A record shop with a vast array of newly released music, Southsea’s Pie & Vinyl also offers weary collectors the chance to tuck into some traditional comfort food…
At first glance, most people might think a savoury pastry dish and a circular black slab of synthetic resin with a hole in the middle make for unusual bedfellows. But for Steve Courtnell, the owner of Pie & Vinyl record café, the coupling is a perfectly natural one.
“The idea of a record shop with food always appealed to me. I look at both pies and vinyl as traditional, old-fashioned products that have both been pulled forward to the future and given a contemporary makeover. They seemed to go together. In my head, anyway, the idea always made sense.” – Steve Courtnell, Pie & Vinyl
Steve’s shop is located on Castle Road in a semi-leafy area of the Southsea district of Portsmouth, just a pebble’s throw away from the beach. At the top of the road, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote his first two Sherlock Holmes stories, while at the bottom is a blue plaque commemorating the birthplace of Peter Sellers. Now it’s Courtnell’s shop, opened in 2012, that’s adding to the cultural heritage of the location.
As soon as you cross the threshold and enter Pie & Vinyl, you know you’re in for a sensory feast. Accompanying the sonics emanating from the turntable behind the counter, the inviting smell of freshly heated pies wafts around the room. And if that wasn’t enough, the shop’s wonderfully weird, quasi-Victorian décor is a sight to behold.
So you don’t spill gravy over your new-release purchase, the shop is split into two distinct sections, the dining area and the records themselves. The stock is all new vinyl, with a fierce commitment to new releases over reissues. There are no second-hand records and no CDs, either. “When we launched, we considered CDs to be our safety blanket,” recalls Steve. “Now we don’t stock them. It was an early thing, it feels funny even thinking about that now.”
Steve pursued a number of career paths before settling into owning and running a record shop. “I wasn’t one of those people at school who always knew what they wanted to be. I’ve dabbled in so many things. I used to play football. I’m a trained hairdresser. I’ve worked in the fashion industry. And it got to the point where I wanted to do something that I was genuinely passionate about – something to which I could really give my all.”
The overriding passion that won out was music. And Steve, a self-confessed Britpop boy whose formative years were spent singing along to N.W.A records at the back of the football coach, decided to take action. “I’ve enjoyed music all my life. It’s been the one consistent thing. Around the time of planning my next move, we’re talking late 2010, I noticed that labels were starting to press vinyl again. So I started to buy it. I didn’t actually have a record player at the time and that encouraged me to buy one. I reconnected with vinyl all over again.”
One detail that got Steve thinking was the inclusion of download codes as part of the vinyl package. “Download codes are a really nice touch, and it seemed to me that we’d finally arrived at the ultimate format. They worked well with the way people were listening to music at the time. Downloading was at its peak, and using your iPod was a big thing. Those codes, along with the vinyl experience itself, of course, helped give me the confidence that new records would sell.”
“Vinyl has got itself into a nice position and we have a strong platform. More and more people seem to understand that the best experience of listening to an artist you love is through vinyl.” – Steve Courtnell, Pie & Vinyl
To put it mildly, not everybody shared his vinyl-shaped vision of the future. “Of course, when you float this idea around to your friends and family, they think you’re going mad. At the time, record shops were dead – physical-format music was dead.” And that’s where the pies come in.
While working in London, Steve had encountered Manze’s traditional pie and mash shop on Tower Bridge Road and was impressed by its popularity and simplicity of approach. Then, serendipitously as it turned out, a friend of a friend got a job at award-winning restaurant Pieminister in Bristol, and the humble pie was added to the record-shop mix. “I wanted to create a tangible experience for customers coming into the shop. Just like putting on a record,” enthuses Steve. “You pick up the record, look at the sleeve, take it out of the inner and place it on the turntable. There’s no real experience in simply pressing return on your keyboard to listen to music. I want Pie & Vinyl to provide everything the internet can’t. As long as we’re doing that, I believe we’re doing a good thing.” It seems Portsmouth’s record-buying public has bought fully into the concept.
“We get a lot of people who just come in for a pie and we get those who only come for the records. But most of the time, they come in for both. It works as an experience. We are a record shop first and we sell food. Above all, we are an experience that people can immerse themselves in – have a look around, listen to good music, buy good music and have a pie. It’s that experience we sell more than anything else.” – Steve Courtnell, Pie & Vinyl
Steve certainly believes the people working at the shop, including himself, also have an important role to play in fleshing out the experience, and has learnt a lesson or two from his early record-buying days. “When I was younger, digging around the record shops in Pompey, I always felt like I either had to pass some kind of music exam before I could actually buy a record, or the owners didn’t really want to sell me anything, as I was looking through their personal collection.”
“I thought Pie & Vinyl could work with a more open mind, be more approachable, and take the opportunity to learn with its customers. If somebody comes in and asks for a record we haven’t got, or an artist we haven’t even heard of, there’s no need to be afraid of saying ‘No’.”
To its credit, Pie & Vinyl has a welcoming inclusive feel to it, without the merest whiff of musical snobbery. “People often ask us as a record shop, ‘Which type of music do you sell?’. And we describe ourselves as ‘genreless’. We’re a melting pot of every type of new music. If somebody asks for jazz or funk, we say there are reissues, but you could also check out Thundercat. Do we sell classical? Yes, now and again, but you could always look at the Erased Tapes label, which is a modern take on classical music.”
Taking time to flick through the racks of records in Pie & Vinyl, you soon discover just how much contemporary music there is within its walls, with as many as 40 to 50 new releases added on a busy Friday. “We like to sell new music first and foremost. That’s what appeals to me. The reissues have their place, but if everyone only buys Pink Floyd records, what’s going to happen to the next generation?” asks Steve. “We want to sell records for a long time.”
Another nod to a love of all types of music – and Pie & Vinyl’s approach to inclusivity – is the way the records are displayed. A conscious decision was made to have just a simple A-Z approach, with all the vinyl lumped lovingly in together and absolutely no specialist sub-sections for dub, krautrock, electronica, acid-folk, world or whatever.
It’s Pie & Vinyl’s uncynical yet effective way of getting their customers to browse through all the records in the shop and maybe stumble over a release they don’t know much about, but really like the look of. Steve is excited at the prospect:
“People may come in wanting one thing, but walk out with another that might change their lives that day. Then they’ll come back next week and buy another.” – Steve Courtnell, Pie & Vinyl
Riding neatly on the back of the vinyl revolution, the shop has been open now for five years and the Pie & Vinyl ‘brand’ is evolving nicely. The operation boasts its own record label (check out Highlights Of Our Modern World), more than its fair share of coolly branded merchandise, numerous in-store performances, a record club and even a small satellite shop down the road selling turntables and separates – the imaginatively titled Pie & Hi-Fi. While nothing is taken for granted, it’s Steve’s ambition to open another shop, Pie & Vinyl 2, some time this year, in a location yet to be decided.