Sunday 12 February 2017

The Saturday Record Shopping Run

There is often talk of how much better life was in the past, and how it would be a dream to return to those halcyon days.
Really? A return to power cuts, 3 day weeks, strikes, smog, ricketts ...
Maybe that's taking it a bit far, but the one thing the past did do better was Record Shops.
Last week, HMV Canada announced that it was closing it's stores nationwide.  Now, I don't know about the competition or record buying habits of Canadians, but do recall in the UK when it looked like HMV was going down the pan, it was close to having very few outlets for Music on the High Street - bar the independent stores (which are always worth a visit), buying music on the High Street is a tricky affair.

Not so many years ago in the time of my youth (yes, I feel very old writing those words!).

I was about 11 (maybe 11 and a half, detail is important at that age) when I started to buy my own records.  These purchases were always parent-accompanied, and enabled by pocket money and any other cash gifts that came my way (grandparents, birthday money, a sudden rash of parental indulgence/benevolence).
Just before my 14th birthday I landed a paper round - I was now earning my own money, and was granted enough trust to go into the town by myself (or at least with friends).
A couple of months later, I got a second paper round - I now had one in the morning and one in the evening - and also delivered, and collected money, for Charity booklets once a month.
All this income (well ,nearly all of it) went over the counters of the Record Shops of Reading.

Saturday Mornings involved a strict routine of counting up the paper round collection money, extracting my wages, going up the road to the newsagent to get paid for the other paper round, bus into town and start shopping.
After a weeks research of Radio 1, Smash Hits, Record Mirror, Sounds, Kerrang (or whatever music magazine I had bought) and recommendations from friends, I had a pretty good idea of at least one single and album that I wanted to get my grubby mitts on, but the joy of browsing and discovery cannot be ignored for the sake of firm plans.

Being a creature of habit, I always alighted from the bus at the same stop and went straight to the nearest shop - a small, but perfectly stocked branch of Our Price.
This was the first stop on a habitual route march around all the record shops - noting prices and stock, and then a return run making the preferred purchases.
The route was always:
  • Our Price (Butts Centre)
    Small, but rarely full and usually turned up a few surprises not seen in the other shops
  • Listen Records (Butts Centre - upstairs)
    Independent shop - specialists in Rock and Heavy Metal.  Always busy, always loud and a 14 year old felt very "grown up" going in there.  Brilliant shop - sadly it closed down in 1992 as a result of the Rough Trade distribution collapse
  • Our Price (Broad Street)
    Bigger than the Butts Centre branch over 2 floors, yet conversely seemed to carry less depth of stock, and the people that worked there didn't seem as knowledgeable about what they were selling
  • Woolworth
    Was there ever a time Woolworth didn't have a sale on?  Always woth a look, especially around the time of stock-checks when they'd cleared their storerooms out
  • Boots
    Not famously known for their music retailing, but often had cheaper prices for chart stuff than anywhere else
  • NSS Newsagents
    Another not known for its music retail prowess, but plenty of odd / interesting stock, import records and brand new old records (ie stuff still in the shrinkwrap from about 1978).  It was also the first record shop in Reading that I can remember selling these new fangled CD things.
  • WHSmith
    Magazines at the front, Record section at the back.  This meant you could pick up a copy of the NME and a shaped picture disc in one shop, and emerge on the other main shopping street of the town - if feeling peckish, there was also a McDonalds next door (and/or a Burger King 3 doors down)
A quick right turn and a quarter of a mile walk would bring me to the shop more responsible than any other for (a) giving me a musical education, and (b) feeding an ever growing vinyl addiction.
  • Pop Records - a second hand shop, with 2 branches (and if it wasn't raining or the specific record I wanted was in the second shop, a detour would be incorporated into the route).
    The shop was best described as "organised chaos", coupled with the aroma that will fever be defined as "the ideal record shop smell" (musty vinyl, slight whiff of damp, coffee and cigarette smoke).  The usual A to Z browsing racks surrounded the walls, one central island for 7" singles, boxes and crates placed under these racks, and piles of unpriced and unsorted records all over the counter and around the floor space leading to the counter.  Of course, this was a time before Fire Safety Regulations meaning a clear evacuation path had to be left at all times.
    Prices were set at Albums for £1 to £4 (depending on condition (obviously), and singles ranged from 25p to £2.  At either end of this pricing spectrum were the collectable items - usually stored behind the counter, or hung in the wall inside PVC sleeves, or the disorganised crates where albums and singles could be found for as little as 10p.

