Take a stroll down a hidden alleyway off one of the main streets in the Dorset market town of Bridport and you might just stumble upon this ‘hidden gem’ (as attested to by a million tourists). Walking into Clocktower Music, you’re met with a warm welcome and a sensory explosion.
Looking a bit like a retro US warehouse, Clocktower is home not only to crates and crates of pre-loved records of all genres, but also shelves full of kitsch – including a jukebox, pinball machine and vintage listening post… its roots as an antiques shop may have a lot to answer for there. Now run by Roy Gregory and a team of staff and volunteers, the shop retains elements of its former self with a range of Bluetooth-enabled vintage radios, sold only in the shop, for around £100 a pop.
Clocktower, which opened in its current guise in 2016, began life as a market stall before migrating to its versatile premises in the town’s art and vintage quarter. Founder Roy, who is originally from Merseyside, tells us how it all began. “I had quite a big record collection,” he says. “So I took a market stall to start selling my records and it went really well.”
When the local town surveyor was looking to theme the market, Roy suggested records – an idea that initially met with a stony silence. “It was 2007, 2008 and records weren’t that much of a thing; nobody really thought it was a good idea and I said: ‘Well, I seem to be doing alright on the market stall and people are bringing ones to buy,’ so they agreed and I went round and I organised all the charity shops to collect records for this day.”
The first Bridport record fair took place in the Electric Palace venue and the Ropemakers pub, featuring around 25 stall holders, before expanding into a regular market with support from the local council. Roy says: “I went to see the surveyor and said, ‘Can you help us?’, and they said: ‘Will it help tourism?’ and I said, ‘Yes’ – so they gave us £100 towards advertising, which was really cool for a town council to help us like that. People came from London and Bristol, because they probably thought it was a nice idea to come and have
a holiday and do that.”
A national music magazine dubbed the fair – which Roy named ‘Vinyl Saturday’ – the best in Europe, helping to attract record buyers from further afield. With the success of the quarterly markets, Roy started considering where to go next.
Speaking to Long Live Vinyl in the busy Bridport shop, he says: “One day, I came in here when it was an antiques shop and it was full of brown things, and there was a corner spare, so I asked Nigel, the owner, whether I could start putting some records in here, and it went well. Over time, Nigel was thinking of retiring and we ended up with quite a few of us doing stuff in here – there’s a recording studio in the back and a rehearsal room – and the records kept going. There was another chap, Mark, who had a record shop in the back of the pet shop in town – very quirky, very Bridport. We all got together with a guy doing instruments and we started doing this. Someone I know has a printing press in his garden shed, meaning we can do T-shirts and print onto vinyl. Nigel sold all the antiques… the rest is history.”
Tourism is very important to Clocktower and Bridport as a whole, a small West Dorset town which has many independent shops, cafés and a strong local arts scene, but isn’t necessarily on everyone’s radar. Roy has estimated that 80% of customers are tourists or visitors, with the remainder being residents of the 12,000-population town. He says: “Our main challenge is getting people through the door. Once they do that, most will come back. Even though we’re only a few minutes from the High Street, our rents are a lot lower and we’ve also got parking, but we have to spend almost as much on advertising as rent to be found. That said, all the floors upstairs are artists and designers. You’ve got guys at the back who make waxworks for Madame Tussauds and artists and potters. It’s quite a vibrant area and because it’s so different, it brings in lots of different people.”
While the shop attracts a lot of predominantly men of a similar age to Roy and his team (there are at least a dozen people browsing on the wintry Thursday when we visit), there’s been a significant increase in teenage girls buying cassettes to play on second-hand Sony Walkmans, or old music magazines. He adds: “Buyers are getting younger. A lot of under-30s download music and buy vinyl, but there’s almost a missing generation between 1986-2006.
“While it’s mostly vinyl,” he continues, “we’ve tried to make it interesting and we’ve done a few things which are about attracting people to come and browse. So much is driven by the net these days, it’s good to just come and get stuck in.”
