Long Live Vinyl had more than 8,000 votes in our inaugural Record Shop Of The Year competition. Gary Walker pays a visit to the worthy winner – Teesside’s Sound It Out Records.
Stockton’s Sound It Out Records is the last independent record shop standing in Teesside, and that’s not by accident. Tucked away from the North East market town’s high street, with its exterior painted to look like a giant boombox, it’s run by a true independent champion for whom records are all about memories.
A hardcore of local customers have kept Tom Butchart’s proudly messy little Yarm Street shop in business while all of the others in the area have slipped away, boosted by a surprising flow of visitors from all parts of the globe attracted by Sound It Out, a 2010 documentary by local filmmaker Jeanie Finlay.
Screened at SXSW in Austin, Texas seven years ago, the film was a response to the decline of independent record shops, a heartfelt tribute to the people who keep them alive – and the stories of the characters who shop in them. The New York Times was fulsome in its praise: “Like a mint pressing in a bargain bin, Sound It Out is a rare find”. Film magazine Empire agreed, writing: “Finlay honours the shop as a place of communion for often desolate lives, with Butchart their pragmatic priest.”
It’s an apt description of Sound It Out’s disarming owner, a friend to his customers who has spent 20 years behind the counter on Yarm Street after taking over from previous owner Brian Alfred. Like all good record shop owners, Butchart’s shop is born from a personal obsession with vinyl. In the film, he admits: “When I look at the records on the walls, I can hear them all in my head, it’s memories, all of them, every single one.”
With a love of music that kicked off with records by the Sex Pistols, The The, Pet Shop Boys and tapes of John Peel shows, Butchart’s record shop journey started out with a part-time job at another Stockton indie, Off The Tracks, before that went out of business in October 1996. Little did he know that two years later he’d be running his own show.
“After the shop closed, I went to uni and studied for a business qualification,” he says. “You had to have a placement somewhere, and my friend Alf had just opened this shop. I asked him for a placement. He said, ‘How much is it going to cost me?’. I told him, ‘Nothing’, so I did it, and then he asked if I wanted to work here part-time. After eight or nine months, he asked me: ‘Do you want to buy the shop?’”
Riders On The Storm
Butchart eventually took charge in August 1998, not necessarily a vintage year for independent record shops, with the late 90s and early 2000s proving to be a lean time for vinyl, but with Tom’s steady stewardship and a band of die-hard customers following him from Off The Tracks, Sound It Out rode out the storm, helped by keen local dance music and metal scenes.
Vinyl now accounts for around 90 per cent of the shop’s stock. “Teesside is quite a small area,” says Butchart, “there’s Middlesbrough, Darlington and Stockton – and in the 1990s there were four or five shops just in Stockton where you could buy records. They all started dying out in the mid-90s, which is one of those sad things.
“The early 2000s were hard for us, too, but we were always known as a vinyl shop and we were getting a lot of the dance stuff and the small indie stuff. The dance scene was really strong at the time, the whole Gatecrasher sound and that kind of thing. For me, it was quite easy to tune into because in the other shop I worked in we sold a lot of dance stuff, but also a lot of Oasis, Verve and the Pixies – lots of indie and the 4AD stuff.
“We have people coming in now who collect 4AD records. I’m 46, and that whole generation who stopped buying records and got into CDs in the early 90s, then got rid of their CDs because they were streaming and downloading, are now back buying records.
“We sell a lot of the standards: The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Beatles and the 4AD stuff, but a lot of Johnny Jewel and synthwave, too, we sell a hell of a lot of that. The last Daft Punk album, we sold 80 copies, which is a lot for an indie shop, we sell a lot of Nick Cave…”
Butchart acknowledges that the release of Finlay’s documentary was something of a turning point for the shop, and says it’s not unusual for visitors to London from around the world to make the 500-mile round trip to visit Sound It Out.
“When the film came out, it went bananas. The shop is twice the size it was when I took over now. We’ve got 30,000 records in the main shop and we’re pushing 100,000 in the warehouse.
“We have a lot of walk-in customers. They come from all around the world and visit maybe twice a year – China, Australia, Germany, everywhere, the Germans particularly love us. Without question, the film helped a hell of a lot. It took us from being a small independent to a medium-sized shop.
“We get more customers from outside Teesside than inside buying records. If you go into the town and ask if there are any record shops, people will say ‘no’, because we’re off the beaten track. If you look hard enough in a small town, there’s almost always a record shop, and that’s how it works for us. We’re in a part of town where no one goes, so if you come here it’s because you want to come here.”
More Than Just A Shop
With the help of his two staff, Natalie Chapman and Stuart Willoughby, Butchart has succeeded in making Sound It Out, like all of the other front-runners in our Record Shop Of The Year competition, more than just a shop. In order to survive in the face of aggressive online retailers, streaming sites and economic uncertainty, independent record shops have to become community centres, their owners passionately spreading the gospel about the music they love.