Starting work brought more money to spend than 2 paper rounds, but the route remained the same.
Over time, the traditional route shortened as Our Price consolidated into one shop, WHSmith and Woolworths underwent refurbishment and re-opened with smaller record sections, Boots went back to flogging make-up and hairdryers, and NSS Newsagents closed down.

And then came some dreadful news - Pop Records was closing down.  It's two shops were to be demolished as Reading town centre underwent a major re-vamp (one shop stood on the intended site for the Oracle Shopping Centre, and the other was a victim of road re-organisation.
As both these shops were (sort of) out of the town centre, the rent was presumably lower, but with nowhere else to go the owner decided to sell-up and close down.

Fortuitously, as Pop Records closed, another second-hand goldmine opened.  The Record Basement was another second-hand shop which had been opened for a few years at the other end of the town.  I visited it a couple of times, but it's main stock was Dance music (not my thing) - but when it moved premises near the Station, it sub-let the back of the shop to another trader who carried stock more to my taste (indeed, some of the stock bore the recognisable Pop Records price tags.

Record Basement became an integral part of the itinerary.  But with many of the old haunts now closing, the route was destined to become shorter, and possibly not so fruitful.

But wait ... by this stage, Reading had got it's own HMV store.
Yes - HMV the stuff of pre-planned expensive trips to London.  These trips would also involve visits to Virgin Megastore, Tower Records and the record shops of Berwick Street and surrounding areas.  I even bought a CD once in Harrods, just so I could say I bought something in Harrods.
And now Reading had it's own proper store. HMV had been in Reading before, opening as the HMV Micro shop selling computer games, and then as a relatively small store, but now here was a much larger store over two floors with stuff on the shelves never seen before in deepest Berkshire.
And to top things off, in the next couple of years, a Virgin Megastore opened too.

The Saturday Record Run remained, however there was one big problem for me: a new family meant there wasn't quite enough disposable income to (in the words of my wife and family) pointlessly fritter away on un-necessary items - most of my purchases came from the supermarket.  HMV and Virgin did get a visit, but this was probably (at best) monthly.

The Saturday Record Shopping Run was consigned to history - it still happened, but not with enough regularity to define it as a "tradition" anymore.

The rise of the internet, and the ease of purchasing from Amazon further consigned the Record Run to the past.  The final nail was probably the collapse of Zavvi, and the continuing diversification of HMV into a retailer that didn't seem to have a clue what it's core product was anymore.
With the high street market free from competition, it was really difficult to understand why HMV became such a shadow of it's former self.  OK, it couldn't truly compete on pricing with on-line retailers, but it had the presence and visibility, staff were often knowledgeable and helpful - what went wrong?
It went into administration in 2013, but was saved from complete closure and went through a period of restructuring, downsizing and streamlining.
I can happily report that the HMV stores I have visited recently are not quite as laughable as they were in the recent past, and do seem to be getting back to being a "must visit" shop, not just a "must visit for old times sake" shop.

Most of my purchasing is now done from the seat that I am sitting in at the moment - it's quick, easy, and usually cheaper than HMV can offer it for.  This is supplemented by (at least) monthly visits to the three local independent stores near me, and regular visits to Charity Shops (in the hope (rather than expectation) of finding something interesting.

But I do miss the traipsing up and down the same streets, through the same doors, seeing the same faces and idly flicking through the racks looking for inspiration and that unexplainable moment of joy when you find something new, interesting, or something you've been looking out for for months (or possibly even years, or decades)