30 for 30: Record Shops

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

26. RECORD SHOPS

Bruce from Minus Zero Records, his now defunct shop

I love going into a record shop. I’ve hung out in them all my life.

I worked in a record shop in high school. I pretty much wrangled my way into the shop. It was called Countdown Music, and it was next to the supermarket where I worked. Every break I had I spent it at the record store.

It was run by Vicki, a lovely woman, who owned a series of stores with her husband. The Campsie store was Vicki’s baby. She was there every day, usually on her own. And she was a music fan but not a huge music nut by any means. It was chart shop in a mall.

It was a very small store too. So I’d be there, browsing the shelves and I could hear someone ask Vicki a question. And if she didn’t know it, I would just interrupt and answer them myself. I did this for a while until Vicki trusted me enough to mind the store when she went for short errands. Christmas came around and Vicki finally hired me. I had left school by then and started working there full time.

I have many stories about working at that shop. Almost all of them fond, although that might be dreaded nostalgia kicking in. But those stories are for another time.

(Best record I got here was with my first pay check I bought the Beatles Box Set, the one that came in a black bread box, which is long out of print.)

Before that awesome job, the record stores in my life were either chains, or the CD department of a bigger shop. Years of shopping with mum would have me running off to look at CDs while she did actual shopping.

As for chains – Brashes and HMV in the city were the main ones. Brashes in Pitt Street is where I used to go every day after school. There was a whole week where I would listen to You Am I’s Hourly, Daily on a listening post until I saved up enough to buy it.

Funny thing is, that was around the time I discovered indie record shops. The chains were great behemoths, but there was this little shop by the cinema that actually had an Hourly, Daily display in the window. It was the old, small Utopia Records. And although I listen to the album at HMV, I bought it at Utopia.

(And I’m glad I did because I got the “Beat Party” bonus disc. It’s also still my favourite album in the world.)

Utopia Records was primarily a metal shop. Dark, gothy and full of tattooed people all the time. I was a small kid in my school uniform. But Utopia had records I never saw in the chains. A Japanese version of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish? Huge crazy box sets? Second hand but rare CD singles. Obscure bands no chain would stock. And – of course – vinyl.

It was love. And even though I wasn’t a metal head, there was plenty of records for me to buy. I think it was the point. Because a lot of smart music fans went to Utopia, so they stocked stuff like Nick Drake and Big Star – even though they are wussbags compared to Metallica. So I pretty much bought all the non metal albums I could find in that shop.

(Best thing I ever got there was the then-rare first Modern Lovers album, with the members of the band on the cover)

From there it was a small descent into the Indie Record Shops of Sydney. I had started to read street press and all those ads for all these amazing shops drew me in. Red Eye and Waterfront were the main ones – and I’m not sure I’ve ever been out in Sydney without at least dropping by one of those shops.

And I learnt so much. Both Red Eye and Waterfront would sticker their CDs with helpful information. “Rare Demo Recordings” or “Awesome album for fans of sunshine pop” or something. And it’s not like they ever stocked bad albums anyway. I remember asking for a Neil Finn CD single (his charity cover of I Can See Clearly Now) and a snobby person behind the counter said they didn’t stock that kind of stuff.

I did a lot of asking anyway. Ray from Utopia, Frank from Waterfront and various people at Red Eye, but mainly Michael. These were my teachers. Frank was one of the funnier ones – I would bring up an Uncle Tupelo CD to the counter and he would tell me to go buy Gilded Palace Of Sin instead.

There’s a lot of talk about the death of the record store – and the death of counter culture. Back in the mid to late 90s, the internet was nascent to say the least. You still had to ask, read and learn the secret corners of music history. Now we have Wikipedia.

Waterfront, which became my favourite, was bought out in the early 00s in a failed bid to start an online retailer. It closed altogether shortly after. Red Eye moved to a bigger location in a great part of town, still fighting the good fight. Utopia – well, it moved several times and started branching out into merchandise and memorabilia. It still has a lot of cool records, but has loss it’s underground vibe.

In the early 00s I was working as the Indent Manager for Warners – not worth explaining what that is but it did lead me to travel, and I had to look after all the indie record stores in Australia with obscure records.

Melbourne was probably the best music store city in Australia. Great Record stores akimbo. First time I went into Gaslight Records I had a nerdgasm. Add AuGoGo, Polyester, Greville and this little chain store JB Hi-Fi and you can spend many days doing nothing but shop go to record shops.

Again, it was a learning experience. Chuck from Gaslight turned me onto Charlie Rich, as Mel would point out big expensive box sets that I would no doubt buy. AuGoGo was more punk and had heaps of great Australian unsigned bands. Polyester was all about pop, in the indie vein, a music food staple. I loved going to these shops.

But the one I spent the most time in was Greville Records – mainly cos of Warwick. Oh Warwick. A great man, and funny as hell. Always enjoyed holding court with his customers, talking about how great specific words are in Bob Dylan songs, or going on and on about the Grateful Dead. He was pretty good with bootlegs and weird stuff too. I love that store – it may still be my favourite one in the world.

The Warner job and touring took me all over though. 78s and Dada in Perth. Big Star in Adelaide. Rockinghorse in Brisbane. Stores in Byron Bay, Canberra and even Ballarat Music and Tapes.

But that little JB Hi-Fi store in Melbourne opened in Sydney. Then every other city in Australia. By the time they got to Canberra, they literally bought out the competition. Gaslight and AuGoGo are gone. Australia was mainly JB Hi-Fi when I left. My life was back in the chains.

I went more obscure anyway. Frank from Waterfront started working for Mojo Music, a jazz specialist that branched into 60s and 70s underground stuff. I would live there – and have diet cokes with Frank, and talk about the Monks. Then over to Red Eye to talk to Michael for a while and pick up some new stuff.

JB opened several stores in Sydney, including another big one in the CBD. It’s amazing how quickly it grew and destroyed the competition, and now the music business is at it’s mercy.

I soon left the country anyway.

Wherever I go, I would always check out the stores. In Montmartre there was a little store like Mojo Music. And there’s the big chain FNAC. Barcelona was heaven – lots of small vinyl shops, with an eye for indie and underground. Pet Sounds in Stockholm. Heaps in Glasgow. Newbury Comics in Boston.

But sadly, they are dying too. Many times my dated Lonely Planet guide would lead me to a shop that had just closed. Legendary shops are dying all the time.

But there’s still the chains. The big HMV in Hong Kong. Virgin and Best Buy in the US. Virgin is even in Dubai. And yes, of course, I duck my head in every time.

London has the best record shops in the world. Even in a dying industry. Even though the island of Manhattan itself is about to have no record stores left, London booms. Sure, it had hard times and businesses go under. But it’s still remarkable.

HMV are the biggest chain left. But then there are the big indie stores. (Rough Trade, Sister Ray, etc). Then there’s the specialist stores – be your poison Jazz, Soul or whatever. Honest Jon’s in Ladbroke Grove was a reggae specialist. Then the collector scene – the second-hand world – is the greatest I’ve ever seen.

I really loved Minus Zero Records. And it was scary how quickly I fell into conversation with the people there, and how I still have so much to learn from these wiseolds.

Record shops are in trouble. Along with the entire industry. They have been hit hardest by the digital revolution. They are bleeding. Such a shame because I love them so. I love the knowledgeable staff. I loved working in one too.

I don’t use Amazon for CDs. They have limited vinyl anyway. I also don’t trust the shipping. So I will probably always need a shop to go into.

I hope there will always be some.

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