Memory Lane: Record Shops and the Value of Scarcity

Posted: February 23, 2013 in Nick's Philosophies on Nirvana

Record Stores

If you’ve seen the front cover of Oasis’ What’s the Story Morning Glory? Then you’ve seen my favourite record-shopping street in London; Berwick Street in Soho. I first started visiting London to buy music back in about 2000 when I was twenty years old; there was an exhibition on at the Hayward Gallery called The Art of Sound that had me, by the end of my visit, listening to the throaty growls of passing traffic with the same fascination I reserved for music purchases. I’d travel down and stay with my aunt then set out the next morning, early as she lived in High Barnet at the furthest end of the Northern Line so it was nearly an hour of rumbles and creaks on London Underground to get in. I’d be carrying around one hundred pounds in cash, I mean, I was twenty, one hundred pounds was a lot of money, it was money that meant something.

The route was planned out with military precision; hit Camden soon after 10am, there were two second-hand record places on the pedestrianised street opposite the market, then further up the main street was Record & Video Exchange, toward Camden Lock a new shop opened a couple years later and joined the route, then finally there was an electronica specialist in the upstairs room of a fashion boutique further toward Chalk Farm. I’d conclude by heading into The Camden Cantina usually dead on twelve (the staff knew me for actually hovering at their door until opening time) for Mexican lunch/breakfast.
Onwards to glory! The next step was to hop on at Chalk Farm and barrel down the Underground, out at Tottenham Court Rd, along Oxford St as far as the HMV and there it was, the next three hours plus of my life (and little did I know the same street I’d be browsing thirteen years later — my most recent Berwick St purchases were the unreleased soundtrack to Dawn of the Dead by the excellent Trunk Records label and Can The Lost Tapes two weeks ago.)

Berwick St was the Mecca as far as I was concerned; Selectadisc, Sister Ray, Record & Video Exchange, Sounds of the Universe (Soul Jazz Records), Mr. Bongo (hip hop specialist) one street away, plus two discount places that were always worth a look, and a slightly upmarket shop called Phonica down a side street onto Poland St that was underneath the office building I first worked in two years later when I got my first adult job (also where I met my first office-place psychopath but that’s another story — horrible office, horrible job, horrible people.)

I’d arrive in Berwick St around 1pm and I’d be stuck there until around 3.30pm. I had to leave around then if I stood any chance of making it down to Waterloo and onto a train to Croydon for the final step of the journey; Beanos, the largest second-hand record shop in Europe. This final step was always a case of taking a chance, for starters they were usually a tad more expensive than the others, meanwhile they also had an annoying habit of writing a code on the case of each CD which was hell to get off later. But it got me there around 4.30pm and there was always something. The crucial factor was that a quick rampage through Beanos would give me enough time to change my mind and go back to ONE, and one only, of the shops further back on my route, I could just make it as far as Camden in time to grab a previously discarded option.

It’s almost all gone of course, I think you could see that coming a mile off. All five of those shops in Camden are gone. In Soho, Berwick St still retains Sister Ray, Record & Video Exchange, Sounds of the Universe — I didn’t realise Phonica was still going, I don’t visit. Beanos closed too so the trip down to Croydon is redundant (“Croydon: a Symphony in Cement” — bloody ugly post-war British architecture, we forgot what pretty was for thirty years.) Around that the major stores are going now too; Tower Records at Piccadilly was sometimes worth a detour. It became Virgin Megastores, became Zavvi, became a clothing store. A friend of mine is in the main Oxford St HMV as we speak and says it just feels sad in there. Borders was always an oddity anyway, half way between a posh book shop and a posh record shop. The discount record shop at Clapham Junction swapped to a smaller premises then finally faded out. In the smaller towns and cities, same story; Parrot Records in Cambridge was a favourite, bought Dinosaur Jr Fossils there, my first Coil record. Barneys in St Neots had brilliant contacts for bootlegs and rarities until the front of the ancient building started to fall in; it’s a wine merchant now. Sam Goody’s in Boston went.

