Established in 1894 and hailed as the oldest record shop in the world, this family-run store in a Victorian arcade is expanding and opening a new upstairs area. Laura Williams investigates…
“In order to have the money to go to the cinema you can either, I quote, ‘clean out the shit in the chicken shed or come to the shop and help me’,” recalls Spillers Records’ owner Ashli Todd, referring to the moment her dad welcomed her into the family business. “Needless to say, I went to the shop and helped him.” Ashli’s dad Nick started managing the Cardiff shop in the 70s and went on to become the owner, before passing the mantle on to his daughter Ashli, who continues to put 60-plus hours a week into the shop.
Ashli, who took the reins in 2010, reminisces about those early days: “I was let loose on the customers properly at the age of 16. I really got a buzz out of working face-to-face and interacting with people, recommending things to people. It helped grow my own obsession with music, too.
“People always assume my musical influences came from my dad, but he was in the shop all the time, so it was actually my mum’s influence. We never had the ‘birds and the bees’ chat in my house, just listening to Prince records and it was like, ‘Mum, what does cream on top of mean?’. We were singing along to some quite lewd lyrics and she’d come up with some very imaginative explanations!”
Like many other children of the 70s, 80s and 90s, John Peel also played a crucial role in those formative years. “I remember being 12 and listening to his show,” says Ashli. “I was always writing down singles that John Peel was playing. I would then go into the shop on a Saturday with my little notes and find out that these were invariably from self-releasing labels with handmade covers –and I’d try and order them in when I could, for the shop and because I was interested in them.”
“You can have your entire book collection and music collection on two little devices…I see a shelf of books or vinyl and I really want to dive into that – you don’t really get the same feeling scrolling through a device”
Around the time that John Peel departed for a higher plane in 2004, vinyl was going through a tough time and it was only Ashli and her sister Grace’s intervention that kept records on the racks at Spillers. She said: “About 12 years ago, my dad was considering stopping selling vinyl in the shop, because sales had plummeted so much and so little was being produced. At that time, having just gotten into it, it was a really seductive format to me and my sister, and we were like, ‘No, it’ll make a comeback, people are getting more into it, stick with it.’
“Everyone mentions the vinyl revival, but it didn’t ever go away completely. It was the industry that said vinyl was dead. They said, ‘You don’t need this large format, CDs are the future – you can put it in the toaster and it’s indestructible’. People bought into that, not the vinyl fanatics and the labels who made it, but everyone else. That’s why it took a huge dip for a while, but it definitely didn’t go.
“Unlike the high-street shops, who did a slick refit, independent record shops up and down the country were saying, ‘There is space for vinyl and damn it, we will make it fit’.
“I don’t buy into this IKEA living, where you have to have a streamlined life and stuff is bad. Sure, you can have your entire book collection and music collection on two little devices and lead a bleak and uninspiring life; I see a shelf of books or vinyl and I really want to dive into that – you don’t really get the same feeling scrolling through a device.”
“I really like the idea of involving some of the regulars in the new upstairs space, maybe having a listening post with their recommendations, not just staff ones. It’s like a big whole extended family.”
Spillers Records, named after founder Henry Spiller, was and is a family business. But this family isn’t confined to the blood relatives who run the shop; it includes staff past and present and, of course, customers.
“The whole thing is not my shop or the people who work here’s shop,” Ashli explains. “It’s our shop. It still totally feels like a family business, my mum comes in and brings cakes in for the staff and she’s going to be making the cushion covers for our seating area upstairs. The Spillers family, to whom I am not related, they still pop in when they’re in town, but they’re spread all over the world now – Canada, Austria, West Wales.
“What we stock is guided by what people coming to the shop steer us towards. I really like the idea of involving some of the regulars in the new upstairs space, so like maybe having a listening post with their recommendations, not just staff recommendations. It’s like a big whole extended family.”
This ethos was in evidence a decade ago, when Spillers was threatened with closure after its landlord doubled the rent. A huge campaign was launched, supported by some big names in music such as Manic Street Preachers, which resulted in Spillers moving to a new location in the city’s Morgan Arcade. The current site is a few doors down from that shop and Ashli says it’s all worked out for the best: “At the end of the day, the landlord was running a business and it was obviously worth that amount to someone. I don’t have any hard feelings. We moved to this lovely arcade and the rent is more manageable and realistic. It’s lovely, because we’re surrounded by like-minded businesses. We feel relatively secure here, but I think anyone is talking out of their arse if they say they’re going to be around forever – you just don’t know.”
The same uncertainty is true for Record Store Day, and when we visit Spillers, they are preparing to open the upstairs space for the first time for this year’s event. Ashli remains cautiously optimistic. “It’s always an anxious 24 hours,” she says. “Queueing usually starts around two o’clock in the morning, which is such amazing dedication. Last year, there was one man queueing from 6pm the day before. I felt like saying, ‘If you want to help us with all this stuff, then come on in’. He had a camping chair and his work with him, he seemed to be an architect and had lots of architectural drawings. Thankfully, it was nice weather. That’s the thing, it tends to piss it down and that has a huge bearing on people’s desire to want to join in.”
