In a piece originally published at thelocalrecordshop.com, novelist and record shop enthusiast Ian Rankin offers his experience of these wonderful places through the years…
I have measured out my life in record shops.
The first ones were in Kirkcaldy, five miles from my village in Fife. There was an electrical appliance shop there that had a selection of LPs just inside the front door. Then I discovered that the John Menzies shop had a record section on its first floor. The first single I bought (discounting an Action Man theme song with battle sounds on the b-side) was probably ‘Double Barrel’ by Dave and Ansil Collins. Then came T Rex and Bowie. Our deck at home was a Dansette portable with four speed settings – 16, 33, 45 and 78. My parents had paid for it with cigarette coupons. It was actually a present for my sister Linda, but I was thrilled to see it in the house. Linda had Simon and Garfunkel, The Corries, and the soundtrack from The Sound of Music. I had Hawkwind and Hendrix. I’d started buying Sounds around the age of 11. There was a free colour poster every week and they went up on the walls of my tiny bedroom, even if I’d no idea who the band were. (It was strange to find out that Alice Cooper wasn’t actually female…) I would pore over each week’s issue, including the small ads. One day I, too, would be the proud owner of a pair of ‘loon pants’. And a denim waistcoat. And a patch with the confederate flag on it…
How did I find out about Bruce’s Record Shop? Maybe a pal at school told me. Rab was the same age as me but his brother was older, and had an album collection featuring the likes of Zappa, Zeppelin and Jethro Tull. He might have mentioned the shop, or shown me one of their iconic carrier-bags – cherry-red, stamped with the legend I FOUND IT AT BRUCE’S. It was just off Kirkcaldy High Street and I sent my mum there one day to buy me a Hendrix album for my eleventh or twelfth birthday. She returned home complaining that she needed to take a bath after her sortie into that darkened, sordid room. Brilliant! I was down there like a shot. Those Bruce’s bags began to accumulate in our house, albeit slowly – there was never much spare money around, and instead I would write lists of albums I wanted to add to my collection, the price of each marked alongside in the hope that a birthday or Christmas would bring enough cold hard cash from aunts and uncles.
When I bought a huge poster of Hendrix, my brother-in-law joked that the photo had been taken posthumously, explaining why the guitarist’s eyes were shut. My sister Linda was married by now and I’d moved into her (bigger) bedroom, meaning more wall-space. The Dansette was replaced by a Philips stereo. T Rex, meantime, had been replaced by prog. Albums were shared and swopped in the school playground, and eventually some of us started taking the train into Edinburgh of an occasional Saturday, to visit the Bruce’s there – and the Virgin on Frederick Street. We might take a transistor radio along, so we could keep an ear on Alan Freeman’s show. You never knew when he would play your favourite Wishbone Ash or Genesis track. And weekday nights there was John Peel. When Peel began to play dub reggae, I sought it out in Bruce’s, buying some extortionate twelve-inch import singles and the cheapo Virgin sampler.
When, aged eighteen, I moved to Edinburgh as a student, I got to know all the record shops, new and secondhand. There was an amazing barn of a place called Ezy Ryder near the university where you could pick up great stuff for around £1.49. I was still listening to Zappa, but most of the prog had been shelved to make room for a newer, rawer sound: the Pistols, Damned and Clash, plus Throbbing Gristle and Joy Division. I spent six months in a band of my own, buying the cheapest mic and mic-stand available. I told the band the mic was ‘undirectional’. They laughed and pointed out it was probably ‘unidirectional’ and that an undirectional mic wasn’t going to get me (or my voice) very far. I was never very technical, which makes it hard to explain how, post-university, I landed a job in London writing for a hi-fi mag. Except that I did like the hardware: an essay on my Nakamichi tape deck had won me the interview. London was a hard place for me to navigate, but Tower Records was phenomenal, so much larger than any record shop I’d known previously. I bought my first jazz CDs there – Coltrane, Art Pepper, Coleman Hawkins. Jazz seemed to be my thing in London. Gigs in Hoxton and Stoke Newington; record shops in Covent Garden and King’s Cross.
But then I moved to France – the middle of nowhere in France. Where there were no record shops, just the supermarket fifty kilometres away in Perigueux with its offerings of Hallyday and Sardou. For a few years there, I didn’t buy much music at all. A move back to Edinburgh in 1996 had me playing catch-up. Luckily, the city still had (and continues to have) record shops – a few indies, holding out against the internet and a more general malaise. Avalanche, Coda and Underground Solushun are central and within easy walking distance of each other. Then there are the second-hand shops – maybe eight or nine of them. Sometimes I do a Saturday trawl. I might even bump into Bruce Findlay – originator of Bruce’s Record Shop. He went on to manage Simple Minds and these days still maintains a keen interest in the business. And like me he still likes his vinyl. We talk about ‘Cripes’, the punk fanzine he used to publish, and those red carrier-bags, and the rise of ‘the Minds’. I might remind him of the time I went into his shop to buy the first Eddie and the Hot Rods album and the ‘stoners’ behind the counter sneered as they handed it over, before flipping their favourite Lynyrd Skynyrd record to side two. But we also talk about new bands, swop new voices and tips for the future, and arrange to meet up at gigs.
I have such wonderful memories of record shops and the music they provided. From smalltown Fife, to Edinburgh and London and back again to Edinburgh, they seem to have measured out my whole life. When I tour my latest book overseas, I always ask where the record shops are. Could be Cape Town or Ottawa, Stirling or San Francisco. Last time I was in Halifax (Nova Scotia) I trudged the rainy streets until I found a place I’d been told about, emerging damp but satisfied with a one-dollar Monkees album with their Canadian fan club address stamped on the sleeve. And yes, of course there’s music playing as I type this. It’s a CD called ‘Cinematique’ by Paul Haig. He used to be in Josef K, you know. I saw them support The Fall once. Then I went and bought their album the very next day. It’s still here if you want a loan of it. But I’ll need it back by Friday.
Ian Rankin’s latest novel, ‘Standing In Another Man’s Grave’, is available now, published by Orion. His musings on music can often be found in his excellent Twitter feed.