The vinyl countdown

FOURTEEN years after he was name-checked in Shakermaker, Peter Howard – alias Mr Sifter – still gets fans turning up at the shop he runs on Fog Lane in the Manchester suburb of Didsbury.

“We get them coming from all over, and they say, where else is there to go in Burnage? You have a hard time thinking of anywhere,” he says as he quickly bags up a couple of country singles for an old bloke who’s parked on a double yellow outside.

Howard scraped together the initial stock for the shop by placing want ads in local newspapers and shop windows and trawling through house clearances and charity shops. Unfortunately, as the time came to move in, there wasn’t quite enough to fill out the place and so he made the heart-breaking decision to include his own personal collection of some 600 albums in the stock.

“I was as sick as a pig,” says a now resigned Howard, “but I thought to myself, I’ll dedicate the next few years to getting them back, one by one.”

And how did that work out for you?

“Well, as they came in, I thought, I’m not that keen on that one, as it turns out. Funny, isn’t it?”

Noel Gallagher’s typically better-heard-than-read lyric for Shakermaker – “Mr Sifter sold me songs, When I was just 16. Now he stops at traffic lights, But only when they’re green” – was supposedly inspired by his taxi pulling up at the lights outside on his way to record the song (they still lived in the area at the time), which Liam had been mithering him to finish before he got to the studio. Hey presto, a minor footnote in rock history is born.

“They were coming in for years before they made it,” remembers Howard. “I saw the cover of Supersonic and I thought, Oh. It’s young Liam. Their brother Paul was still coming in, week after week, for ages after that. Once you’ve got grounds for a chat, y’know, they’re in a group, then you start talking. Course, up until then, we hadn’t really spoken, they were just customers.”

Later, the pair claimed that they’d also regularly robbed stuff from the shop: “I don’t think they did,” gently disagrees Howard. “But in my younger days, I used to go out playing football on a Saturday afternoon, and the wife minded the shop – so I suppose if it happened, it would have happened then.”

Either way, he’s not too bothered. The association with Oasis has clearly been A Very Good Thing Indeed for Sifters.

“It’s probably saved us. And we’ve milked it like mad,” admits a grinning Howard as he bags up Steel Pulse’s masterpiece Handsworth Revolution (£2.99) and Missy Elliott’s dirty Supa Dupa Fly cut Hit ‘Em Wit Da Hee with Lil Kim and Mocha (£1.50) and hands them to me. “The last one we had was Tony Blackburn doing something for GMTV.”

“Part of the problem is that stuff isn’t turning up like it used to,” says Howard, before adding with the coal-black humour endemic to the trade: “The winter used to finish them off, you know, and their kids used to bring their stuff in. That was always good for classical. There’s too many people living too long, this is the problem.”

Not all of the secondhand record shops in Manchester have had the good fortune of having Noel Gallagher pull up outside when he was in need of a lyric. Times are hard for the high street giants, but the economic downturn is causing small independents like secondhand music retailers real problems.

To some, secondhand record shops are merely places where blokes with few social and interpersonal skills go to express the kind of list-making, object-fixated perfectionism that might in other circumstances be mistaken for autism or obsessive compulsive disorder. For others, they are one of the last remaining outposts of aesthetic individualism on an increasingly corporate high street.

Unfortunately, squeezed by supermarkets, online retailers like eBay and Gemm, and the free-download culture – as well as dealing in formats that are, essentially, as dead as disco – the outlook appears bleak.

Over the last three years, Vox Pop in the city centre – owned by David and Andrew Shaw, Mr Scruff and his manager Gary McLarnan – has gone from a record shop with a café attached to a café with a record shop attached. And now, despite ditching the shop’s cheaper stock last year and focusing on fewer, higher value items, the site on Turner Street is now solely occupied by Cup café.

“We made a decision. The only reason we had a record store was for vanity,” says McLarnan. “There are less people buying records. In essence, it was costing us money to sell the records on the shop floor whereas it doesn’t cost us money to sell them online.”

Vox Pop now sells most of its stock through various online specialists, though collectors can book a day in the warehouse. The services of your very own punk rock personal shopper are optional.

“The concept of physical stores, selling great records with librarian-type heads serving you, it’s something we didn’t want to let go of,” says McLarnan. “But we didn’t have a choice. And we’re selling higher value items much more quickly online than we ever did in the shop.”