“I know a lot of customers who’ve been coming in here for 20 years, and I know their kids, what they do for a living…
I know their lives and they know mine, they know my dog! It’s not just a shop, we’re a small community, we go to gigs together… it’s more like a community now. Record shops, it’s true, we are like community centres.
“The average age of my customers is 45-50, but it’s all walks of life. You get the students, engineers, professionals… but we also see a lot of 25 to 30-year-olds, and they’re into so much music. People go on about how streaming and downloads are dangerous and a big threat to what we do, but it’s not really. Kids now can just click and listen
to things, and decide whether they like it and then order the album. It’s making it more healthy. People are discovering music and they’re getting into more music that way.
“My niece was six when her mum asked me if we had anything by Otis Redding in the shop because she was obsessed with (Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay, and she likes Meatloaf, too. I gave her a record player for her birthday and her mum initially wasn’t sure about it! But she plays Otis Redding and Meatloaf records now as well as Frozen and stuff like that. Then she goes round to see her gran and plays Elvis and Beatles records with her, and that’s great. We’re seeing a generation, not just of 25-year-olds, but 16-year-olds… 12-year-olds… coming in and buying records here.”
Tom also believes there is a growing sense of community between fellow shop owners across the UK, encouraged by the introduction of Record Store Day in 2008.
“Whenever I’m in other parts of the country I go to the other shops, and I think the indie scene is much stronger than it has been. Record Store Day has made all the indies talk to each other. 10 years ago, if you were an indie in Bristol you didn’t talk to the shops in London, and Record Store Day and social media have changed that. People talk to each other and I think that’s the way forward – it has to be.
“There are retailer groups online and someone will go, ‘Have you got a copy of The Cure’s album? We’ve sold out’, and someone will say, ‘I’ve got two here’ and you can send them. We can pass stock around, and that never would have happened without social media, and there’s scope for it all to keep growing still, too…”
NEV. Craig. Shane
“Record Store Day is a double-edged sword for us,” Butchart explains. “It’s absolutely brilliant, but it’s also really hard work. The first two were disastrous for me, but now we have people queuing overnight. This year, the first person got here at 2am Thursday and queued all day Thursday and Friday. The first three in the queue are always regulars and they have competitions between them – two years ago it was Craig, then Nev, then Shane… this year it was Nev, then Craig, then Shane, it’s always the same three characters. We get hundreds through the door. We let five people in at 8am, and then it’s one-in, one-out. It’s a fair system.”
Before we leave Tom to continue putting out his Christmas section and preparing for the week’s in-store live sessions in the shop, we ask whether he’d expected to win Long Live Vinyl’s first Record Shop Of The Year competition when the voting opened back in October.
“I’m absolutely flabbergasted,” he replies. “I’m really shocked to have won. I saw the list of shops involved and thought, ‘there’s no chance’. I thought maybe the top 10 would be nice… We have a great customer base, I’m always talking to them. A record will come in and I’ll think, ‘I know someone who’ll like that’, and I’ll message them. With social media now you can do it so quickly. I can message someone in Australia, or locally, and they’ll message me back saying either, ‘I’ve already got it’, or ‘yes please’.
“I want to keep growing, but it’s such a strange time for the high street as a shopping culture. I’m happy at the moment, there’s a few tweaks and a bit of painting for after Christmas but we won’t change it too much. We don’t ever move the records too far, as it confuses people, we just tidy up, but that also confuses people…”
Wah Wah Records
Fast approaching its fifth birthday, Wah Wah was started, says owner Alan Nutton, “using credit cards and balls of steel”. The team pride themselves on not having stock online and being a purely bricks and mortar shop. Stocking both new and used vinyl, Wah Wah has been growing steadily since opening in 2013.
“I see the shop as a labour of love and I think most of our customers can relate to my passion, they know we’re not perfect but that’s sort of what makes us work,” says Nutton. “We have good ties with the local community, including Wakefield Long Division festival, and try to work with many other businesses and events around the city. Wakefield is a great place to be, and we’re proud to be there representing the physical-music lovers.”
Featured in Graham Jones’ excellent The Vinyl Revival book, Grooves has the distinction of being the UK’s most northerly record shop. It’s also a bloody good one, according to the more than 500 customers who voted for it in our competition. Run by Stewart Bain, Grooves opened in 1990 and has moved seven times in its 28-year history.
The current premises is the town’s former library, and it also incorporates a music venue (The Sound Archive), exhibition space and cafe. “People who visit us for the first time are often surprised by how well-stocked the shop is, several of the acts who have performed in The Sound Archive have gone away with a stack of vinyl they have bought from us,” says Bain.