Features
11.03.2011, Words by Charlie Jones

Comment: In praise of the chain store

When the subject of record shops pops up in conversation it’s usually only seconds from someone lamenting the death of the poor old indie. I agree, it’s a sad time indeed when those tiny shops almost totally disappear from the urban landscape, but there is more to record shops than the beloved independents.

You see those of us who weren’t privileged enough to grow up in a major city didn’t always have the access to the Piccadilly Records and the Rough Trades of the world. Rather we were mostly content with the odd cheapo store and the now largely despised chains stores. My home town of Walsall, deep in the heart of the industrial Black Country, had a couple of decent indies – Bridge Records always had good second-hand and grey-market stock, and Sundown had most good new indie singles, but it fell on Virgin Megastore to provide most of my goodies. Looking back it’s easy to see why it was so enticing for kids, the sheer volume of stock was incredible – where the small indies just stocked one or two titles a week and couldn’t really take risks, Virgin would plonk everything on the shelves and just see what happened.

The small indies just stocked one or two titles a week and couldn’t really take risks, Virgin would plonk everything on the shelves and just see what happened.

For an adventurous buyer such as myself this was exactly what I needed, and rifling through the shelves was a near-daily experience. I had the timing down perfectly so I could slouch around the old stone Hippo in the centre of town and devour a sly fag before popping into Virgin for a browse and then getting to school just before first period. On weekends I could jump on the bus and hit Wolverhampton or Birmingham – Wolverhampton for their branch of Our Price (I seem to remember they had a Chain With No Name indie, but it wasn’t that interesting), a veritable treasure trove of cheap pop gems and Birmingham for HMV, Tower and a giant Virgin Megastore that put our tiny Walsall branch to shame. Sure Birmingham had great indies too – Plastic Factory, Swordfish– and Tempest would be ticked off the list on every visit, but I never avoided an opportunity to rifle through HMV’s selection of 99p 12”s and Virgin’s cheap 7” stash.

As time has passed, not only most of the indies I grew up with, but most of the chains have now disappeared. HMV is still clinging on for dear life but is a shadow of its former self, Our Price went tits up in the late 90s, and Virgin suffered the indignity of being renamed Zavvi, nauseatingly transforming itself into an Eastern European discount DVD store. While there are still great indie record stores out there, very little has cropped up to replace the kind of experience I used to have at a proper chain. The almost overwhelming choice from Tower records or HMV in London used to have me more excited for a trip to the Big Smoke than hitting hipster hotspots Sister Ray or Reckless. It was, after all, the Tottenham Court Road branch of Virgin whose listening post introduced me to Autechre (I was trying to hear an Elliott Smith record and got sidetracked) in the mid 90s. Rifling through the import CD bin (remember imports?) and stumbling across a rarely seen US R&B album or Japanese soundtrack was a pleasure almost solely reserved for these record supermarkets, and that market has diminished almost entirely thanks to the internet.

It was just you and the endless towering shelves, and dedicated diggers could always walk away with a smile and a heavy satchel.

While the net has made it far easier to procure oddities from every corner of the world, I do lament the fact that it’s no longer possible to actually stumble across something that looks interesting and just buy it right there and then – not just zeroes and ones but a tangible object. Recommendations are great, and an important part of music fandom, but the best thing about the chains was that they were almost entirely impersonal; you could walk in and never even glance at a member of staff. It was just you and the endless towering shelves, and dedicated diggers could always walk away with a smile and a heavy satchel. The excitingly random bliss of the train or bus ride home, pushing a new, unheard, heavily discounted cd or tape into the Walkman and genuinely being surprised (for better or for worse) is something I don’t think we’ll get back in a hurry, and that’s sad. Things change, and change is expected and necessary, but I don’t think we should be so quick to forget the chain stores.

John Twells runs Type, a terrific experimental record label.

You might like