It would be fair to say that we haven’t looked back from the digital age. However, the most alarming exception is the remarkable comeback of the vinyl record. While this is not intended to be any kind of contribution to the tiresome digital vs. vinyl debate, I think we can all agree that there is something reassuring about the restoration of physical music to our lives – and the return of shopping for it.
I’m aware there is certainly no shortage of ‘guides’ to London’s record shops: Time Out publish one almost daily, and the newly digitalised broadsheets enjoy running features on the great vinyl resurgence, but almost none of them really speak from the position of the shopper, certainly not one whose sole interest is in the stacks categorised by something like ‘House & Techno A-Z’.
Those guides are usually compiled by someone who’s still trying to add to their punk collection and perceives all club music to be manufactured from one thumping stock-pot of bass. I would rather portray a more realistic experience. One that actually tells the story of the savvy record hunter in the capital, the crate digger, the one who doesn’t have a wad of cash but isn’t afraid to spend time looking for the sleeve that leaps out from its dusty wooden unit. That’s a guide that I hope is worth reading, even if you’ve seen it all before.
Where better to start than in the home of record shopping, Soho, where the almighty Phonica has resided on Poland Street for as long as I can remember. I have always considered Phonica to be like the Tesco (or maybe Sainsbury’s) of London’s record shops, if you’re in the market for all sounds electronic. If it’s been released recently, Phonica will have it, and it will usually be cheaper than anywhere else. But for some reason that I’m not entirely sure of, I never really enjoying shopping there too much.
But like a supermarket, I almost always end up in there anyway. It’s a large, spacious place with sofas near the front, a large island in the middle (where the majority of well-categorised items are held), and some shelves and tables where CDs are attractively laid out, to the point where they almost look worth buying. Unsurprisingly, hand-selected items reverberate from their speakers.
Browsing is a little overwhelming, however, with so much to rifle through in such clinical order. ‘House and Techno’ occupies more than one side to the island, and although there is some nice sub-classification, it’s tricky to know where to start, or to end. In addition to its comprehensive catalogue of titles, Phonica’s strength is undoubtedly in its listening facilities, of which there are about six turntables that face the wall-mounted racks of new releases. While occasionally under-staffed, the hugely knowledgeable team know their shit, and will try to dig out recommendations based on what you ask for, like they should. Rest assured, there will always be something you want to buy in Phonica, but it’s not exactly for the sniffy crate-digger.
BM on D’Arblay Street is certainly a more boutique specialist, both in size and stock. Whereas Phonica’s sheer bulk can make manual browsing a little tiring, BM’s problem is exactly the opposite: you can’t really browse at all. Every title is displayed behind the counter, which for some reason is quite unappealing. I feel awkward stood there, gazing at the wall, not really sure what I’m looking at or what I’m looking for. It’s not exactly experiential, but that may not bother you, in which case BM is a decent place to stop off before hitting Soho’s second-hand gems.
The orange-fronted Reckless Records on Berwick Street is steeped in history, and offers a classic record shopping experience. The House & Techno heads need not look to their left, but on the right are rows of well-organised, handpicked titles. Selected rarities are above on the wall, of which there are often hugely prized titles (once including a sort of holy grail of mine, Ricardo Villalobos & Steve Bug’s ‘808 The Bassqueen/Filtadelic’ for a reasonable £25). Even within its standard collection lie some coveted pieces at excellent prices. Reckless epitomises how a second-hand record shop should operate, selling its quality controlled stock in classic record shop surroundings. Its only flaw is its lack of listening equipment, but that tends to be the deal with most second-hand outlets.
Sounds of The Universe is round the corner but, like its attitude to house music, can be overlooked. It looks hugely promising from the outside, but sadly that’s where the accolades end. They also operate a bizarre policy that restricts your listening to only three records at a time, which is enforced by apathetic staff. That’s inherently enough to spare my time.
Soho’s other star attraction is one of London’s oldest and most well recognised used record dealerships, the Music & Video Exchange, of which there are shops in Notting Hill and Greenwich, and formerly Camden. The Soho branch is arguably the most famous and is a haven for the crate-digger. The scruffy interior barely looks like it has been changed since the 80’s, and the crates are crudely stuffed with dog-eared sleeves. But don’t let this deceive you, because between the outdated and out-listened there is always something genuinely interesting with an eye-catching price tag. While the flow of stock into the Music & Video Exchange may not be vetted too strictly, they never overprice anything, and usually reduce it weekly. It seems if you have a pile of old wax you want rid of quickly, this place will take it without looking too closely, and if you own any second-hand records, there’s a decent chance they’ve passed through here at some point during their existence.
There’s a downstairs bargain basement that ironically sells many pieces for more than their price upstairs. House and Techno heads will have to make do with the generic ‘Dance’ category as their only means of orientation, which inevitably infers scanning through lots of old shit that barely qualifies as dance-worthy. There can be the odd treat though, and coming from a rack in the self-proclaimed ‘bargain basement’ it’s all the sweeter for some reason. Again, there are no listening facilities in the Music & Video exchange, but fortunately the low prices make impulse buying far easier.