Friday, 19 April 2013

Our Favourite Shop

Tomorrow it's Record Store Day again. It's the one day of the year when we're all encouraged by the music industry to go out and support our local record shops to stop them from going under, by means of special limited edition releases, in-store appearances and so on.

I was sitting here this evening, thinking, as I always do at this time of year, that I really ought to go out and see what's going on at my local shops (or maybe the wonderful places in Central London). But then I remembered how much of my salary I give to record shops for the rest of the year, and decided that they could live without me just for today.

Going to record shops and browsing for interesting stuff has been my favourite hobby ever since I properly got into music, but unfortunately it's become more and more difficult as the years roll on, mostly because there are fewer and fewer record shops left. 

Case in point - the last time I went to Canterbury, I popped down, as I always do, to the very bottom end of the High Street to visit the legendary Indoor Market with its Record and CD stall (more later), and what did I find? One of those bloody places where fish eat your scabby toe skin. I mean, honestly, what does that say about society, that more people want to pay money to stick their feet in a tank full of fish (and other people's manky foot scrapings) than buy articles of music reproduction? I tell you what, I've got a fish tank, you can stick your feet in that for a quid a time, no appointment necessary and there's much less human flesh already in it.

Weep. Weep, people, for what you have done to the world of Record Collecting.

In memoriam of our fallen comrades, here's a rundown of the important record shops in my life, up to the point where I left school. Who knows, if I can still remember what a record shop is this time next year, maybe I'll tackle "Gigging Forever - The College Years".

WHSmith, Ramsgate

You know that place which sells you ridiculously overpriced sandwiches at Motorway Services and for some reason makes you buy a newspaper every time you want a bottle of water? Yeah, once upon a time, that place was also a reasonable record shop. All festooned in brown and orange signs, with carpet to match, my earliest memory of any record shop is browsing through the tapes in their wall rack, looking at the 'O' section, to see which Mike Oldfield albums they might have which I didn't yet own. And that was probably all I ever did, since I would have been 6 or 7 years old, I couldn't afford anything, and I didn't know any music apart from Mike Oldfield.

Picture from the trip down memory lane which is

I will never forget the excitement when one day I went to that section and there was a brand new Mike Oldfield album which I'd never seen before: my favourite artist had made an album of all new music. This concept almost blew my mind in those dark, pre-internet days of September 1987, and the cassette was duly requested for my 9th birthday some months later. Unfortunately, that album was "Islands", but you can't win them all.

Eventually I graduated onto Jean Michel Jarre and bought in WHSmith the first ever album I can remember purchasing with my own money - "Revolutions", which I acquired on Vinyl LP and immediately went home and copied onto one side of a C90, to preserve the precious grooves themselves. Also, let's be honest, it was (and still is) a flipping hassle to put a vinyl album on compared to a tape.

Aw haw haw haw, Monsieur Jarre, your pose eez so sultry...

However, as the 80's turned into the 90's, and I started to find outlets for information other than WHSmith's cassette rack, I became acutely aware that my now bulging roster of 3 acts had other albums, which had been available for quite some time but I'd actually never seen. This meant that it was time for "The Book." The book would come out from the record counter at the back of the shop where all the discs were kept, and it was basically a bible of Records, CDs and tapes, from which anything in existence could be ordered and collected a month or so later, if you were lucky. Kind of like a printed version of Amazon, if the goods were all delivered from Tuvalu on foot.

Brown and Orange frontage sadly long gone...

I never actually ordered anything from "The Book", I just enjoyed going up and asking to look in it, to see the names of all the albums that I'd never seen and, as far as I could make out, I never would. They must have loved me in there. One day, I eventually plucked up the courage to go into Our Price next door, later the scene of many wasted hours after school when I should have been doing my GCSE coursework - they had some of those mysterious albums, and I saved up my pocket money and bought them of course, but I didn't enjoy them and I was thinking of WHSmith all the time.

However the main reason I've singled out WHSmith here, rather than Woolworths (cheap and cheerful, like ITV to WHSmith's BBC), is that it has ultimate importance in the whole Gigging Forever story by virtue of having been the place where, in 1992, I bought my first CD which wasn't classical music or the soundtrack to an Agatha Christie TV show. Nothing was ever quite the same again, to be honest.

