Known as the Golden Mile of record shops, Soho has been transformed in recent years and lost many of its once celebrated music emporiums to redevelopment. Fortunately, a handful are more than surviving, they are thriving, writes Christopher Barrett
Soho’s Berwick Street and the surrounding area was home to more than a dozen independent record shops in the 1990s before soaring rents, wholesale gentrification and the rise of digital music reduced them in number.
Despite the many ongoing challenges, though, the stalwart survivors have ensured Soho remains a heartland of independent record stores, all of which are sharply tuned to the demands of their core customers.
By the time Berwick Street appeared on the sleeve of Oasis’ second album (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? in 1995, the area had long been a mecca for record collectors prepared to dodge the market stalls and seedy doorways of sex shops in search of gratification within the walls of its many record stores.
At 30 Berwick Street, the doors of Reckless Records were opened for the first time in 1984. The oldest record shop on the street, Reckless is managed by Duncan Kerr, who has worked there since the outset.
Specialising in second-hand vinyl, Reckless stocks a broad range of records across myriad genres including rock, pop, soul, dance, jazz, punk and reggae.
Kerr, who is now semi-retired, recalls the early days when the market ran the length of Berwick Street and many of its stalls were manned by “dodgy geezers” who spent much of their time popping in and out of the Blue Posts pub and the porn palaces huddled around Paul Raymond’s Revue Bar. At the time, tourists were a rarity in the area but now account for around a third of the shop’s trade.
The veteran store manager says the area is now almost unrecognisable from those days: “Soho has been blitzed, physically, with lots of buildings demolished or replaced, and right now the protected brick wall facade at the corner with Broadwick Street is perched, seemingly precariously while it awaits a new development behind it.”
Having overcome many challenges over the past 35 years, Kerr is understandably proud that Reckless managed to its keep its head above water while all around it record stores were sinking: “We rode the waves of passing fads by being focused on second-hand records. The shop is well run, adaptable, reasonably priced, reasonably fair, and tries to keep helpful staff that are not off-hand or snooty.”
He says that while there has been much talk of a vinyl revival, at Reckless the demand for vinyl never went away: “The so-called vinyl revival is mainly driven by nostalgia, people buying re-pressings of classic albums that are destined for their front-room wall display, hopefully they listen to them too, but statistics suggest maybe not always. Most of our customers really are mad for vinyl and always have been.”
Just like Sister Ray said
Another veteran Berwick Street survivor is the famous Sister Ray, which has been selling records there since 1989. Currently situated at its third location on the street, No. 75, Sister Ray offers a broad array of music, with CDs at ground level and its basement dedicated solely to vinyl. There, you will find a compelling collection of new and second-hand vinyl, with the walls adorned with eye-catching rarities.
Among the many musicians to visit Sister Ray over the past 30 years are Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash, while co-owner Phil Barton will never forget the day Prince popped in. “He jumped out of a pink limousine, walked into the shop and had a good look round. He didn’t say boo to a goose, but he did buy some Sly And The Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. That was an interesting half an hour,” he says.
Sister Ray began life as a stall in Camden before its founder, Neil Brown, opened the first store at 94 Berwick Street. A former EMI rep, Barton joined the business in 2003 when he teamed with Brown to purchase the former Selectadisc record shop at 34 Berwick Street. When the lease ended on that store, they moved to the current location.
Barton confirms that Soho has changed immeasurably in the past 30 years: “When we first moved there were lots of drug problems and prostitution, people were fighting and pissing in the street. Berwick Street has been scrubbed up and we are now in a sanitised part of London. Rents are much higher and it may not be as rock and roll as it used to be, but it remains a great area.
“The Sister Ray of today is very different to the one we had 30 years ago. We have always been known as an indie shop, and we sell a lot of it, but there is a lot more funk and reggae on the shelves now. We have been doing this long enough to know what people want and what price to sell it at. We are a destination store, we attract visitors from all over the world.”
Across the universe
Just off Berwick Street, on Broadwick Street, resides Sounds Of The Universe, a dark-tiled den of vinyl delight that specialises largely in funk, soul, electronic, reggae and jazz.
The store’s connection with the Soul Jazz Records label is apparent from the exterior, with the vivid sleeves of many of its releases taking pride of place in the window. With regular shipments from the USA, Jamaica, Japan, Brazil and mainland Europe, the store has a frequently updated selection of new releases ranging from dubstep to disco. Alongside new CDs and vinyl, the shop stocks used records, books and DVDs.