Online competition is affecting even long-established secondhand retailers, such as the legendary Kingbee Records, which has occupied the same spot on Wilbraham Road in Chorlton for the last 21 years and is particularly strong on northern soul, reggae, punk and jazz.

“It is hitting us,” says owner Les Hare, “but we’re surviving and we’re doing a bit on the internet ourselves. It’s not the way I want to go. I want to have a shop where people can come in, browse and listen to things.

“But it is getting harder. I’m getting less people through the door but they’re probably spending more per head. Once they’ve made the effort to come, they’re more inclined to buy, I think.”

“There always seems to be stuff coming in,” adds Hare. “But I think people are coming from further afield, to sell and buy. As other shops up and down the country close, it’s almost a case of last man standing.”

“We’re still buying a lot of stuff,” Rae Donaldson tells me over the counter of Vinyl Exchange on Oldham Street. “The CD side has dropped off a bit in recent years but we’re still getting a lot of decent rock vinyl offered to us, in fact there’s so much we can’t handle all of it in terms of getting it out efficiently and quickly.

“There’s a guy in Grimsby who’s been in touch this week. He’s got 15,000 old rock albums and he’s emigrating. He’s got 2000 reggae and Sixties soul CDs. It’d be a shame to say no, but to take on approximately 20 times more stock in that area than we ever have in the shop, even at a good point, you’d be taking a flyer on it. We’d be spending a lot of money, maybe something like four grand, and not necessarily making it back. We probably won’t take it.”

Vinyl Exchange opened in the summer of 1988, in the shop now occupied by Fat City next door. Donaldson walked in as a customer a week or so later and has been here, on and off, part-time and then full-time, ever since. The shop has a celebrity clientele of its own and Donaldson reels off a list of names like John Peel, Thurston Moore, Afrika Bambaataa, Edwin Van Der Sar and Rio Ferdinand who’ve been in over the last few years.

“And Henry Rollins buying Fall CDs,” he adds. “And Martin Freeman has been in a few times recently, downstairs, looking at Sixties soul, which is his big thing. Ramsey Campbell – he’s a pretty well-known fantasy writer – he comes into [Vinyl Exchange’s CD-only outlet] Bridge Street quite a lot. Too many to mention really.”

Downstairs in the basement with its racks and racks of vinyl, drunk with record-buying fervour, I disregard yet another version of Mas Que Nada and a very expensive original Production House release of Close Your Eyes by Acen, and home in on crazed US cut-up nut-jobs Negativland’s Helter Stupid album. It’s a tenner, but what the fuck. It’s research.

While there is clearly still plenty of vinyl to go around, Colin White round the corner in Vinyl Revival on Hilton Street, tells me that real bargains are few and far between.

“You don’t find the rare stock anymore. Everyone’s a dealer these days. I used to go to car-boots and there were no other dealers there. You had your pick of the records. Two years later, you had 20 guys out there with record bags.”

Specialising in Manchester-related music and memorabilia, as well as punk, reggae and soul, shops like Vinyl Revival are, says White, “for people who like to root around, who like to handle things and check the condition before they buy it. With downloads, you don’t get any form of package, you just load it into your iPod. People seek out the vinyl format because they want something to hold, something to look at. They don’t just buy records for the records. Factory was a perfect example. Great art and album sleeves. Half the bands on there were rubbish but you bought them for the artwork.”

So what do you think is going to be the next big thing on the secondhand market?

“I couldn’t answer that,” says White. “The kids aren’t coming in buying vinyl. I think that my generation is probably the last one to collect vinyl. The seven-inch market, people like the White Stripes and the Arctic Monkeys, is quite big, but will they ever think of paying silly money for records down the line? At one point CD singles were big money but now they’re not worth pennies. These days, everything’s minimalistic, will anyone want big record collections in the future? A lot of people still do but it’s a decreasing market.”

Not content with trying to make a living secondhand vinyl, White recently fulfilled a longstanding ambition by starting his own Vinyl Revival label and just released his second single, Last One Standing by Macclesfield trio Rambo and Leroy.

“I wish I’d done it a long time ago,” he says glumly. “I might have made a bit of money at it by now. Typical Factory style, I’m putting singles out and not making any money. We do a 50-50 split and don’t sign any contracts.”