I have a strange fondness for these 80's butchered versions
 of the Genesis album covers with the garish lettering. My friend Graham
 and I used to call them 'The Little Albums', as if they were part of a series.
But then, we were kind of special.

Status: It's still open, but I don't think it's sold music for quite some time. Certainly not any Genesis, Jarre or Poirot.

Howling Records / Sounds - Ramsgate

Having worn out the above CD and collected large chunks of the rest of the Genesis catalogue,  I decided that rock music was where it was at, and that £1.99 of my pocket money would no longer be better spent on a budget ZX Spectrum game than one of the week's new release CD singles in Woolies. That's before they inexplicably went up to £3.99 in the second week as they always did - woe betide you if you were on holiday during the first week a single was out - although you could always get lucky if your shop had overordered a particular title and get it for 99p on its way back through the bargain bin. But did you really want to take that chance? Those Lightning Seeds B-sides wouldn't be around for ever...

It therefore became imperative to me to get as much music for my money as physically possible, exasperating my parents constantly when I came home with yet another purchase. I can always remember my mum asking me whether I didn't think I had enough Genesis albums already - and for that reason I'd start trying to smuggle my purchases in as much as possible, (something I've never really grown out of), although I wasn't really fooling anyone - least of all them, when it got one week into my month's allowance and I had to borrow money to go to the cinema with my friends.

Howling Sounds (or Howling Records as it was first known when it was next door in the much smaller shop it was born in, back in 1991 or so) was therefore an absolute godsend. Firstly, it was right next to my school, in the direction of my house. No excuse not to pop in just to check whether someone had dropped off a collection of Peter Gabriel 12" singles - every evening after school. And then at lunchtimes. And occasionally at break times too. And though really exciting rarities didn't crop up every week, there was always something to buy for a very reasonable price. My first encounter with every single Queen album was via a £3.95 cassette copy from this shop - frequently grabbed from the window display, since I think the lady half of the ownership team was something of a fan. Still, she seemed to approve of my buying those, unlike the time I took R.E.M's "Automatic for the People" up to the counter, because it was playing on the stereo, and she sighed and said "Every time I start playing this, someone blooming buys it!" 

Probably not an issue any more, I'd wager.

This cheap and cheerful exposure to new music didn't stop there - in the early-mid nineties, you couldn't give away vinyl LPs, and so there was always a nicely brimming £1 bargain bin full of albums which would probably set you back £30 on eBay now. Zeppelin, Floyd, Joel, Yes, Rush, Wings, Police, Kate Bush and New Order - all arriving in my ears first through the wonders of the Howling Sounds vinyl treasure trove. I can't ever imagine there was a period (until perhaps, the great public CD cull of 2008 onwards) where I was discovering so much new music for so little money. And all without having heard a note - album purchases were made on personal recommendations occasionally, but mostly on looking at the sleeve art, reading the liner notes to see if anyone played Moog Taurus bass pedals, Fender Rhodes or Vocoder (none of which I understood but I liked the words), and ultimately getting a tingly feeling about the nice smooth gatefold sleeves and mostly well-loved vinyl.

Very occasionally I would splash out and buy a CD from Howling Sounds, but I was rather more exacting in my condition requirements for CDs, and I would inevitably find one crease in the middle of a booklet or a tiny scratch on a CD I'd just paid £7 for and be so annoyed that it would taint my impression of the music forever. (Annoying when it was Blur, less so Simply Red.)

"Remembering the first time..."
... I bought a really rubbish CD.

I moved away from Ramsgate, as most people do, to go to University, but came back every holiday, and always went back to browse and see what I could find. The owner always seemed to recognise me but I had been too shy/embarrassed to talk to him even when I went in there every single day so that was hardly going to change now. In fact, that situation continued, until the most recent time I went down to Ramsgate town centre in 2012, and was so happy to find the shop still open that I ended up telling him how much his shop had meant to me growing up, how much time I'd spent in there and how happy I was that it was still going. I even bought some CDs and didn't care that the booklets were creased.

