The Record Deck is the UK’s only floating record shop. Chris Parkin pulls up alongside proprietor and skipper Luke Gifford to find out who his customers are, and what floats his musical boat…
The Record Deck isn’t the easiest shop to find. “I know, I keep moving it,” smiles its owner, Luke Gifford. It is, however, an idyllic place to dig for old records. It’s a glorious late October weekend when we finally track down his barge – the only floating record shop in the UK – in Springfield Park, Hackney. No one is in any hurry, including Gifford, who must be retail’s easiest-going proprietor. He DJs and chats to customers under a clear blue sky and his carefree Instagram feed is all willow trees, canal-side hammocks and, of course, vinyl treasures. His is a bucolic life lifted from the pages of William Morris’s News From Nowhere or a Jerome K. Jerome story.
Gifford pootles around the southern half of England at a pace so far removed from 21st-century living that he makes no bones at all about a forthcoming trip to a floating market in Berkhamsted that will take six days. That’s a 12-day round trip from his winter moorings along the River Lea between Angel and Tottenham… Fast culture, this really ain’t. So why did Gifford decide to sail against the wind of conventional landlubber retailing?
Worn down by the grind of a college librarian job, Gifford weighed his options. After totting up the figures, and scared off by the skyrocketing cost of London rents, he hit the waterways full time in 2014. “I was just trying to get out of the nine-to-five,” says the 42-year- old. “I never really got on with that, so this is just a way of trying to make a living in a freer way. I’ve always been into boats; I’ve had it for 18 years now. I guess, thinking about it, my only assets were that and a load of records.”
Barge-based record shops aren’t heavily touted at careers fairs, but once Gifford had conquered his fear of the unknown, he loaded his collection onto his boat and upped anchor.
The Record Deck now carries eight crates of priced-up LPs, four boxes of singles, and a few CDs and books. Gifford adds to these from two big baskets, which he works through during his many hours of solitude. We find an impressive and competitively priced mix of progressive rock, acid-folk, jazz and stellar dub originals by The Scientist and others, all in excellent condition. There are Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Pentangle and Captain Beefheart LPs alongside year-zero punk, oddities such as Ravi Shankar’s underrated Shankar Family & Friends LP, and the best 90s indie rock.
Gifford started collecting when he was 12, taking that well-worn route from his parents’ Beatles albums to heavy metal and beyond, via Talking Heads and Neil Young. “The shop is definitely curated a bit to what I’m into and what I know, and it depends on where I go,” Gifford explains. “I go to the Cropredy Festival near Banbury every year, so I gear up my stock for that: folky, proggy, Fairport-y, that sort of world.” The wax he restocks with is also dependent on where he’s moored up. Just like The Record Deck’s day-to-day existence, the quality of Gifford’s onboard selection is guided by fortune. “Where you hang out colours the stock, especially for me, because I get most of my stock from the people I meet,” he says. “People who are retiring… or moving onto a boat, even. It’s very random. I have a sign out and someone will be walking their dog and see it. But people like the idea of their records being redistributed around the country on a boat. They even mention that; they’ll come to me because they want their records to end up in other places. I picked up two small collections this week. One had lots of Incredible String Band and other odd things. The other one was hip-hop.”
The Record Deck stocks a bit of everything, from 50p singles to pricey rarities. Gifford aims to appeal as much to Mr Dog Walker as he does the seasoned collectors who seek him out. “The best customers, though, are the ones who’ve randomly stumbled upon it and find something they were looking for; a record they’ve been after for years.” He has his regulars, though, and his inner metal fan is still singing hosannas after he sold some records to a member of Whitesnake. “My big customers this year have been Scandinavian record-shop owners,” he adds. “The pound is so low that they can restock here and take it back and still make their mark-up.”
The Record Deck has another niche audience. More and more barge owners have turntables on their boats, Gifford explains, and he likes to target them with a sub-genre as obscure as witch house and pirate metal: canal folksong. “I always make sure I’ve got some of those in,” laughs Gifford. “They’re interesting to boaters. In the 1800s, there were lots of songs written about the canals by the people who built them. My top track is something from the 70s about a boat called the Tilbury that blew up in a tunnel in London. It’s amazing.”
The Record Deck hasn’t gone up in flames just yet, but calamity is always just around the corner. Records sometimes end up in the canal. “They don’t float,” Gifford says, “so there’s a first-press Ziggy… at the bottom of Regent’s Canal.” And the more time he spends treading slippery gunnels, the more often he falls into the murky water below. But he’s not the only one who’s ended up in the soup. Shoppers, beware: “Some guys on the Kennet and Avon were in a rowing boat and very excitedly bought some records… then capsized five minutes later. It was like Poseidon took a sacrifice.”
Gifford is sanguine about taking a dunk, but he’s less enamoured with bad weather. Even as we’re checking out a copy of Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance under a blazing autumn sun, Storm Brian is bearing down on the UK and is forecast to rain on The Record Deck’s parade the following weekend. Not ideal conditions for displaying crates of records on a towpath. “If the weather’s bad for a few weeks, then you’re going to do badly,” Gifford sighs. “You can travel all week to a festival or a floating market and it might be raining all weekend, so everyone gets a bit down in the dumps about that.” Why can’t shoppers just climb aboard during inclement weather?
“My licence is to trade off the boat, you see. You can get a licence to have people on board, but it’s tricky – you need extra safety certificates, extra insurance. The licence I have is called a Roving Trader, which is a nice name. It means you can sell through hatches or shelves attached to your boat. I do have umbrellas and I sometimes do a mini setup with the side-hatch open.”
During spring and summer, The Record Deck winds its way around the country’s waterways to the growing number of canal festivals and floating markets supported by the Canal & River Trust and Roving Canal Traders Association. Gifford has piloted The Record Deck as far as Stratford-upon- Avon, Birmingham and Leicester. He’s also undertaken the three-week journey to Bath. “I love the canal,” he says. “The Kennet and Avon is my favourite. As soon as you hit Pewsey, there’s a lot of history around you. White Horses, Avebury… It has a good feel about it.”
The floating markets aren’t just about commerce – if they were, barge owners would return to land and get a market stall somewhere. They’re also social ‘happenings’ for the boating masses. The Record Deck has organised ‘onstore’ performances from This Is The Kit and Darren Hayman, and Gifford puts on acoustic nights for the community of barge owners he’s part of. Even if the winter brings apocalyptically bad weather and annihilates all his passing trade, Gifford is going nowhere – very slowly. “You can choose one or the other, really: money or freedom,” he says. “It’s hard to have them both.”
Five canal folksong classics, popular among the barge-owning community
Mikron Theatre Company
The Tommy Note
John Raven Et Al
Poor Old Horse
The Albion Band
The Eerie Canal
The Single Bolinder