The most expensive item in the shop at the moment is the Beatles’ first album, on the black and gold Parlophone label, which is priced at £300.

“And some of the posters I’ve got up around the shop are also at that kind of price, some of the old Factory stuff. That original Hacienda first birthday party poster over there, that’d be about four, five hundred.”

I very nearly get a 12” ‘disco’ version of Pop Musik by M but ending up going for a remix of the Grid’s Floatation for a fiver instead. Once I get it home and listen to it, I wish I’d gone for Pop Musik.

“You’ll find things in here that you’re not going to find anywhere else,” says Les Hare at Kingbee Records when I ask him why Kingbee is still around and other people aren’t. “I like to think we’ve got a good reputation for giving people decent prices for stuff”.

“The range and volume of stuff we carry is better than any other secondhand shop, probably, in the north-west,” says Rae Donaldson at Vinyl Exchange when I ask him the same thing. “We do some types of stuff really well. We’ve got a lot of good metal CDs, for example. Downstairs on vinyl, you’re talking about rock and all its genres, indie, progressive, psychedelic, hip hop, R&B, and obviously, club music – house, techno, and all the variations”.

And the most expensive item in Vinyl Exchange at the moment?

“I think it’s probably the Joy Division Sordide Sentimale Crespescule single, for a grand,” he replies, “or is it £1200? We bought four Joy Division singles a few days ago for just over two grand – which means we’re expecting to sell the lot for between four and a half and five grand. I don’t think there’s anything else that comes anywhere near that, in terms of collectible value.”

“There’s a resurgence in shellac 78s at the minute,” says Gary McLarnan of Vox Pop when I ask him about the trade’s next big thing. “We’ve always taken the view that these things are artefacts, not necessarily something that you’ll play. Once upon a time, as a music fan, if you had 500 records, you’d just lean them against the wall. But now people are buying dreadful records just for the covers, so they can frame them up and put them on the wall.”

Beats making them into ashtrays, I suppose.

The longest-established secondhand retailer in the city is, probably, the Smithfield Exchange, formerly Cecil’s, on Smithfield Street. Long-time owner Cecil Cohen died last year and it passed to Robert Mon, who worked in the shop part-time.

The amount of vinyl has shrunk considerably since my last visit, but Mon felt he needed a clean start and cleared a lot of stuff that had accumulated during Cecil’s tenure, replacing it with more DVDs and memorabilia.

“It’s ticking over, y’know, we’re getting there,” he says.

I take the opportunity to buy a pristine copy of Peter Brown’s 135bpm 1979 stomper Crank It Up (Funky Town), released by seminal Miami label TK. A handily prescient line in it goes: “Ain’t gonna be no stories written about me when I’m gone, but while I’m still around, I’m gonna sing my song ..”

Maybe disco isn’t as dead as we thought.

* I visited Beatin’ Rhythm for this piece but the guy behind the counter told me they’d “rather not be thought of as a secondhand record shop”. I didn’t visit the other shops in town because, well, I just couldn’t be arsed, really. I might sort this out at some point in the future.

[A shorter version of this piece was first published by Manchester Confidential in July 2008]

UPDATE (25/02/09)

I’d seen Endless Music’s shopfront on Bury New Road from the top deck of the X43 but it always seemed to be closed. So, when I came to write the piece above, it was just easier to forget about north Manchester altogether to be honest. Everyone else does it so why should I be any different? Piss poor, I know.

But I had reason to be in Prestwich yesterday – I’ll not get into all that now – and after looking in some very poor charity shops, I chanced upon Endless Music which was open even though the shutters were down on one side of the window.

I go in. Sharp intake of breath. I didn’t think they made secondhand record shops like this anymore.

“What kind of stuff are you after mate?” says the guy behind the counter.

All sorts, I say.

“You’d best start there then,” he tells me, gesturing nowhere in particular.

Mike Endlar, B.Sc, M.Ed, dealer of rare records specialising in “Bowie and Floyd”, and a man who clearly has many stories to tell, has a ridiculous amount of stock in his fantastic record shop. It’s almost embarassing.

You can have a listen before you buy but that’s the only time you’ll ever be able to hear any music in the shop. Mike doesn’t even have the radio on. No music, no PRS payments. Genius.