Top of the shop
On The Beach
US LP, Reprise Records (1974)
“My favourite is On The Beach by Neil Young; I love that album so much. When I was an art student, it was unavailable – he let it go out of print and didn’t reissue it. We had a trip to New York with art college and it was a chance to go to lots of amazing record shops. I managed to pick up a CD bootleg of that album for $25, which was quite a lot of money then, but then I was very lucky to be given an original copy of it by an ex-customer – he’s now moved back to the Netherlands. He was basically changing all of his stuff from vinyl to CD – as so many did back then – and gave me a bunch of records, one of which was Neil Young’s On The Beach.”
Record Store Day
During our visit to Spillers, the staff are in the midst of ordering for RSD 2017.
“I got the last order in 40 seconds before deadline,” reveals Ashli, a relentless multitasker who does 90 per cent of the ordering, leaving the other four members of staff to focus on serving people; although the 33-year-old gets involved in that, too – an interesting experience as a would-be freedom fighter. “I always told my mum it’s a good job I have this shop, because otherwise I’d probably be getting arrested or something. I’d go off and be some sort of freedom fighter. Though we probably need more freedom fighters at the moment.”
Ashli recalls a recent run-in with a Donald Trump supporter in the shop: “Mum went on an anti-Trump demo and she had the banner in the shop, and I’m really pleased to say that it took about six weeks before a negative comment happened; a man said, ‘Don’t you know that there are some people who agree with what Trump says?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I personally believe that all humans are equal’. He wasn’t one of the nicest customers, if I’m honest, aside from thinking Trump was great. He had a Spillers gift token, bought a T-shirt and refused to have the change, which was a fiver. He said, ‘Keep it and give it to one of your liberal charities or a homeless person,’ so we did – we gave it to a homeless person.
“I was talking to a rep about it afterwards and he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to be careful, because you’re a shop’. Do you know what? For the greater happiness of myself and my staff, I’d rather not have people bringing their negative vibes into the shop. I don’t believe in making money enough to compromise saying ‘no’ to crap. Music is so tied up with politics, I think I can say ‘No To Trump’ in my own shop.”
The Trump supporter isn’t the only customer who has underestimated Ashli; as a female member of staff at Spillers, Ashli is sometimes overlooked as the fount of knowledge that she so clearly is.
“People expect a man to run a record shop and there are so many enquiries that are directed more towards the boys in the shop. You’ll be talking to customers saying, ‘Oh, did you know about that version or such-and-such a side project?’ and it won’t be to show off, it will be like, ‘You need to know about this’. Something happened along these lines and the guy just switched off because I was a girl; and when they went, a lad who worked for me last year just turned to me and went, ‘Do you know the amount of times I’ve witnessed you saying something really interesting and relevant to men of a certain age and they just aren’t getting it?’. I really thought it was just me, some sort of chip on my shoulder, but he saw it, too.”
Thankfully, those instances are few and far between and Ashli says it does not extend to the music industry as a whole, confessing: “I find the people I deal with here in the music industry far more open-minded and less condescending than when I walk down the high street.”
“Without a doubt, more young people are buying vinyl than CDs. It’s the format of choice for youngsters and I hope they stick with it and don’t treat it as a fad.”
It’s hard to pinpoint a typical Spillers customer or set demographic, says Ashli: “We have everything from the single guy on benefits, where the only thing he has is music, who pops in to hang out, to high-flying business people. We attract lost souls and wandering spirits.”
In the past few years, there has been a shift in the make-up of the shop – a few years ago, a third of the stock was vinyl, compared to two-thirds CDs, but now it is more like half and half, with vinyl sales making up almost two thirds of the takings and CDs just a third. Arctic Monkeys prove an ever-popular choice, along with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, which Ashli reckons they sell a copy of on a weekly basis.
She says: “It’s one that will keep selling for ever and ever and ever. I’m amazed it’s not reached saturation point, surely everyone has one already? How can we still sell so many copies? What’s happened to them all?” She admits that an increasingly young audience may have a role to play in this phenomenon. “Without a doubt, more young people are buying vinyl than CDs,” says Ashli. “It’s the format of choice for youngsters and I hope they stick with it and don’t treat it as a fad.”
A younger audience brings with it new ways of engaging. Spillers now has an ever-growing online community and welcomes customers from far and wide, thanks in part to a good reputation for ordering hard-to-find records. “Customer orders are a huge part of the service we offer,” says Ashli. “If we don’t have it and can get it for you, we will order it and we won’t charge more than we would to have it on the shelf. People know that we can’t keep things in stock all the time, because we’re not Amazon. It’s a matter of principle that they want to support an independent business.
“It’s great being able to tap into relationships with people who get your ethos and what the shop is about,” Ashli adds. “We end up seeing people from all around the country – Bognor, Southend, Birmingham, places like that.
“As great as the internet has been for us, I personally think that there is way too much noise on the internet – it’s such a hyped, bullshit world at the moment, I’m fed up of everything being the ‘best ever’. Though in fairness, with Record Store Day, each one has been. But, I mean, how do you measure that? We’re definitely more about real life, face-to-face.”