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Off the record: Life in the old records yet

By David Smyth, Evening Standard 20.06.08

            Record Shop

Vinyl solution: some record shops are reinventing themselves with live music and coffee to create a place where customers will hang out

You might think a beautifully put-together book about the traditional record shop ought to be stocked in the British Museum alongside histories of codpieces and the pennyfarthing. But there's actually a feeling of celebration about Old Rare New (Black Dog Publishing), a collection of atmospheric photographs, essays about the joy of snuffling for obscure vinyl, and interviews with DJs, shop owners and musicians including the Manics' James Dean Bradfield, Cat Power and Devendra Banhart.

Even if established Soho stores such as Mr CD and Reckless Records are closing as they fall victim to increased rents and the rise of downloading and eBay, the vinyl-o-philes are determined to play on as the Titanic goes down.

The book was inspired by editor Emma Pettit's road trip around America, where the situation is even more dire. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 900 record stores closed down in the US, about 25 per cent of the country's total. But as well as struggling veterans, she found new establishments such as Manhattan's Cake Shop, a record emporium that incorporates a live venue downstairs, film screenings and, yes, a vegan cake shop.

Over here we have the recently opened Rough Trade East, off Brick Lane, which is also utilising live music and coffee to make it a place to hang out rather than just flick idly through the record racks and leave. It's an approach that is challenging the intimidating air of some record stores, where super-cool middle-aged men froth giddily about their rarest purchases. In the book James Lavelle, of UNKLE, even has the brass neck to claim that the first record he ever bought was the superhip Electro Streetsounds Comp 1 when in all probability it was Shaddap You Face.

But what also shines through is the feeling that places such as Rough Trade, Sounds of the Universe in Soho and the recently reprieved Beanos in Croydon all offer something you will never find on the web, even if the music is the same.

"The internet is all surface," Pettit argues. "If you find a rare record you've been hunting down for weeks or months or years, what an amazing feeling that is. There's a satisfaction there that you don't get from Googling something."

Everyone agrees that a well-packaged piece of vinyl is a beautiful thing, but so is an iPod. The hope from record store owners and enthusiasts is that the two media can continue to co-exist. "If everything is on your computer, that doesn't leave you with very much. You'd have empty walls and nothing in your house."

Of the musicians interviewed in Old Rare New, it is the folk mystic Banhart who does the best job of making the vinyl experience, being caught in a "magnetic rip tide of 7-inch lust", sound so magical that you'll want to bin your MacBook there and then. "There's no way it comes close to pullin' a record out of its sleeve and droppin' that needle," he enthuses. As long as people like him exist, it won't be the end for the independent record store yet.


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