With stock that ranges from a few pounds to £3,950 for a signed David Bowie print, Tyneside’s Vinyl Guru is no run-of-the-mill record and accessories shop. Long Live Vinyl investigates…
Situated on a trading estate 15 minutes from Newcastle city centre, Vinyl Guru is a truly independent record shop with everything a vinyl connoisseur could possibly want. The leering, grinning Guru face above the front door draws you into an Aladdin’s cave of records, picture discs, album-art prints and accessories, from slip mats to high-end turntables. And, for that extra-special space in your record room, why not pick up a refurbished Rock-Ola jukebox from the late 1950s?
The man with a plan who turned his dream of owning a record and accessories shop into reality is Chris Larkin, an amiable but sharp music fan originally from Hartlepool. He gained his record-shop experience in the mid-80s when vinyl ruled, CDs were a novelty and streaming was just a glint in a geek’s eye. Larkin loved every second of that experience, as he explains: “I went to university in York to do a media degree and used to hang out at Red Rhino, the city’s main indie record shop. When I left uni, I had a couple of interviews with the BBC, where I came close but didn’t get the jobs. As a stop-gap, I got a job at Our Price in London and stayed there from 1983 to 1986.
“It was brilliant, I felt at home there because the people I worked with were into the same sort of music and were the same sort of age. We used to get quite a few people out of bands coming into the shops, including Mick Jones from The Clash. I worked in the branch that was near The Old Bailey and he’d come in at lunchtime when the court case with The Clash was on.” – Chris Larkin
Returning north to work in the media, Chris got back into music, eventually setting up an indie label called Audio Excess. “I was warned against starting a label by several people,” he recalls. “It was something I always fancied doing and had the time and the financial backing to do it from money I’d saved. This led me on to thinking about how I could make a business related to music. It wasn’t going to be a label, because it was pretty much impossible to make a living out of it. This was four or five years ago and it was becoming obvious there was starting to be an interest again in vinyl records. Amazon started selling vinyl, and if you bought a vinyl record, you could get a free download. It was also happening in shops, where you’d get a download code when you bought the vinyl. It was marrying the two things together with the advantages of the download and the physical product.
“There were always collectors who stuck with vinyl. Stuff was still released in limited numbers for most things. It never totally died off. So we started selling accessories – sleeves, cleaning products and things for displaying LPs. Nobody on the high street was doing it. There were a couple of big mail-order companies, but not much online. So we started selling via eBay, Amazon and more recently, our own website.” Chris Larkin
He continues: “The mail-order companies were doing it in the traditional way, where people would ring them up. We were different, because we had a site. We got a lot of business through that. We started small and kept expanding. We now have our own brand on all the accessories. If you go into a traditional record shop, they sell records, T-shirts… they might sell books. But they don’t sell turntables, mats, belts, styluses, prints or storage boxes. Although we’re not a megastore in size, the concept is to have that approach. Each time someone would inquire about something, we’d think: ‘That’s a good idea!’, and we’d get some! We kept adding things along the way, until we got to the point where we sold absolutely everything connected with vinyl. Turntables, belts, styluses, sleeves, cleaners, brushes, mats…”
Turntables in particular can be an expensive outlay for an independent operation, and it’s something the company have eased themselves into, as Chris relates: “We have a sample stock, one each of a few different turntables and we can sell from those, or order them in when we need to. We started off selling the cheaper turntables and then gradually went higher-end over time. The most expensive one we have in stock is £900, but we can order in anything!
Larkin’s business was initially all mail order, but as Vinyl Guru grew, it became obvious the operation needed premises, and they moved into a unit on the Airport Industrial Estate, a 15-minute Metro journey away from the centre of Newcastle. “We couldn’t work from home anymore,” says Chris. “Initially, we were looking for somewhere where we could just do the internet business. I looked at a few places and discounted them for various reasons. This place, I really liked because of the location.”
Location plays a major part in most retail businesses, and Chris thought long and hard about the pros and cons of Vinyl Guru not being in the centre of Newcastle: “Being here is a disadvantage in terms of day-to-day footfall from people just passing by. But an advantage in lots of other ways, like buying second-hand record collections. People can pull up right outside the unit with a boot full of heavy records.”
Vinyl Guru is very much a family concern. Chris’s sons, Rob and Dan, both work in the shop; Rob’s main role is to provide office support, handling the development and maintenance of the website and other online platforms, stock control and record valuations, along with running the mail-order operations.
“The majority of people who come to the shop will buy something. We tend not to get time-wasters. In town, inevitably, you get a lot of people who come in out of curiosity.” – Rob Larkin
The outside of Vinyl Guru may look a bit like a garage, but Chris has various visions of how he’ll remedy that, along with expanding the business so that the more visually appealing items can be shown off to their best advantage via
a city-centre premises.