But that’s not really what I’m here to talk about. I’m talking about the bonds between my Nirvana experiences and these stores. In recent years the surprises and thrills became smaller and smaller which means I remember exactly where I was when I first heard Onward into Countless Battles on a bootleg; Sister Ray’s previous location on Berwick St. I refused to pay £15 for a single minute long shred of a song, this must have been 2008 or so. I bought the most expensive record I ever purchased, Sonic Youth Walls Have Ears, at Beanos in about 2003-4 then got a discount because the girl serving had been singing with a band (The Faint? Maybe) the previous night and she was chuffed at being recognised. I found a vinyl LP called Seventh Heaven, featuring Nirvana at the Bristol Bierkeller, in the Record & Video Exchange in Camden. I also bought a couple of execrable interview discs in Selectadisc at one point thus learning never to buy interview discs. Outcesticide VI was the last notable purchase in that series, Soho again, Sister Ray had it. Sam Goody’s was where I purchased my first ever compact discs — the Nirvana Singles box-set the very day it came out in 1995. Barneys was where I found the Nirvana Wired bootleg featuring the band in Newcastle.

The biggest connection is simply that feeling that, as I only had a hundred pounds to spend, whatever I chose to spend it on had to be special in some way; either a brand new discovery, a chance taken, or a collection advanced, or a bargain located. When hunting Nirvana music, what’s maintained the pleasure has been that sense of rarity, that there’s no telling when the next new discovery will be. Yes, there are huge reasons why online purchasing makes sense and carries vast advantages — that’s a conversation people have had many a time — I’m purely interested in what makes something feel golden. What made the romp through London special was that sense of ritual, the fact I could barely afford to be doing what I was doing so each purchase meant a small sacrifice somewhere (or another dollop of debt).

Those people who don’t particularly care about music — you know the type, their record collection stopped evolving when they hit 21 and started work, it’s full of tasteful club collections, they think a rock anthems compilation is wild, they’ll only ever own one, at most two, albums by the same band — they’re fine with the new ‘all you can eat’ diner that is online music; it’s great for limited attention spans, piling up files, musical wallpaper to colour a room and forget about. I know all the arguments why it has to go that way; all I’m saying is that the active pursuit of new musical experiences gained a vast energy as a consequence of my, then, limited budget, the confined time I had to look-select-revise-pay, the deliberate decision to make it a treasure hunt. Record shops are bound inextricably to a surprising quantity of my fondest and most blissfully carefree memories of my teens and twenties; even now, if I need to take a breath, relax, or pull out of a blue morning mood, I’ll often scrape together some stuff I’m not keen on then go trade it in at a record shop, taking the exchange price in shop vouchers, so I have that tightly-defined budget to go hunting round the store with — I’ve ended up dehydrated and busting for a bathroom after spending four hours in a record shop. Nirvana, however, retains that quality for me because I don’t go streaming vast files online, I look and patiently buy a disc here, a burnt-off CD-R there, a vinyl piece now and then. When something new pops up it’s a thrill.

Anyways, Saturday morning anecdote over. About ten years ago, while ordering some of Michael Gira’s writings from Young God Records, I asked him whether he’d ever write an autobiography given his life seemed populated with the kinds of experiences the majority of people who end up with autobiography could never even dream of. I’d just read his book The Consumer which is still among my favourite reads of all time given its focused solipsism and visceral detail — hints of Burroughs alongside the writing style of Beckett. I was also sick to death (now I’m just numb) of celebrity memoirs of third-rate nothings and, God forbid, footballers. He replied saying (I’m doing this from memory so apologies that it’s only a paraphrase) “writing an autobiography is the ultimate act of arrogant self-obsession predicated on the utter belief that one’s own life was of any interest whatsoever to others.” I try to stick to that rule when writing here on the blog.

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