He told me that the vast majority of his business is done online now, but that the shop stays open due to the low rent set by the council. I hope that doesn't change for a very long time, and that schoolboys who are young enough to be my kids are popping in to see Mr. Howling every lunchtime, rooting through the £1 CD bin and discovering Radiohead or Pulp.

One of the very first things I bought from Howling.
It had the songs in a funny order which still sounds right to me.

Status: Still open, as of the first time I started writing this article. I'm scared to look too deeply into it, in case I find out this is no longer the case...

Indoor Market - Canterbury

As I got older, and I got my first job (pushing the trolleys around in Waitrose Car Park for £2.26 an hour - back of the net!), I had a little more disposable income and could therefore afford to hop on a train once every couple of months to go and see what was in our nearest city. The very first time I did this, I was accompanied by my friends Lee-Jay and Robin, and they dragged me around comic shops and places where they sold Star Trek uniforms before we finally made it to the Canterbury branch of Our Price, which, being in a bigger and more affluent city than Ramsgate (yes, not hard I know), was twice the size. This was, I think, the first time I'd ever seen a shop where not only did the CD rack have section dividers for the artists, but there were plastic tabs for each album, with the name of the album printed on it.

Naturally, they had ALL the Genesis albums on CD - this was something I'd never imagined possible, and as I pulled out copies of "Nursery Cryme" and "The Lamb Lies Down" (never, ever spotted in Ramsgate), I must have been hyperventilating since I distinctly remember Lee-Jay asking me if I was ok and why I kept going "Whoah!" every time I found another one of these mythical lost albums. I probably didn't ask him in annoyed tones why he and Robin got so excited about fake plastic Tricorders because I was much less confident/sarcastic in those days, but I expect I wanted to.

Anyway, Our Price in Canterbury was rather expensive in those days, so I actually didn't buy much in there usually, even when they moved to a double decker premises in the mid 90's. (Although I can distinctly remember spending £32.99 on the Beatles "Blue Album" on CD in there one day - pretty much my entire monthly earnings from Mr. John Lewis and his Partnership.)

It therefore became the last port of call on what became the regular trip to Canterbury with my good friend Graham, fellow nut of Genesis and music in general, and someone with whom probably 75% of my music shopping was done. Now this may surprise you to learn, but I used to be quite selfish and not a very nice person sometimes (I know, hard to believe.) It's for this reason that whenever Graham and I went record shopping, I would try to walk a bit faster than him and make sure I got through the door and over to the "G" section before he did, to grab anything interesting. (I definitely grabbed the only copy of the "Invisible Touch Live" CD single in Woolworths in November 1992, thereby forcing him to spend 50 pence more to get his from Our Price. Graham, if you read this, I do remember being unbelievably smug about this at the time, and all I can say is that I've been living with the guilt ever since, so you win.)

The slick pop goodness contained within has now
turned to guilty ashes in my ears...

And there was plenty of interesting stuff in the Indoor Market, quite apart from the drugs paraphernalia, rubbish celebrity caricatures and Joss sticks which clogged up most of it. Right at the front on the left hand side, there was a ageing hippy-type guy selling LPs, 7" and 12" singles, back when it was completely unfashionable. Everything was extremely well filed for someone who appeared to have been stoned since the 60's, and nicely displayed in a polythene sleeve to keep the covers nice and fresh. Every single album was £2.50, whether it was a pristine Beatles album or a beat-up Julio Iglesias compilation. Every single 7" single was 50p. This system was fantastic, as you could absolutely fill your boots with all kinds of stuff - although there was usually enough Genesis or Queen-related goodness to eat up all the pocket money before you'd even started looking anywhere else.

The Indoor Market, in its pre-fish days.

Thus, the entire solo catalogues of Messrs Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett and Rutherford found their way into my collection for the first time over a period of a couple of years, and that's to say nothing of the wonderful B-sides I was first able to hear via the huge and beautifully organised 7" singles bin. Eventually I'd collected all the B-sides I needed, so Graham was allowed to get some too. "Coincidentally", I think it was around this time that he started leaving me to shop for records on my own more and more - he was always more popular than me and started to find more pleasure in socialising, whilst I mostly saw a sneaky lunchtime trip to the local pool club as wasted record browsing time.

