What ever happened to….all of the record stores?

I was stood awkwardly outside 53 Rupert Street in Soho. Maybe 30 years ago, I wouldn’t have looked quite so strange donning my bulky, black Sony headphones and an unironed Rolling Stones t-shirt. But here I am in 2018, gawking through the glossy windows of the pint-sized Italian restaurant that calls itself ‘Mister Lasagna’.

Rupert Street is an offshoot of Berwick Street. And Berwick Street used to be famous for its abundance of record stores. And ‘Mister Lasagna’ used to be a record store called Cheapo Cheapo.

According to my sources, Cheapo Cheapo used to be the place to be — a something for everyone, “I’ll give you the lot for a tenner”, sink your teeth into this record kind of shop. Alas, the only thing you’ll be sinking your teeth into at 53 Rupert Street nowadays is a hearty, layered, Italian pasta dish with an icy pint of Peroni to wash it all down.

The air is different in Soho today…quite literally. Berwick Street is bulky, stuffed wall-to wall with street food market stalls, each sizzling intensely with the scent of different parts of the globe, inflicting a frenzy on the nose and mouth-watering mayhem on the tongue. Berwick Street once was a parade brimming toe-to-toe with record stores (and as I envisage it, discs of vinyl flying everywhere). But the reality is, things aren’t as they used to be. Like the great David Bowie once said, “Turn and face the strange ch-ch-changes”. Where there once was 16 record stores has now turned into 4.

Unfortunately, like Cheapo Cheapo, this is the tragic fate of many of Soho’s record stores. How is it that during this time of vinyl record renaissance so many record stores are floundering? What is it that the record stores that are still standing (maybe only on one leg) are doing to stop from toppling over into the pit of nothingness that so many other stores have fallen into?

Standing boldly amongst the fallen, one of the three musketeers of Berwick Street is Sister Ray Records.

I must have walked aimlessly up and down Berwick Street four or five times before I finally found the record shop tucked snugly between a rather flashy looking dental surgery and your bog-standard plumbing store. There’s something so utterly refreshing about entering a record store — it’s like time has stopped, you’ve slipped into a vortex and have been transported to somewhere completely ethereal. The chaos from outside has waned away. The sound of traffic is distant. But most importantly, it doesn’t smell like kebab and burnt chicken. Some sort of electronic dance music pulsed away profusely in the background as vinyl record enthusiasts stalked the shop flicking through the different bright sleeves like lions hunting for their next meal.

Co-owner and manager of Sister Ray, Phil Barton, was sat discreetly, tucked away in a crowded office. The room, which was basically a closet, was stacked high with vinyl and cardboard boxes, one of which was pragmatically called “faulties and shit”. The door was open, probably because they couldn’t actually close it.

“The only thing that has saved the independent record shops in the recent years is the rise of vinyl” said Phil very matter-of-factly. “There’s no need for us to exist without vinyl.” And it’s true, without this rise in the sale of vinyl, not even the longest standing record stores would still be around. In fact, the sale of the LP is on the incline, increasing every year. Between 2015 and 2017, the volume of that records sold doubled. DOUBLED. It can only be assumed that the trend will follow suit in the upcoming years.

Running a record store in 2018 is blatantly difficult, as Phil puts it, “these are difficult times”. Honestly? It really doesn’t come as a surprise with all this fancy streaming and Spotify malarkey, meanwhile forking out small fortunes on rent and fending off the monstrously ugly, capitalist consumer giants such as HMV.  “A lot of people have opened stores up and are finding it incredibly tough because you have to have a reputation and you have to have a history before people y’know really lock on to you” Phil adds. For many people who open record stores today, it’s all guesswork and many cannot sustain their business because they have no idea what they are doing. Phil says he fears for these people who one day decide “I’ve had enough of being an accountant, or butcher or something and I’m gonna open a record shop” because “it’s really, really hard to make money out of records if you don’t know what you’re doing.” Hey, they might not succeed but hats off to them for giving it a go. “It looks really cool but it’s bloody hard work.”

The principle source of income for all record shops is physical sales and we’re not talking about cafes that sell vinyl on the side. Yes, the sales are going up, up and up, but it’s still not enough. So I did my own digging.

As well as obvious inexperiece, record store closure can be linked to something in retail we like to call ‘customer conversion’. It’s really not as fancy as it sounds however it is a crucial cog in the big old, whirring business machine. What it means is, the amount of people who come into a shop and are converted from a visitor to a customer. In the case of our poor, little independent record stores, it would seem that the conversion rate is quite low.

I asked my peers some questions to get some insight (of course this isn’t solid data but it’s not totally invalid). 63% of them said that they did vinyl, however, only half of these said that they only go to any record store a few times a year. Even then, who is to say that they are actually buying vinyl every time they go? Dare I say that I discovered a trend occurring in their answers. The question was, ‘Do you enjoy visiting record stores?’, and the answers (almost identical) were: “It’s fun to browse and see what they have”, “I like going with friends to see what looks good”, “It’s fun to look around and see the album covers etc”. Oh yes, there it is. Many going to the stores but not purchasing anything. Do you remember doing charity bake sales at school? Do you remember when people would have a look at your cakes that you spent two hours making and then move on to buy from the person who got theirs from Tesco? I can only imagine that’s what the people who work in record stores feel like.

I then asked, ‘Do you think there is any need for record stores today?’. The majority said yes, because visiting record stores is nice, they are “authentic”, “they are unique”, “they are cool and bring a piece of the past back to life”. These are all lovely things to hear, but like I said before, it’s just not enough. Record stores cannot stay open just because people think they are nice.

The proof is in the pudding — independent record stores need supporting and record lovers young and old need to be there.  Berwick Street is probably never going to be the mecca for vinyl enthusiasts that it once was but that’s completely alright. Phil says, “You can’t look over your shoulder and go “eugh well it was better then”. Because it was different. It doesn’t mean it was better it was just different.”

At the end of the day, the real reason record stores are closing is because people are visiting and visiting only. Next time you go, do something different. Find a cover that has really cool album art. Delve into a genre you’ve never heard of before. Adopt a record that has a roughed up sleeve, because that means that it was loved and listened to over and over. Turn your pockets inside out, tip out the contents of your wallet and buy something with whatever amount you have, lint and all. Get the record that you’ve wanted to buy for ages.

You betcha I’ll be going back to Berwick Street. I’ll see you there. 21st April, yeah?

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