I eventually tear myself away from Endless Music having bought a couple of great Sergio Mendes albums (Fool On The Hill and Love Music – wow!), the late, lamented Manchester drag artiste Frank ‘Foo Foo’ Lammar’s My Own Special Creation (not half as good as I hoped it would be), Lost In The Sound by Adonis (Jack yo body!), Rebel by Sly & Robbie (ever reliable, even in 1990), the Repo Man soundtrack (the lounge version of When the Shit Hits The Fan by the Circle Jerks is worth the price of admission alone) and, ahem, Big by Yes (long story, pointless purchase). Seventeen quid, the lot.

I fall foul of Mike’s baffling pricing policy – a lot of it seems to be as much about the direction the wind is blowing as anything else – and have to put The Frenz Experiment, which he was going to charge me 11 quid for, back in the racks. I leave with a promise to set aside a day to check out a cellar that is “absolutely full” of 12-inch singles at two quid a piece, “though I do give discount for bulk”.

Of course you do Mike.

Endless Music is the kind of record shop you try not to tell other people about but, against my better judgement, I’ll tell you that it’s at 418 Bury New Road in Manchester, though you’d best bell Mike on 0161 772 0312 before you go up there. Just keep away from the reggae, alright?

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13 Comments

Filed under expletive undeleted, features

13 responses to “The vinyl countdown

  1. A very interesting piece. It’s a shame that the music buying public don’t see the value in what is available in these shops and it’s not just the music thats being lost but the people and the stories to boot..

  2. undeleted

    It’s that local greengrocer versus Sainsburys thing, I think, but even worse because most people wouldn’t even dream of buying a record in the first place.

    On one level I’m thinking – good, more for me. On another, less stupid and selfish level it’s very bad, because no matter how much money I spend in them, I’m never going to be able to keep them going on my own.

    Thanks for the comment Phil.

    Phil does a great blog about his music and allotment (not necessarily in that order). Click on his name for the full dirty and fecund story.

  3. engineroominsights

    Hey Hey
    You distracted me! there I was busily tapping away at my keypad and talking record plugging when I needed a distraction .. so I thought I’d go find hairy ass from Yorkshire! For God’s sake man announce yourself, I can’t keep calling you that !!

    Excellent piece and it does fire up the belly. I only skimmed over the problem but it’s now starting to anger me after reading your concise blog……because, like yourself we all see the real music people falling off the radar. I have seen so many people having to close down stores. I have a good friend I have known in Sheffield for over 30 years suffer the same fate. He was as responsible for my music education as much as anyone. When I was on the radio I would drive over the Snake Pass just to bury my head in the endless racks of ‘gold’. When Joe Elliot wanted to know how to put a record out he went in there …. Gomez virtullay formed in there…….the assistant in the store, Steve became their manager.

    I have to go and finish this off now… my computer’s mouse freezes when I vent. It’s good though, it makes you want to keep up the crucade, however hard it is

    Keep up the sterling job, and thanks for telling me about Gary’ shop…say hi

    I wonder how people now will get the same excitement we got about music.

    I wish them well

    Til soon , dear chap

    Tony

  4. I think I read online somewhere that Record Box was closing in Leeds…going to just online I think. Is that right?
    x

  5. undeleted

    Hey Tony, thanks for stopping by.

    The whole thing about secondhand record shops closing down is part of – ahem – a greater malaise in society where only new, shiny stuff is worthwhile and everything else is second class and a bit shite. And now that DJs don’t necessarily need to use vinyl, it really is shrinking to a collectors-only market, I think.

    And did that mate of yours work in Record Collector? Very cool shop. I’d not heard it’d closed down. Oh dear.

    I’d guessed as much about Record Box, Foxy. Last time I was in Leeds, I went to that shop that Farrah and Dev worked in on New Briggate (?). I’d not seen it before but there was a proper Record Box shop over the road which was all shut up in the middle of the day. What a shame.

    Are you not in touch with the boys anymore?

  6. No, not really. They’re not exactly the penpal types.
    x

  7. “For others, they are one of the last remaining outposts of aesthetic individualism on an increasingly corporate high street.”

    Its too bad people like these are having a hard time making a profit. I guess these places are becoming more like museums, which is evident in the Joy Division record price. I want to go and buy all this stuff when I have some money.

    But you know like Factory Records, it comes around and does not stay in business because the music is more important than the sales. Factory singles helped N.O. and others produce some of their best ageless work. This gives it some substance and makes it classic stuff for future music aficionados.

