Nestled in a historic market town between Bath and Bristol, Longwell Records is a shop at the centre of its community, run by a lifelong collector who wants to make a difference. Gary Walker wishes the Keynsham shop a happy second birthday…
Record shops act as de facto community centres for music lovers the world over, and a sense of community prevails between the shops, too. When Iain Aitchison found himself exhausted and searching for a new career after 16 years working in drug and alcohol addiction services, a fellow store owner paved the way with a selfless act of kindness.
Adrian Bayford, who opened Black Barn Records in Cambridge after winning £148 million on the EuroMillions lottery in 2012, extended the hand of friendship two years ago. It was a life-changing intervention for Aitchison, who grew up in Southmead – a working-class Bristol suburb he describes as “rough as arseholes” – listening to ska, two-tone and reggae and catching the record collecting bug at the age of 11.
“I was a drug and alcohol worker in the NHS for 16 years, and came to the end of that contract in 2015,” remembers Iain. “I was pretty burnt out from the sort of stuff I had to deal with day-in, day-out. It was a really good job, but 16 years working with Class A misusers was taking its toll.”
Setting Up Shop
“I was looking for a way out, and I’d always loved music, and buying and selling records as a hobby. A really good friend of mine, Adrian, enabled me to set up the record shop. I was doing it online at first, and he said: ‘Have you ever thought about setting up a shop?’.
“Having no retail experience at all, I didn’t think I could do it in a million years. Being online suited me, but he gave me an opportunity I couldn’t refuse and gave me the first few months’ rent. It was one of those moments in life when you’ve got to take the opportunity.”
Aitchison’s choice of location for Longwell Records, named after the Bristol suburb he now calls home, raised a few eyebrows. Rather than setting up shop in the bohemian city he grew up in, with a thriving music scene and thousands of record collectors on tap, he opted for the quieter environs of the nearby sleepy market town of Keynsham – with a population of just 16,000.
“I was walking along the quieter end of Keynsham and saw this empty premises and I just knew,” he recalls of the Temple Street site that had previously hosted a pancake shop, a barber’s, a tattoo studio and a charity shop. Overcoming other people’s doubt became a powerful motivating force.
“The resistance wasn’t from locals, it was from people in Bristol,” Aitchison explains. “People were pessimistic about opening a record shop in Keynsham, because of an elderly population and maybe not being as ‘hipster cool’ as a lot of places, but the town’s got an amazing music festival; it’s a real untapped resource, musically.
“If people say: ‘You can’t do that’, I try to prove them wrong, just to show that things can work – being a drug worker for 16 years, that was my thing. There was a lot of snobbery. I wasn’t well known within record shops in Bristol. I’ve been buying all my life, since I was 11, but I wasn’t a major record dealer, so people maybe thought it was just a money-making exercise, but it’s not about that. I love what I’m doing and want to prove it can work. There used to be two shops in the town, but we’re the first record shop in a generation – in 20 years or more.”
Attention quickly turned to filling the shop with stock as opening day approached and the reality of converting an online business to a bricks-and-mortar store dawned on Aitchison. “When we opened, we just about had enough stock – probably about 2,000 records. There was a lot of my private stuff, and I got records from Black Barn – they helped out, but I’d been all over the country buying stock from other record shops, too, spending thousands of pounds, getting discounts and building a rapport with other shops. Magpie Records in Chippenham were brilliant.
“The night before was terrible. It was a case of, ‘Just put £3 on everything’! A lot of people walked away with a lot of good stuff under their arms for good value. I wasn’t used to retail; it was carnage, but it was such an amazing day. It was like the whole of Keynsham was there.”
The following months didn’t prove so successful, and like most small-business owners, Aitchison had to grit his teeth and dig in. “It was so difficult, really tough,” he says. “People would come in and look, and price up their collections, and we had people selling, but it was quite few and far between in the early weeks. The usual suspects were turning up – the dealers cherry-picking everything – but I didn’t mind that at all, it was all about building up a reputation. It took a good six months, and then we started getting regulars.
“Graham Jones from Proper Distribution, who made the film Last Shop Standing, really helped, too,” Aitchison recalls. “We showed his film in the local space. He came down and it was superb. It put us on the map a bit and that was another platform to move on.”
