Monday, 17 March 2014

The lost art of record shopping

The thrill of buying records was only surpassed by the thrill of finding a record you’d been searching for for ages - and then buying it. The late 80s and early 90s were my peak record collecting years. I discovered second hand shops, mail order and record fairs. I spent small fortunes on records; I was a true vinyl junkie.

In Barnstaple, there was Second Spin where I picked up loads of old 7” singles by the likes of Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Sisters of Mercy. I also semi-regularly visited a couple of amazing shops in Exeter (all long gone now, and sadly even their names escape me) where I picked up some lovely booty. I remember paying a whopping £25 for the original 12” (not the re-issue) of In The Clouds by All About Eve on my 18th birthday, £15 for the re-issued 12" of Thru The Flowers by the Primitives, and similar, erm, shall we say ‘interesting’ prices for various R.E.M. singles including the So. Central Rain 12”, the double 7” of Wendell Gee, and an awesome transparent orange vinyl US 12” promo of Orange Crush.

Barnstaple Pannier Market was the surprise location for even more goodies. There was a guy there who specialised in bootlegs and it was from him that I started my (financially unhealthy) interest in R.E.M. live shows. He would actively seek them out and give me first refusal with no obligation to buy. Generally though, I was more than happy to pay the man, especially as he usually came up with really good quality stuff.

Thanks to the ads in the back of NME I started buying all kinds of goodies via mail-order. R.E.M. and the Wedding Present were my main targets, but there was a huge array of stuff I obtained this way. Coming home and finding a brown record-shaped cardboard package in the porch was just the greatest thing ever for me. I also remember with great fondness my first trip to Soho in London and wandering into Sister Ray, a place where I’d previously bought things by mail order. I think it may have been there that I made my prize discovery – not one, but two copies of the holy grail: All About Eve’s first single, the much sought-after and very rare D For Desire 12”.  I examined both carefully, made my choice and paid the man a princely £50 for the pleasure; still the most I’ve ever paid for a piece of black plastic. Worth it? At the time, yes. Every darn penny! However, if I even contemplated spending that amount of money on a single record nowadays, I’m pretty sure Mrs Robster would have something to say about it (and it would probably start with an ‘F’!)

Record fairs were also great fun, I’d spend a whole Saturday morning in Barnstaple’s Queens Hall rooting through box upon box, rack upon rack, pile upon pile of wonderful, wonderful vinyl, chatting to stall holders and having to decide what not to buy. And all this in addition to the several-times-a-week visits to all my local ‘normal’ record shops picking up limited edition picture discs, coloured vinyl, gatefold sleeves, bonus b-sides not available on any other format, poster packs, tacky badges, the 7”, the 12”, the remix 12” (where the tracks bore little, if any resemblance to the originals), the CD single, the collector’s CD single, the 3” CD single… the music industry thrived on suckers like me buying into every sneaky marketing ploy in the book.

Alas, those days are gone. There are various reasons. On a personal front, I ran out of money to buy all these desirable goodies, subsequently running up debts I couldn’t pay. Then I met the future Mrs Robster who put a kerb on my audacious spending in a bid to wean me off my habit and get me on the straight and narrow. She succeeded where many others had failed; a quite astonishing woman, she is. And then, of course, the internet came along.

I didn’t get into downloading for a while, preferring instead to stick with CDs. However, the convenience and space-saving nature of MP3s eventually convinced me and nowadays, with the odd exception, I am pretty much exclusively digital as far as my music purchasing is concerned. Sadly, I am probably one of the reasons record shops are on the critical list nowadays. It is far, far harder to tour these places in search of that elusive Ned’s Atomic Dustbin picture disc that escaped you in 1991 as, quite simply, ‘these places’ are few and far between. Those that remain cater for fairly niche markets in a bid to stay alive. I do miss those days of disposable income and equally disposable multi-format product. I suppose that’s what ‘growing up’ is all about. Such a shame my kids will never experience those same thrills I had.



  1. When I lived in Worcester for a yr the local record store used to run a lucky dip . You would by a paper bag with 10 7" single sin for a set amount and it was a lucky dip in terms of what you got , there were some diamonds in amongst the dirt. It all became a bit addictive.

  2. Yes, wise words: what a shame our kids will never experience this! But: "£15 for the re-issued 12" of Thru The Flowers" was a rip-off! Even the first pressing goes for way less than this these days ...

    1. True Dirk, but back then the Prims were in vogue and very collectable. There's no way those All About Eve records are worth anywhere near what I paid for them nowadays. the thing is with being a junkie is you have to get your fix, no matter what. Rationality goes out the window...

  3. You can indeed track down almost anything on the internet but it is just not the same.
    One of lives great pleasures pretty much nearing extinction I'm afraid (as is disposable income in my case!)

  4. I'm lucky in that I have a wife who buys me insanely expensive, numbered John Foxx CDs [signed and numbered] that I would never purchase for myself in a hundred years. While I miss B-sides, I don't really miss multi-format chart rigging as it was practiced in the 80s-early 90s before the BPI cracked down. For me, the 2xCD single format in the 90s was a sweet spot. With 6-8 tracks spread across them, that would hold anything worth having in the lovely CD format. Of course it all went to hell with "dj mixes" filling up those singles with unlistenable dross that would only sound good if you were out of your mind on drugs.