The demise of the independent record shop?

According to a report on the BBC website this week, it appears that pubs are not the only sources of entertainment to be closing at a rapid rate in the UK – it seems that, on average, at least two independent record shops have closed for good every week for the last five years.

This is a very sad statistic.

In these days of identikit High Streets and never-ending out-of-town retail parks, all small, independent retailers are under threat, whatever they sell. And record shops seem to be particularly threatened by these changes to the retail environment. If they continue to close at a similar rate, the reputation of this country for producing internationally influential and important music will be seriously at risk.

I’m a music geek, so naturally I love independent record shops almost by definition – but this is more than the slightly obsessive love of a fan: they genuinely are a crucial aspect of a healthy alternative music scene. Ignoring internet sales for a moment (they’re just an extension of the mail order sales that have always been at the heart of such businesses), these shops offer vital access to the wider distribution of non-mainstream music of all genres for bands/musicians and fans alike.

Independent record shops also offer live exposure (the popular instore performances and gig nights at Rough Trade East on London’s Brick Lane or at Banquet Records in Kingston, Surrey spring to mind here) and the opportunity for bands and fans to meet and interact. Many indie stores also run their own labels too, offering many a brilliant new band ignored by the major labels the chance to release their debut single or album.

We have an enviable and well deserved reputation in this country for producing some remarkable music – from The Beatles onwards, bands and scenes originating here have spread world-wide. Much of this music started life underground, sold on hand-lettered cassettes and white label 12″ records from independent record stores up and down the country.

These places continue to influence our culture, and losing many more of these important shops (in tandem with the current set of cuts to the arts) will be hugely damaging to British cultural life. I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up into music without access to these places – they are at the heart of our identity as a nation of music lovers and we cannot afford to lose any more of them.

Despite this, there is still a small network of thriving independent record stores in many of the towns and cities of Britain, some of which are really very good indeed. Below, you’ll find four of my favourite indie record shops, all of which are well worth investigating if you live in or are visiting London.

I realise that this is an entirely Londoncentric list, but that’s where I do my record shopping! However, I’d really love to hear from you if you know of other record shops in the rest of the UK that you can recommend – it would be great to start compiling a list of all the good ones we still have (while we still have them)…

Try some of these:

Rough Trade West, 130 Talbot Road, London W11:

The grandaddy of all of London’s modern indie record shops, Rough Trade West opened on its original site in Notting Hill in February 1976 (a matter of days after I was born only a couple of miles away, incidentally!), before moving to the current Talbot Road shop in the early 1980s.

Slap-bang in the middle of Portobello market, it’s a tiny place jam-packed from floor to ceiling with everything from electronic weirdness, breakbeats and hip-hop to indie, metal and jazz on both CD and vinyl, plus the added bonus of a small but warren-like basement full of (mostly) second-hand records at reasonable prices.

Rough Trade is not always the cheapest place to buy music, but this is mitigated by the fact that a great deal of what they sell is often difficult to get elsewhere. The shop is always thoughtfully stocked, and the staff are friendly, helpful and happy to recommend good stuff to their customers. After almost thirty-five years in business, Rough Trade is definitely still doing something right…

Sister Ray, 34-36 Berwick Street, London W1F:

When I first discovered the joys of Sister Ray in the mid 1990s, it was based in a poky little shop at the market end of Berwick Street where all kinds of music jostled for highly limited space with the staff and customers – if there were four or five people in there, it was almost overcrowded!

Fortunately for London’s music fans, Sister Ray have since moved to larger premises just down the road, filling that space with their trademark selection of CDs, vinyl (new and second-hand), zines and underground papers, books, t-shirts, and unusual/cult DVDs (I found my copy of The Clash’s iconic film Rude Boy here – not seen it on DVD anywhere else, before or since).

Seemingly entirely staffed by surly indie boys (or maybe that’s just my experience!?) but full of fantastic goodies from almost any independent band, artist or label you could imagine (and a few you probably couldn’t), Sister Ray is a welcome oasis in the musical desert of central London chain stores.

Honest Jon’s, 278 Portobello Road, London W10:

Honest Jon’s is a real hidden gem among London’s surviving record shops. Part of Ladbroke Grove folklore since 1974, it sells a hugely quirky and eclectic selection of music out of a small shop just down the road from Rough Trade West, although the two shops are very different indeed.

Focusing on an intriguing selection of blues, dance/electronica, folk, world music, soul, funk, dub and reggae, psychedelia, Krautrock and an unusually good choice of spoken word stuff (lots of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Samuel Beckett etc when I was last in there), Honest Jon’s is one of those record shops that genuinely stocks stuff you really can’t get anywhere else.

The staff are lovely: friendly, on the ball, frighteningly knowledgeable, and quite happy to spend the afternoon playing the tunes you’re interested in for you and recommending other stuff you’ll almost certainly like. With its relaxed atmosphere and racks full of fascinating music to explore, Honest Jon’s is a record shop I instantly liked and will happily return to again and again.

DADA Records, 394 Chiswick High Road, London W4:

A new favourite, DADA Records is tucked away half way down Chiswick High Road in west London behind a shop front that looks at first glance as though it should perhaps belong to a trendy boutique or a hip coffee shop. Step inside and, instead of posh frocks or hissing cappuccino machines, you’re met with rack upon rack of books, CDs, DVDs and vinyl.

The staff are chatty and knowledgeable – they’re all clearly real music fans and definitely know their stuff – and the prices are very reasonable (CD albums go for anything between £3 and £12, with a lot at round about the £6 mark. DVDs can be had from about a fiver, and books from £3).

DADA Records is intelligently stocked with a small but essential selection from almost every musical genre (plus a few nice rarities) and a good choice of DVDs (everything from comedy to world cinema and kid’s stuff) – this is a friendly and chilled local record shop of the sort we need to hang on to.

Add your suggestions in the comments!


One comment

  1. Pingback: UPDATE: The demise of the independent record shop? « Another Kind Of Mind

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