Stock For All Ages
Today, step through the doors of Longwell Records, navigate past the lifesize poster of Aitchison with old friend and avid collector Stephen Merchant, and you’ll nd a shop stocked with love, passion and an earnest desire to spread the word about new music.
Among the racks of 6,000 records, carefully curated sections of punk, hip-hop, reggae and country sit alongside a healthy spread of new releases, BBC sound-effects records, esoterica and records by local bands. On the Saturday afternoon we visit, the shop is bustling, Iain playing out Liam Gallagher’s latest to a pleasingly diverse mix of ages of both genders. Record snobbery is entirely absent. “It ranges from 11, or below, right up to people in their 80s,” he says. “The main customers are males in their 40s, but also loads of females, loads of kids from the local school sixth form. One of my proudest moments was seeing two sixth formers walking to school in Longwell Records hoodies. I feel so privileged to have that rapport with the local community.
“The younger customers buy a lot of Courtney Barnett, Will Varley, The Horrors, Idles, The 1975, Rat Boy, Here Lies Man, the Gallagher brothers, QOTSA, Kendrick Lamar, Arcade Fire, Sampha… Rat Boy, who is a big fan of the shop and a lovely lad.
“If someone comes in, I suggest they look in the cheap box first – we’ve got a listening station, go and put some records on and experiment with different kinds of music. That’s what a record shop should be there for.
“Over the last year, I’ve had such a journey with new artists – Courtney Barnett, The Horrors, Will Varley, Michael Head… such beautiful amazing music, and I love passing that on to people in the shop. A lot of people say our prices are good, which I like to maintain. I’ve got to make money, it’s a business, but there’s nothing worse than people feeling like they’re being ripped off.”
While the vision for Longwell Records – which is set to extend to a second shop – was his own, Iain is quick to acknowledge the role played by Kevin Gregory, his sole employee: “It’s not just about me; Kevin’s knowledge, particularly around the soul and mod scene, is fantastic. He was originally a customer and he’s the backbone of the shop. He’s great with customers and he knows exactly what their musical preferences are.”
Aitchison is also working on a film about the shop and its role in the local music community, taking some pearls of wisdom from his mate Merchant. “It’s based around the shop, it’s about the shop’s customers and how their lives are affected by vinyl,” he says. “It’s going to be filmed over the next year; I want it to have a bit of comedy, a lot of funny stories and things that’ll make your toes curl a little bit! We’re going to do an Antiques Roadshow day with a panel of experts in the shop; we’ll be visiting people with massive collections…
Aitchison, a father of three girls, continues to display the altruistic characteristics that saw him helping people overcome addiction for nearly two decades, and despite the low margin involved in stocking new releases, he continues to donate proceeds to charity.
“We stocked the Bread Over Bombs album, with all proceeds going to local food banks. It’s an amazing album, and they came over from LA and played the Keynsham Music Festival,” he says.
“The Streets reissues [Original Pirate Material and A Grand Don’t Come For Free], too, there’s a guy called Jasper Thompson who runs a charity called Help Bristol’s Homeless, making old cargo containers into places for homeless people to live in Bristol. I suggested we sell The Streets albums, which are £29, and donate £5 from each one to the charity. It’s gone well, and in future we’ll be doing more stuff like that. We have to make money, but I want to do it in a way that feels good, and give something back to people who need it.”
A local shop, for local people…
Iain’s pick of local acts on the shelves at Longwell Records
“This is my favourite record at the moment – it’s instrumental 90s hip-hop, and I love stuff like that. I sold about 30 copies of that and all the proceeds went to a cancer charity.”
Victorian Dolls EP
“Oh my god, they’re awesome! Quite a heavy band, alt-rock, a bit garage-y. They’re brilliant lads, and I reckon they’re going places.”
Last Of The Bristolians
“Krissy Kriss, aka Kinsman, is a very-well-known wordsmith rapper I’ve known since our days being brought up in Southmead. I really identify with the vibe and he’s supported the shop so much.”
“This is such a brilliant funky soul and hip-hop album, released last year and made by DJ Scott Hendy from Bristol and world mixing champ DJ Woody.”
“This is from the same sort of school as Ded Tebiase – instrumental hip-hop. They’re lovely people, they come in and they’re gobsmacked that Keynsham has a record shop like this.”