    Go on a drug binge like Barney and Hooky used to do and create some great singles.

  8. Oh not that this has anything to do with the above post, so feel free to delete this comment if you wish. Actually please do delete it.

    I saw the movie Control about Ian Curtis and I was not as impressed as everyone else. It was good but I guess my expectations were way high.

    My favorite character in that movie, by far, was Bernard Sumner with his tape recorder.

    Kind of weird here but here but my blog is giving me some good karma lately.

    All of a sudden this girl appears on my blog coming all the way fuck out in Montana. Turns out she went to school thousands of miles away to get away from Chicago. She knows some of my relatives in Chicago I found out through e-mail.

    So basically, I’m going to go out with this girl soon, just because of my Chicago bashing when I return home for a short period. See Smithy? All of my Chicago bashing is giving me some positives, how ironic.

  9. undeleted

    Crikey JR, where to start? Thanks for dropping by. And it’s good to hear about your lady! But promise me you won’t spend the whole time bitching about Chicago, eh? Get onto politics and religion, it’ll be a right laugh.

    You make a very good point about secondhand record shops becoming something like vinyl museums. Factory produced artefacts, not just records in sleeves, and that’s why the label’s stuff is still popular – besides the music itself of course.

    I dunno about Control – I’ve only seen it once, so I can’t remember Bernard’s tape recorder. I liked it though, it seemed very believable and ordinary. I’m not saying it’s Citizen Kane but I thought it was a good way of approaching the subject.

    You should click on the Engineroom Insights link in the post above – Tony did the regional promo for Factory from the label’s earliest days and his last post is about New Order refusing to play Top of the Pops. It’s the kind of thing you’d like, I think.

  10. engineroominsights

    yeah my friend Barry IS record collector. I met him when he was assistant manager for Virgin Sheffield in 74……Had the shop sice the mid 70’s. In fact I still keep in touch and am going to call him to brush up a bit before writing about his place.

    Its where I bought my records from and where I sold them back to…25 years later!

    More to tell but I’ll save it for the blog. Your retail blog about Sifters did really kick start the shop situation sadness. Keep thinking about it and I suppose b eing in America the one consolation is i dont have to drive past any of thise places and see when they have gone

    best

  11. undeleted

    Record Collector was a brilliant shop – though I haven’t been in for years. I guess I’ve missed my chance now, eh?

    I think places like King Bee and Vinyl Exchange will be around for a while yet. Then again, people probably said that about Record Collector.

    The Antiques Roadshow beckons!

    Thanks for the comment Tony. I look forward to reading more stuff on your blog ..

  12. On the subject of old record shops, when I was a nipper and just starting out in the world of vinyl (it would have been April 1979) I remember actually purchasing my first proper piece of punk rock aged 13 from the gloriously named “Vinyl Junkies” in Darlington. This was the only true independent record shop in the town, your alternatives were Woollies (obviously) and, of course, Boots… (sadly, I was banned from Boots for robbing marker pens with my cousin but being underage, I wasn’t nicked but did have the police take me home in a Panda and shame my parents). I recall carefully arranging my Boomtown Rats and Punk Rules badges on my school blazer lapel and heading off to buy The Skids “Into The Valley”, I heard it on TOTP and was inspired by Richard Jobson’s scissor kicking dance (to be repeated at the next school Xmas disco) and the fact that it was on red vinyl, a new and exciting phenomenon! Sadly they were completely sold out so I chose instead The Damned latest “Love Song” also on red vinyl even though I wasn’t totally sure who they were. I stayed at my Grandma’s that week and was unable to play it as they only had a radio and it near killed me! When I got home I dropped in straight on the tiny record player in my bedroom and let rip at full distorted volume. The booming bass intro and the screamed “Go” were def. worth the wait. It still has the power to evoke those days and still sound pretty damn good as a pure slice of 70’s new wave. Vinyl Junkies only lasted a year or so before we started heading to the bright lights of Newcastle to get our musical fix but for a while it was the place to hang out on Saturday afternoons and spend your hard earned paper round money.

  13. undeleted

    Dallas! Good to hear from you again mate.

    Don’t think I had the pleasure of visiting Vinyl Junkies – just the music department store near the market place. I forget the name. It was pretty crap.

    Good choice with Love Song. Did you ever get Into The Valley in the end?

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