Clocktower’s huge album selection is catalogued in alphabetical order from
A to Z, while the 7″s are sorted into record-label order, rather than alphabetical. “You’ve got all your Atlantics together,” says Roy. “You’ve got all your Decca, so we do little things like that which make it different.”
“All around the shop there’s all sorts of quirky stuff,” Roy adds. ”Including the pinball machine and jukebox, things like that. We try to give everyone who comes in the opportunity to listen to music how they want, with three listening booths for vinyl and cassettes, and we can play stuff back through the old radios, too. We do lots of things to catch people’s attention, like the vintage radios – we’ve Bluetoothed them so you can play Spotify and iTunes through them.”
Unlike a lot of other record shops, Clocktower very rarely sells anything online. It means you have to go and experience the shop in order to grab your bargain, but it is well worth the trek. The team work hard to create a community around the shop and make everyone feel welcome. There’s free Wi-Fi, sofas – even free tea and coffee, although you’ll have to make it yourself! What’s more, the shop’s toilets have been named
the best in any record shop in the UK. Quite an accolade.
There are other draws, too, with the whole team throwing ideas into the mix. Roy runs us through a popular addition to the shop: “When you’ve got a second-hand record shop, you do get a fair number of records where the records are shattered or the sleeves are gone, and so lots of shops end up with shelves of albums and sleeves hoping one day to match them, but they never do. So we always have a sale section, but we started having containers of iconic sleeves, which we sell for £1 to £5. Most of us try to get good condition – not only the vinyl, but the sleeve, too – so the opportunity to upgrade a sleeve is great.”
Opening from Wednesdays to Sundays allows Roy (who was technically retired from the financial services industry when he got himself into the Clocktower venture) a couple of days off a week.
It also means the shop is busier on the days it is open.
Gone in a flash
Flash sales are another Clocktower trick to attract custom. As he puts on a Nick Cave record at the request of a customer, Roy explains: “Every now and then, we do a three- or four-hour flash sale – so we’ve done one today on CDs, where between 11am and 4pm, there’s a 50% discount on CDs. We just announce it on social media, very quickly, literally the day before and it gets people in.
“We tend to sell more during these sales… but this is so much fun, that’s why we do it. It’s the conversations. There was a lady who came in the other month who was the first person I’ve met who saw The Beatles at Shea Stadium.
“Living in Bridport, you’ve got Billy Bragg, PJ Harvey… and Bobby Gillespie from Primal Scream has got a holiday home down here, so you get those people coming in. You get other people, like the photographer that took the famous Bob Marley photograph lives locally, they’ve retired down here; you’ve got a guy who designed some of the Led Zeppelin covers now lives round here. It’s not so much the musicians, but what you get a lot of down here is the engineers, the producers, the photographers, the people that work in the industry – so they always have quite interesting stories and they have quite good record collections.”
Clocktower also plays host to live music from across the world. “The last one was a Japanese indie band who flew in on the Wednesday, did their album launch here on the Thursday, did a couple of radio shows on the Friday, then a gig Saturday and Sunday and flew back to Japan on the Monday.
“So the local paper had ‘Japanese indie band launches album in Bridport’. Once you put a screen across and move all the chairs, you can get 40 to 50 people, and it was full. We had people watching in from the windows, too.”
The shop also hosts gigs and records by local artists and has become an important part of the local arts scene – attracting visitors from across the world – but although there are over a dozen places you can pick up vinyl in Bridport, there is only one Clocktower Music.
In closing, Roy offers a few tips if you’re tempted to have a dig next time you’re in town: “We’ve got Bridport Music, another independent record shop. They do new vinyl, so we send people up there for that and they send people down here, too. We do hi-fi repairs, but we send people up there for the styluses. If anyone comes in with guitar stuff, we send them up there. It works really well.
“If you include all the charity shops, there are about 15 or 16 places you can find records in Bridport and, for the size of the town, that’s incredible. One of the label reps said that outside of the big cities, Bridport is one of the hotspots for vinyl in the country.”