“We have thought about having a big ‘Vinyl Guru’ logo or some sort of graphic on the roller door,” he says. “We’re aiming at keeping here for the internet side of the business, but looking at other premises in town to do the ‘shop’ part. We’ve just started Vinyl Gallery, selling signed vinyl-related art prints that the shop in town would focus on, along with higher-end products like first pressings, collectables, turntables and jukeboxes.”
Due to space restrictions, the store currently houses only one vintage jukebox. “We’ve actually got five at the moment,” says Chris. “One here and the others in storage. They’re refurbished Silver Age Rock-Ola Jukeboxes, dating from the late 1950s to the early 60s. They’ve been restored to close-to-factory condition using original parts and finishes, by a team of specialists located around the UK.”
Selling significant quantities of records at the Vinyl Guru unit has been a relatively recent development. Previously, albums were confined to one corner of the shop. Now, records, framed album sleeves, picture discs, coloured vinyl and more hang from the ceiling and on every wall, for reasons Chris is happy to explain: “One of the things I’d always wanted to do is open a record shop! Then… the penny dropped. I realised I could do it here! Having the record shop side would attract people in to the accessories side. People weren’t going to turn up just to buy some sleeves! But they will to look through the records.”
Browsing the shelves, alongside current indie releases we find a healthy stock of the usual classics. “I stick with what I know,” says Chris. “I buy what I like! Classic rock: Hendrix, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, but also newer bands…”
Vinyl Guru also buy and sell rare records, and pricing is crucial in making or losing a sale or acquisition, as Larkin acknowledges: “I have quite an instinct for what things are worth. If you’re looking through any collection, you’ll see the odd thing and think, ‘That looks interesting’. It might be the name of the band, or the label it’s on. Once you’ve pulled it out, you can research online.”
A trio of Chris Larkin’s personal favourites
UK LP RCA Records
“This stands out for me as David Bowie starting to explore different styles. Kicking off with his ‘mission statement’ Changes, it’s a very accomplished piece of work with Bowie’s songwriting and performances complemented by beautiful string arrangements by Mick Ronson, Rick Wakeman’s masterful keyboards and Ken Scott’s exquisite production. It’s an album I’ve come back to again and again, and it remains as fresh and as stunning as the first time, every time.”
The White Album
UK LP Apple Records
“I discovered this one rummaging through my cousin’s record collection in the early 70s. It was an object of desire totally out of reach of a schoolboy whose pocket money only stretched to the odd 7″. The album begs the question: ‘What were The Beatles playing at?’. A plain white sleeve with just ‘The Beatles’ barely visible on the cover; an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink affair, that runs the gamut from British folk whimsy through to (pre-dating) full-blown heavy metal on Helter Skelter.”
UK LP Atlantic Records
“The mystique surrounding Zeppelin back in the early 70s is difficult to comprehend, unless you were there. My first exposure was a grainy black-and-white silent film, that provided the visuals to Trampled Underfoot on The Old Grey Whistle Test. I heard that a new boy at our school had a copy. I set to work on getting an invite round to his house for a listen… I was blown away. I became a lifelong fan, scouring the second-hand record shops to start my Zeppelin collection.”
A major part of the Vinyl Guru strategy is the shop’s website, which in addition to being an online sales catalogue, also has interviews and features about music. “It was just a case of trying out a bunch of things and seeing what worked,” says Rob. “It took a while to pick up, but that was expected, really. Editorial is much more likely to get talked about on social media than having a great deal on sleeves,” says Chris. “We now get a lot more business through the website. There’s enough visitors to the sales side to sustain the features side, so we’ll come back to it.”
“We’ve just bought the web domain name for bowieshop.co.uk and bowieshop.com, and are going to be setting up a specialist David Bowie online store.A lot of what we’ve developed over the last couple of years has brought us a big David Bowie customer base. I’ve got a big personal collection of his records and Bowie has become a major part of the business.” – Chris Larkin
The shop’s Vinyl Gallery will have a David Bowie bias, at least initially. “There’s a number of Bowie art prints that have been published over the years, mainly prints of the album covers for Ziggy Stardust, Hunky Dory and Aladdin Sane. What they did at the time was publish a limited number. In the case of Ziggy Stardust, it was 195 – and a number of those, 50 I think, were signed by Bowie. We’ve got one from the original run from 2006. When it was originally issued, the signed prints retailed at £750. Now they retail at £3,950, for just the unframed signed print! We haven’t sold it yet…