Music retail veteran Maria Harris was prompted into action when the last record shop in Chesterfield closed. Gary Walker discovers how Tallbird Records was founded and why Maria avoids ladders on Record Store Day
When Maria Harris opened the doors of Tallbird Records in Chesterfield six years ago, it was the culmination of a life spent working in record shops, a journey that took Maria from her childhood home of Kent to the Derbyshire market town via London and the famous Beggars Banquet.
After completing a film degree in the early 80s, when Maria’s passion for post-punk and new wave records by Blondie, Talking Heads, Television and Buzzcocks began to blossom, her record shop story started with a part-time job at Richard’s Records in Canterbury.
A move to the capital followed, as did stints at Kingston’s Beggars Banquet shop and with the Alto CD chain, before she joined Richard Branson’s Virgin Megastore, where she worked for most of the 1990s. After a break to concentrate on raising a family, Maria relocated to Chesterfield, with its famous crooked spire and window to the Peak District in 2006.
“My first job I loved after leaving university was at Richard’s Records, part-time shop girl, and that’s where my love of music retail spans from,” Maria tells Long Live Vinyl while taking a break from unpacking the shop’s Record Store Day releases. “That would have been about 1984 or 1985, and I can remember when Meat Is Murder was released, unpacking the box with that in.
“I decided I wasn’t going to make my fortune staying in Canterbury, so I moved up to London. I’d done a degree in film and wanted to pursue my dream of a career in film, but it wasn’t to be. I ended up working part-time at Beggars Banquet, which was a fantastic experience at a really cutting-edge shop. I was there all through rave culture, selling lots of under-the-counter white labels.
“Pump Up The Volume was the big one for us, I think we sold more copies of that than any other shop in the country. I was there for a couple of years and decided I probably wasn’t going to end up running the shop, so went and worked for a little chain of CD shops called Alto, then got promoted to manager of the Carnaby Street branch.
“I applied for a job with Virgin and that’s when my career in music retail took off. I was responsible for the non-music side of things: T-shirts, books and accessories, and worked with them throughout the 90s. Then Richard Branson, in his infinite wisdom, bought a chain of cinemas and I was seconded in to set up a retail element, selling soundtracks and memorabilia. I ended up in the film industry, albeit not behind the camera!”
Gap in the market town
When Maria arrived in Chesterfield, the town sported two record shops, a branch of HMV and Hudson’s, a well-loved institution that had held its place in the market square for over 100 years. But that was, sadly for Chesterfield’s record collectors, about to change.
“Within five years of living here, both of them had closed down,” remembers Maria. “I didn’t like the fact that I was living in a town with no music retail whatsoever. I’d always aspired to have my own shop, there was a gap in the market, so I decided to open one.”
In 2013, as the first murmurings of a revival in sales of new vinyl were beginning to gather volume, Tallbird threw open its doors on Soresby Street, yards from the market square, on the site of a former fish pedicure shop.
“We’d looked at loads of different retail outlets,” says Maria. “I walked down Soresby Street one day and saw this little shop vacant, called the number and spoke to the landlord. I said I wanted to open a record shop and he laughed. But I came in, had a look, and it seemed ideal.
“I’d been into David’s, a record shop in Letchworth, and spoke to a really nice bloke behind the counter. I said, ‘I really want to open a record shop, do you think I’m mad?’ He was so encouraging and positive and offered to help and put me in touch with suppliers. I thought, ‘I’ve really got to do it now’. Getting that advice was a really pivotal moment.
“The reception at the bank was, ‘Are you sure?’ They were slightly sceptical to say the least, but year on year it’s grown and grown. My first day of trading was massive, I took more than I could have imagined. There seemed to be a real appetite in the town for records. I thought, ‘If every day is like today, I’m going to be absolutely minted’. Of course, it was a slight anomaly, but it was an encouraging start and it’s grown from there. There hasn’t been a bad year in the five years I’ve been trading.
“We’re starting to see a slight dip in the last few months, which you can put down to a few factors, and there are obviously concerns about where it’s going to go. Any trend upwards is going to reach a plateau and at some point start to decline, but we’re a thriving business with lots of regulars as well as lots of people from out of town. We’re getting a name for ourselves and it’s a positive outlook.”
Along with Ashli Todd at Spillers in Cardiff, Maria is one of very few female record shop owners in the UK, and while she’s keen to encourage more female customers into the shop, she talks down the notion that being a woman in a
male-dominated industry has either harboured or helped her.
