Bella Union’s record shop, nestling in Brighton’s historic Lanes, could trigger a rejuvenation – if local planning issues weren’t holding it back…
Written by Simon Raymonde
I lived happily in and around London for almost half a century, but following a run-in with a crooked landlord in Hackney and a growing discontent with city life, I decided – on a whim – to get out. With no plan of where to go, my wife and I jumped on a train to Brighton and within minutes, we’d fallen in love with the sea air, coffee shops and stunning buildings of Brighton and Hove.
We never went back to London. Brighton’s not just become our home, it’s become the centre of our work too. While our label offices remain in Shoreditch, we built a studio here and, in May 2016, Bella Union opened a vinyl shop down a narrow, cobbled alleyway near the seafront, part of the historic Lanes. In a lane of 16 properties, we are the only shop. Our vinyl store is – in keeping with the other properties in Ship Street Gardens – tiny, with a small voice; from the outset we’d hoped to begin a revitalisation of this neglected part of the city. Like many great towns, however, getting things done in Brighton – with its 21 wards and 54 councillors – can be a slow process. I don’t doubt the sincerity, but the unwieldy platform of local government rarely produces swift action.
Not too many businesses have thrived in this dark, narrow vein, yet we began with real optimism in our vision and hoped our arrival would signal the birth of other small, creative outlets. Local residents warned us warmly that they’d been here many times before when newcomers arrived; a fresh wave of enthusiasm, followed by a tsunami of apathy.
Undeterred, we engaged swiftly with two councillors, who seemed excited about our arrival. To our great surprise, they were also fans of the label and, at the initial meetings, ideas were embraced and our concerns noted. I’ll give you a brief picture: the alley, known here as a ‘twitten’, runs between two busy streets maybe 200 yards from the seafront and pretty close to Brighton pier. At night, it is dark, Dickensian and rather seedy. In daylight, it’s intriguing, a place you might imagine an old antique bookshop would be found, or a barber’s. Or indeed a tiny record shop. This twitten has been in Brighton since at least the 1750s and we know there was an antique shop in 1900 run by Henry James Vaughan. There are picturesque houses on either side of the alley, some in better shape than others, inhabited mostly by lovely, artistic community-spirited people. It’s approximately 100 yards long, dominated on one side by a single boarded-up property that has remained empty for over four years. It was previously occupied by a large dental surgery. The boards are regularly damaged through attempted break-ins, and yet, despite years of neglect and the repeated vandalism, it is on the market for rent at £52,000 a year. The terms of the lease state it can only be… ‘a dentistry’. So it failed as a dentist’s surgery, but can only be rented by other dentists? It will remain empty.
We discussed with the aforementioned friendly councillors the folly and incomprehensibility of all these scenarios: plans were put in place to serve notice on the owner to improve the property for a number of reasons. Talks were held about improved lighting, the crack dealing in the alley and how to deter the daily daubs of graffiti that greet our arrival at work each day… But nothing happened.
While the graffiti in the alley is rarely good enough to even be classified as ‘street art’, it still shows way more imagination than the council have in resolving the problem. When one in every 69 people in Brighton is homeless, private and corporate greed such as this, where ludicrous terms are inserted into a lease to simply avoid renting the property or having to convert it, makes my blood boil. Even if, for two months over the coldest periods in our weather-beaten city, they opened it up as a shelter, indeed anything that showed some community spirit, I’d feel marginally less inclined to join ranks with Occupy Brighton, break in myself and start a sit-in!
I feel 2018 really needs to be a year of action, but despite our best intentions, our vinyl shop looks set to remain the only retail spot in our little cobblestoned backstreet. Yet with our 2018 release schedule already more exciting than any 12-month period in our 20-year history, I doubt I’ll have time to get this nagging toothache seen to.