Sounds Of The Universe started its life in the early 1990s as a small stall in Camden, situated above the legendary Dingwalls venue. It wasn’t long before its founder Stuart Baker upped sticks and relocated to 7 Broadwick Street, where he not only set up shop but also launched influential reissue record labels Soul Jazz Records, Universal Sound and World Audio Foundation.
“As a kid, growing up, I started out being into disco and then punk and later jazz. I followed different musical paths and wanted to reflect that diversity in the shop,” says Baker.
Alongside well-known musicians including Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and DJs such as Gilles Peterson, the store counts many famous faces among its regular customers, including actor and jazz enthusiast Martin Freeman. However, the building’s association with celebrated musicians dates back before the record shop’s arrival.
Prior to Sounds Of The Universe, 7 Broadwick was the site of a pub called The Bricklayers Arms, where in the spring of 1962 rehearsals were held for musicians to form a band that would later become known as The Rolling Stones.
The building’s connection with the Stones doesn’t end there. Baker says proudly there is a video of Keith Richards, backstage, getting in the mood for a Stones show while listening to a Soul Jazz Records release. Despite its association with famous faces, Baker says his shop is far from exclusive.
“The majority of our customers are young people and we are trying to encourage that. We aim to be friendly and make sure people are comfortable in the shop. We don’t employ staff who feel the need to be aloof,” he says.
Since it opened fearlessly on Poland Street in 2003, at a time when record sales had been falling fast, Phonica Records has proven a popular purveyor of electronic and ambient music on vinyl.
With its brown leather sofa and table housing four Technics turntables, the shop has clearly been designed with comfort in mind, and invites visitors to dig a little deeper than they might have otherwise intended.
Among the customers drawn regularly to the shop are internationally renowned DJs. “Andy Weatherall, Seth Troxler, Josey Rebelle, Four Tet, Moodymann, Peggy Gou and Erol Alkan have all been regulars over the years, some of them have been coming here since we first opened,” says assistant manager Nick Williams.
The store sells a selection of merchandise, including t-shirts and record bags, and has a cabinet of rarities and boxsets, but 90% of its stock is made up of vinyl records that are racked across a dizzying array of genres, including dubstep, house, krautrock, broken beat, nu jazz, leftfield and exotica. Reflecting its primarily dance-orientated focus, around 80% of Phonica’s vinyl offering is made up of singles.
Owned by The Vinyl Factory, the shop has its own in-house record label, Phonica, and hosts free in-store events and ticketed club nights throughout London. In the 10 years since Williams started working at Phonica, he says he has seen almost everything it is involved in grow, including its vinyl stock, the number of staff it employs, in-store and club events and its in-house labels: “The only thing that has shrunk is our CD stock.”
Williams says the store’s diversification has been key to its survival, but also the way it has reacted to developments in the club scene, trends and fluctuations in customer demands: “When dubstep started to take off, we began
to champion it early on. A lot of shops that didn’t reflect the changes in popular sub-genres fell by the wayside. I really don’t think you should turn your nose up at what the customers want when you’re in retail, but at the same time you can also push your staff’s recommendations.”
It’s not a shame about Ray
Situated on the edge of Soho, on the second floor of Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road, Ray’s Jazz is easily missed. Separated from the rest of the store by a bookshelf, the shop is a hidden gem offering a small yet perfectly formed collection of jazz records by artists young and old.
As well as an extensive selection of records by jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, fans of Dixieland, big band and easy listening will also find much of interest in the diminutive store.
Ray’s Jazz was set up by respected semi-professional jazz drummer Ray Smith, who in the 1950s began selling jazz records by avant-garde American musicians such as saxophonist Albert Ayler and free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor.
Smith initially operated out of the basement of leftwing bookseller Collet’s on New Oxford Street, but took over the store and christened it Ray’s Jazz when the business relocated to Shaftesbury Avenue in 1975. He retired in 2002, having sold the business to Foyles.
Sounds Of The Universe’s Baker says the secret to ongoing success in Soho is focusing on what you do best.
“We know what we are,” he says. “We are a record store for people who are really into music and by giving them what they want we have built up a reputation. Our focus has always been vinyl, both new and second-hand. We started out before CDs existed and have stuck with vinyl ever since. We now get the children of our original customers coming into the shop to buy vinyl, and that’s great to see.”