Just one of my favourite purchases from the Indoor Market back in the 90s.

Anyway, back in Canterbury, in 1995 or thereabouts, there was quite a record trail to be followed. Leaving Canterbury West Station, if you were so inclined, you could take a brief detour up to the right to Canterbury Rock (still there, last time I looked), before heading back down the hill, past the Blind Dog at St. Dunstan's pub (immortalised on a Caravan album cover and sadly now gone, replaced by a seafood restaurant - more bloody fish, honestly) and towards the town centre.

Heading up towards the Cathedral, once the Indoor Market was exhausted, and if you had any money left, you could pop into the Classical Longplayer (if Lee-Jay and Robin were with us) and pretend to be interested in classical music (although, not any more, as it's now a sweet shop), or pretend to be into much cooler music than I was by going into Richard's Records, where I don't believe I ever bought anything until I was home from the Uni holidays and had started to pay attention to things recorded in the current decade (Guess what, it's now a sandwich shop. Can you believe people would rather eat than buy music?)

EASILY the best thing I ever bought from Richard's Records. 

Then there were the two different locations of Our Price where if the haul from the Indoor Market had been disappointing you could spend all your money on one CD (the first is now a branch of old ladies' fashion chain Bon Marche, and the second is a two-storey Cafe Rouge, which tells you how popular records must have been in Canterbury at one point), and for a brief period there was some kind of discount record shop around that area, too, although it didn't last long. I'm sure it had nothing to do with fact that the only pricing was via a sticker on the case, and I once decided I'd rather pay 99p for a cassette of Peter Gabriel's "So" than £3.99 and therefore thought it was ok to swap the boxes over and take it brazenly to the counter. Yeah, it worked.

If you were really lucky, you'd hit a weekend where there was a record fair in one of the Church Halls (in fact there used to be two regular fairs), and then perhaps you'd stumble across a whole load of bootleg CDs of one of your favourite bands, spend £15 on a terrible quality selection of Demos and outtakes, get the world's worst buyer's remorse and make your friend Graham go and beg the guy on the stall to take it back and refund your money. I say "you", as obviously this is a completely generic story with no basis in fact.

Finally, if you could still walk after all that, there was a tiny little place down a little alley round the back of Nasons, which occasionally had something worth buying (now a cafe, I think) and then there were the obligatory Woolies (now a Poundland, like most Woolies) and WHSmith (still there but again probably no music), and then, all the way up the top of town and across a main road, there was Parrot Records, which was probably the oldest looking, dustiest and yet somehow kind of charming new record shop I've ever been in. (It looked shabby and on its last legs in 1996, so it's hardly surprising that it's now a bicycle shop, really.)

Still, they did sell me this, so it wasn't all bad. No sniggering at the back, there.

For all the places that you could haemorrhage your pocket money, though, there was nowhere you could get more bang for your buck then the Indoor Market. And if you were very lucky, you'd find some weed tucked inside one of your gatefolds (never happened to me but the whole place reeked of it so it must have been somewhere in there.)

Status: Hung on by a thread until the noughties, and then succumbed to the unprecedented demand for piscine toe nibblage.

No more records for you, pilgrims...

So, what have we learned? Well, out of 11 places that I used to be able to buy records, tapes and CDs in Canterbury, precisely one is still available, and to be honest that didn't have much to commend it last time I went in there. There's now an HMV, which was never there back in my day, but then it probably won't be by the time you read this anyway.

And yet, thanks to low rent and a dedicated fanbase of schoolkids passing by the front door, a small second hand record shop in a tucked away part of a run-down seaside town is still making a go of it. Which says to me that perhaps the smaller towns will in future become hives of small business and niche interest shops. And let's face it, that's what Record Shops have become, like it or not.

Why not share your favourite record shop stories in the comments below?


  1. Very spot on. I remember going into Richard Records for the first time around 94/95 and discovering their hip hop collection. Spent an absolute fortune back then :) Great Article !!!!!

    1. Thanks a lot! Nice to get some feedback a year or so on... I am reliably informed that Howling Sounds in Ramsgate is still there - I wonder if the Canterbury HMV escaped the cull?