“I was slightly concerned about it before I opened, whether anyone would take a female record shop owner seriously or whether it would be a problem, but it hasn’t been at all. I think I was described as ‘rare as rocking horse shit’ by one podcast who came to interview me, and I can only think of three or four other women who own record shops, but I don’t see it as either an obstacle or an advantage. It is what it is.
“We do go out of our way to be warm and welcoming and not to be an intimidating shop for women to come into, but then some people might be intimidated by me because I’m big and tall…”
Indeed, standing over 6ft tall, Maria is the reason the shop has its rather literal, tongue-in-cheek descriptive name.
“It took me ages to come up with a name,” she says. “The clichéd thing to do would have been to call it Spire Records because everything in this town is named after the crooked spire. That would have been the lazy choice. Some people might think Tallbird is a bit un-PC, but I like it and it was a good excuse for a nice logo, which my dad designed. It’s a little play on words, I’m the tall bird, I am a tall woman. All my life, people have never stopped saying, ‘ooh you’re tall’, and it’s slightly annoying, so I thought I’d turn it to my advantage.”
Accidents will happen
Still, Maria wasn’t tall enough to put up Record Store Day bunting ahead of last year’s event without the help of a stepladder, and so it was that she ended up spending the biggest day in the shop’s history in hospital.
“On the eve of Record Store Day, I was outside the shop on a stepladder,” she recalls, now able to laugh at the incident. “The shop is on a slight incline, the stepladder fell over, I hit the pavement and smashed my knee really badly. I had to be whisked away in an ambulance and spent the next two weeks in hospital being fitted with a knee brace.
“I was laid up in hospital on Record Store Day, the busiest day the shop has ever had. Fortunately, I have a really good team of part-time staff, and they stepped up to the mark. I’m aiming to stay on my feet for Record Store Day this year.
“Every year, we go through the angst of preparing for Record Store Day, deciding what to order, being cynical about it, and looking at how much the whole thing is going to cost us. And then of course it happens and afterwards
I think, ‘What was I worried about?’ I recognise all the issues and concerns about Record Store Day, but I just get on with it and embrace it for what it is, and for as long as it is what is, I’ll be doing it.
“Every year, it surprises me how people are so gung-ho to embrace it and flag up the releases they really have to have. They will be there queueing at midnight, some people queue just for one title, it amazes me because I’m not that resilient. That passion for getting your hands on a really rare record, I’m always amazed by it. But it’s not just about getting the record, it’s about the whole event and the camaraderie and the excitement.”
Just like Hudson’s did, and the nation’s most cherished record shops continue to do, Tallbird provides what its customers need. To use a well-worn phrase, it’s more than just a shop, a meeting place for like-minded souls who appreciate the value of the physical artefact and the sense of community you don’t get from buying your music online.
Recent in-store performances have included sets by William The Conqueror, The Cribs, Reverend And The Makers and Flyte, while Graham Jones has called in on the tour to promote his book The Vinyl Revival And The Shops That Made It Happen. The shop’s ‘two new albums for £25’ deal, meanwhile, is proving popular with cash-strapped customers.
“We’re a really old-fashioned record shop,” Maria says. “We’re very inclusive and not snobby at all about music. Looking at the records on the wall, we’ve got everything from YAK to Meatloaf, Aretha Franklin, Jessica Pratt, Sleaford Mods and probably tucked away somewhere some Cliff Richard.
“We have people who’ve made a conscious effort to support local retail, or don’t trust the internet and would rather have that personal service and talk about records with the person they’re buying from. For a lot of people, it’s a nostalgia trip. We get men of a certain age coming in and pretending to be hiding records from their wives that they’re going to have to smuggle back into the house. It reminds them of being teenagers.
“People like the shop, for a start, because there’s nowhere else to go. I get lots of positive comments. People were sad when Hudson’s went, and there was nothing else in town. We’re generous, we have a loyalty card scheme, we’ll get stuff in for people, we’ll reward repeat custom, we host Record Store Day, we champion local music, put on live music in the shop… we provide free beer, and I suppose we’ve become a hub for people interested in music.
“We also provide a service for people who aren’t online – and there are quite a few in the town. I never envisaged I would be ordering Look-in annuals, or T-shirts with wolves on, gig tickets, all the strange and unusual things I’ve been asked to get for people. Over time, you develop a relationship with regular customers and do everything you can to keep them coming back, even if it’s not selling records…”