In 2009, Omnibus Press took on the distribution of a book called Last Shop Standing; Whatever Happened To Record Shops by Graham Jones. It is about the sad decline of the independent record shop, of which over 500 had closed down in the four years leading up to the book’s publication. Graham works for Proper Distribution, an independent record distributor, and in the course of his job has probably visited more record shops than anyone else in the UK. “As well as being a eulogy to an era that is fast fading into history, Last Shop Standing is also a celebration of the unique spirit of comradeship and entrepreneurial ingenuity that has enabled so many shops to keep operating successfully in such a harsh trading environment,” writes David Sinclair in the book’s introduction.
Last Shop Standing has been remarkably successful, selling well over 10,000 copies, and it has been turned into a documentary film featuring Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, Norman Cook, Billy Bragg and Richard Hawley. You can visit The Last Shop Standing website to support Graham’s campaign to keep record shops alive: www.lastshopstanding.com
Having spent twenty years on the road and in that time visited over
a thousand different record shops, people often ask me what are the best and the worst shops I have known. The first part of the question is difficult, as I am spoilt for choice. The second part is easy. It took me all of ten seconds to select the shop to which I can grant the accolade ‘The Worst Shop’. One day whilst working in Bolton, I stumbled on a shop I had never seen before, called Sounds. I popped in and introduced myself to Craig, the 17-year-old owner. He informed me that he had recently left school and that his dad had asked him what he wanted to do with his life. When Craig told him that he would like to run his own record shop, his father, obligingly, stumped up the funds. A succession of customers then interrupted our chat. The ensuing conversations illustrated both Craig’s business acumen and his aptitude for customer care.
Customer: “My stylus seems to be faulty, as all my records are jumping.”
Craig: “Bring it in and I will have a look at it for you.”
Customer: “I have it with me. I think it’s bent.”
Craig spent the next two (interminable) minutes holding the stylus up to the light before confirming that it was bent and handing it back to the customer.
Customer: “Do you have one in stock?”
Customer: “Can you order one for me?”
Craig: “Sorry, mate. This is a record shop; not a hi-fi dealer.”
The disgruntled customer left. I quietly explained to Craig that record shops stocked basics, like styli.
Another customer came in and asked Craig if he had anything by the Halle Orchestra. (As the Halle is Britain’s longest-established symphony orchestra and is based in Manchester, a mere ten miles from Bolton, you would have expected Craig to be aware of it.)
“Of course I have mate,” Craig responded, as he plonked a copy of Bill Haley’s Greatest Hits on the counter.
The classical customer looked at Craig in disgust. I was not sure if it was due to a dislike of being referred to as ‘mate’ or to Craig’s ignorance of the Halle Orchestra. “It is the Halle I am after,” the customer insisted.
“I think you will find that it is pronounced ‘Hay-lee’,” replied Craig, knowingly.
Shaking his head, the customer started to make his way out of the shop.
In a last desperate attempt to procure a sale, Craig started to read out the track-listing from the Bill Haley CD, “Hey mate, all the hits are on this – ‘Rock Around the Clock’; ‘See You Later, Alligator’…”
But, to no avail – the customer had gone.
Then, just as I thought things could not get any worse... they got worse...
The next unfortunate customer came in and purchased a CD for £3.99. Craig took the proffered £5, but then shut the till without giving any change. When the customer pointed out the error, Craig, for some reason, could not get his till to open. A full ten minutes elapsed, with Craig frantically bashing every possible combination of buttons on the till in an attempt to open it. When he was reduced to trying to force it open with a screwdriver, the customer called him an idiot – to which Craig responded, “Tell you what, mate – why don’t you try and f***ing open it?”
To calm the situation I gave the customer £1.01 from my own pocket and told Craig to repay the money when he got the till open. Sadly that time never came. Half an hour later, the till was still shut. I promised Craig I would call on him the next time I was in the area – I had spent more than an hour with a customer and had achieved sales worth minus £1.01, but the comedy value had been worth every penny.
Predictably, when I next checked out the store, it had closed... perhaps Craig never did get that damn till open.
In my time on the road visiting record shops I have come across many eccentric customers, of whom none were more so than a place called Church Street Records in Manchester. I knew this customer spent a lot of money, but nothing could prepare me for what happened on my first visit. I turned up to discover that it was a collection of wooden racks out on the pavement with a timber roof, which was there to stop customers getting wet in the rain. At the end of this collection of racking was a garden shed. Inside were two men and I asked if Tony, the owner, was about? “No, Tony is not in today,” the taller man told me.
I asked the gentlemen when he would be in, and asked their names. The taller gentleman told me he was Paul and that he was Tony’s identical twin brother. He then introduced me to the other man, a Hunchback of Notre Dame look-alike, called Bernard. He also had quite a large belly, and I therefore christened him ‘Hunchback To front’. As I had come all that way, he enquired whether I would like some hot chocolate. He sympathised with me for missing Tony, but assured me that if I called back at the same time next week, he would be there.
Bernard passed me the drink, which was the weakest hot chocolate I had ever tasted, but I felt it would be rude to say anything. We chatted for a few minutes and then I announced that I should go and would call back next week. “You haven’t finished your drink,” Paul shouted, so I went to gulp it down. As I drank, I choked when a huge lump of congealed powder went down my throat. It was clear that the drink had never been stirred.
Paul and Bernard had burst out laughing as I choked and, over the coming months, I realised that offering people a drink was just a big joke to them. They never had one themselves and, although there was a tea and coffee machine, if you asked for one of those beverages, they never had any. The only drinks they ever had were hot chocolate or soup. They would never do business until you had finished your drink. It was like some strange initiation ceremony in which you had to drink this warm water, followed by a congealed lump, whilst this pair of nutters stared at you until the cup was empty.
The next week I turned up to be greeted by Paul. “Hi,” I said, “is Tony in today?”
“I am Tony,” he replied.
Crikey, I thought they are identical. Bernard offered me a hot chocolate, which I politely declined, but Tony insisted and told me that it would be rude to turn down his kind hospitality. After I had suffered the drink Tony came out to my van and, like a whirlwind, just pulled out piles of records and CDs and threw them on the floor. Many of the LPs were falling out of their sleeves and numerous CD cases were smashed. After only a few minutes he announced that he had spent enough and, with that, leapt off the van leaving me to sort out the wigwam-shaped pile in the middle of the floor. When I raised the invoice he had spent over £500, so it was well worth putting up with his eccentricities for an order that large. I dropped his stock off into the hut and Tony told me to watch something before I left. With that he picked up a large megaphone, crept up behind a customer and, at the top of his voice, shouted through the megaphone, “BARGAINS BARGAINS!” The poor customer jumped out of his skin. Tony came back laughing his head off.
“Don’t you lose lots of customers doing that?” I asked, whilst stifling my laughter.
“Of course I do,” he replied, “but it’s worth it for the laugh.”
I visited Tony at least once a month and became convinced that his twin brother, Paul, never existed but, each time I mentioned it, Tony would get upset and insist that Paul also worked on the stall whenever he took a day off. One day Bernard took me aside and told me what I already knew. Paul didn’t exist, he said, Tony just wanted to check me out before he started buying from me and that was just his way of doing it.
A new, sixth edition of Last Shop Standing: Whatever Happened to Record Shops? by Graham Jones, is out now.