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A evocative history of British record shops

Going For A Song by Garth Cartwright

THE return of the vinyl album and record fairs teaming with “pre-owned” albums, 45s, CDs and even 78s has generated a new interest in the history of Britain’s music industry.

A new book Going For A Song: A Chronicle of the UK Record Shop by music critic Garth Cartwright recounts a time when it seemed every town had at least two record shops catering for all tastes.

The book recalls some of Britain’s most loved record shops including Spillers (founded in 1894) in Cardiff which is, according to the Guinness Book of Records, the world’s oldest record shop, and many fondly remembered shops selling jazz, blues, rock and roll, soul, country, folk and classical as well as chains such as Woolworths (and its fabled Embassy record label), HMV, Our Price, Tower and Virgin.

London was the centre of the universe for many record collectors where there were lots of specialist stores including Dobell’s (where Bob Dylan played an evening gig in 1962), Collett’s (later Ray’s Jazz Shop), Mole Jazz, James Azman,  Honest Jon’s, Rock On and the Record and Tape Exchange in Camden, Chris Wellard’s in New Cross, Dave Carey’s Swing Shop in Streatham and Beanos in Croydon — at one time the largest second-hand record shop in Europe — all a mecca for serious record collectors. 

Soul imports could be found at Transat Imports and ska and bluebeat imports at Rita and Benny’s.

More recent times saw shops such as Rough Trade supplying indie music to the masses.

Manchester had an abundance of record shops including personal favourites like Barry Record Rendezvous in Salford, Paul Marsh in Moss Side which blasted out soul and ska, the 78 Record Exchange and Ralph’s Records which sold obscure US album imports in the city, and any number of shops specialising in northern soul imports and repros of hard-to-find records and obscurities.

Further afield, Cartwright recounts stores like Ray Foxley’s in Birmingham, Pete Russell’s in Plymouth, Brian Epstein’s NEMS and Probe Records both in Liverpool, Eric Rose’s in Nottingham, Atlantic Records in Belfast, Andy’s Records — a chain store with shops across the east of England — and Cob Records, a collector’s haven in the Welsh town of Porthmadog.

Then there were the specialist African, Indian, Turkish and Albanian record stores who served local communities, as well as “dub shacks” and specialist record shops selling reggae to the West Indian community. And Levys of Whitechapel who started out selling Yiddish 78s and ended up as Motown’s representative in London.

Going For A Song tells the history of British record shops from the very early days of “record emporiums” selling wax cylinders and early 78s, to the recent rise of specialist shops selling new vinyl releases as well as second-hand vinyl.

Cartwright conducted over 100 interviews with record store owners, staff, musicians, fans and customers who tell some memorable tales and anecdotes from a bygone age. 

This is a history of a century of record retailing in Britain, which will bring a lump to the throat of legions of music lovers, hard-core record collectors and legions of record fair “crate diggers.”

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