boxset. Now in his sixties, Chris is not sure how much longer he’ll be keeping the shop going for – “I don’t want it to end up killing me” – but his passion is still very much there and I’d urge you to pop in for a natter and a recommendation or two from the racks. Long may Acorn provide the people of Yeovil with the independent touch.
Raves From The Grave is a three floor record shop squeezed onto one floor. There is so much stock in there that it’s hard to know where to begin, although I plumped for the vinyl room at the back of the shop where I unearthed original Bowie pressings in splendid nick and a tremendous stash of Britpop 7”s which I wished I’d bought when I was an awkward teenager and wasn’t going to miss as an awkward adult. Although conversation was initially a little brief, talk was steered firstly to a successful Record Store Day and then the fact that most of their vinyl had been moved to a second store in Warminster. Was there much indie? A wall full, apparently. Dear reader, what was I to do? I purchased my goodies, brushed past the slightly expensively priced RSD remainders and headed out the door, taking care not to step straight into the leat which runs along the front of the shop. The Warminster store is also worth a visit, stuffed as it is with vinyl. Be sure to allow time for the dungeons of delight, containing every genre you could think of (provided you don’t think of modern dance genres or much in the way of rap and hip-hop) and with stock in every available square inch of space. For vinyl geeks, it’s heavenly. Not one to which you should drag ambivalent partners.
A brief stop in Glastonbury for Changing World Music – a captivating range of all sorts of stuff from around the globe, though not quite tickling me like everywhere else had thus far managed – during the non-record shopping part of the holiday ensured that I was already on seven independent record shops in four days. With Cheltenham neatly pencilled in as a sensible point for a break en route back to the East Midlands, it was time to hope that nobody took Good Friday too seriously and that the doors of the town’s numerous music emporia were open for business. First up, it was time to call in on Martyn Hooper at the charmingly titled The Record Shop. Small, but perfectly formed, its main business is second hand vinyl and it does it very well indeed. Opening around the owner’s full time job means that it’s unlikely to leave HMV quaking in their boots, but that’s not really the point. With a superb and frequently updated Northern Soul section and vinyl covering the last sixty years, it’s unlikely you’ll be left unsatisfied and the prices will ensure you leave with something new to play.
Be sure to keep some cash back, however, because the town centre houses not one but two outstanding independent record shops. Firstly, the original Rise is tucked away in the Beechwood Shopping Centre, plying a similar trade to its big Bristolian brother. A wealth of great vinyl will command your attention from the off, but the CD and DVD range is extensive and the kind of prices and range customers of pre-HMV Fopp were used to can be found throughout. Things are going well and manager Ben was thoroughly chuffed about how Record Store Day had panned out and was excited about Rise’s participation at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, where they’ll have their own pop-up shop. Having mopped up a couple of late RSD arrivals, such as the Frightened Rabbit demos cassette, I set off for the final destination on my small Record Store Week tour: Badlands. Growing up not a million miles away, my teenage self had previously visited this fine shop and I was keen to see how it had adapted to the 21st century. I’m happy to report that its vinyl prices are amongst the best I have seen anywhere in the whole of the UK. I lost count of the number of times I thought ‘bugger’ as releases I’d paid a quid or two more went past my eyes. Wandering over to the counter, several titles including the beautifully packaged new Metronomy album in hand, I struck up my usual RSD conversation and heard tales of massive queues, great live music and big sales. A hearteningly familiar constant during the entire week. In fact, Dan behind the counter explained that it had been the best day in the shop’s twenty-five year history. Having both got a little giddy about managing to get a copy of the Big Star ‘Third’ test pressing edition (which Dan thinks is “fucking awesome” – he’s not wrong) we got on to what stock was left. Having failed to grab Rise Bristol’s solitary copy of the Flaming Lips box, I’d been wondering all week if I’d made the wrong call. As I muttered something about missing the boat, Dan informed me that he still had one left and asked if I wanted it.
And so, Record Store Week ended on a similarly expensive note to that on which it started. What the week reassured me of was that the independent music shops of the UK are finding all kinds of different ways to survive and, because of that, it’s not really about surviving anymore. If you’re still standing now then you’ve made it through the dark days of endless closures and you’re a rare but utterly lovely point on the map. The people I met and the staff I spoke to all shared that passion for music and it was hugely infectious. Where Record Store Day does such a good job is in exposing infrequent visitors, or even those who’ve never previously stepped inside, to that enthusiasm and giving it a chance to rub off on them. Lawrence, Rise’s managing director, told me how many people had contacted him after the Bristol shop was featured on BBC Breakfast’s coverage of the day and how surprised and delighted they had been to find out that the shop could get them anything and everything they were asking for because, as one elderly gentleman put it, “HMV just don’t bother with this sort of stuff anymore.” If you bought anything on Record Store Day, be it a solitary 7” single or several carrier bags full, good on you. But make sure you pop back this Saturday too. And soon again thereafter. These shops are, to put it not especially eloquently, bloody ace and if you love music, you’ll love them.