As the UK returned late last week to ‘non-essential’ retail limbo – aka Lockdown 2 – amid the on-going coronavirus pandemic, I felt it was high time I caught up with two treasured independent North West record shops among many more nationwide forced back behind closed doors.
But fear not. Action Records in Preston and Vinyl Exchange in Manchester are here to stay, determined to weather the storm, albeit in online-only format right now in line with the latest restrictions.
Adaptation appears to be key in these testing times, and Gordon Gibson at Action Records and Richard Farnell at Vinyl Exchange are no strangers to having to think differently in order for their long-established, cherished independent stores to survive.
Let’s start with Gordon, who set up his first record stall in Blackpool in 1979, and who’s hardly had the 40th anniversary celebrations he might have envisaged when we looked forward to that occasion in a feature during the summer of 2018 (with a link here).
“Well, no! We’re just hoping we can get to 41 now!”
First there was the lockdown in mid-March, the adopted Lancastrian with Stranraer roots forced to shut his doors until mid-June. And now it’s happening all over again, trading in store ending at the close of play on Wednesday, November 4th, the shop closed for the foreseeable future.
But while there’s no clear end-date to the latest national lockdown, Gordon’s determined to battle on behind the scenes, the level of community support last time suggesting he has reason to remain optimistic for the shop’s future.
Early last week, Action Records announced, “In line with Government guidelines, we will have to be closed from Thursday until further notice. We will be operating a click and collect service, either by using our website or phone. Mail order will continue as normal. We look forward to seeing you soon!”
It was a typical understated but resolute approach from Gordon – who first picked up the keys for his Preston shop in the early ‘80s – and nothing you wouldn’t expect in such trying circumstances, mid-pandemic.
“In the first lockdown, we did alright. There was a lot of support around. And the weather was good. It was a kind of different atmosphere then. We managed to get through, but I think it might be bit tougher this month, going up to Christmas. I don’t see it being so easy, and the online thing …people tend to get fed up with that. They want to get out and buy stuff.
“I don’t know how it’s gonna go … but as long as we take enough to cover the bills …. I don’t want to lay anybody off. We just want to get through it.”
As well as himself, Gordon has three staff, his son helping out behind the scenes too.
“I just don’t want to go down that route, getting involved with furloughing. And even that’s different this time to the original scheme. We managed to get through last time without doing any of that, and let’s just hope they’ll let us open at the beginning of December. If they keep shops shut going up to Christmas, so many businesses will be knackered.”
You mentioned the level of community support you had last time from a loyal customer base, for the three-month lockdown. I guess all you can hope is that they’re there for you again this time around.
“Yeah, hopefully. Although there were a lot of extra factors involved last time, and we did a lot better on mail order. This time we’re going to have to rely mainly on the regular type of customers.”
Of course, there would be an outcry if Action Records – the subject of 2015 short documentary, ‘Chased by Nuns’, and a business that’s also served as an occasional record label, revered in indie circles through releases from the likes of The Boo Radleys, Fi-Lo Radio, local stars Big Red Bus, Dandelion Adventure, The Common Cold, and most recently Ginnel, plus the late Mark E. Smith and his legendary band The Fall – was no longer on Preston’s main thoroughfare.
But this inspirational character, now in his mid-60s, has witnessed enough closures around town in recent times to keep a level head.
“Oh yeah, you just see empty shops when you walk through town. And I see a lot of cafes and worry that this is going to kill a lot of them off. We’ve got away with it so far, but this (lockdown) is going to be crucial for them.”
I’m guessing you get a similar vibe talking to fellow independent traders you have links with in neighbouring towns and cities.
“Well, yeah, everyone’s in the same boat. At least we’ve been open as much as we can. A lot of record shops around the country have never re-opened … just doing mail order. They haven’t opened their doors (since last time). But we had to – we’re a record shop and want to meet people!”
I’m guessing you’ve had to either cancel or at least postpone a few music-related events you were planning on hosting.
“We’ve still got a lot of ongoing gigs, like those with The Cribs and Seagulls … all still in the pipeline. We just have to confirm the dates. They’re all still going to happen in (nearby nightclub) Blitz.”
I get the impression it’ll only really be the Amazon-type mail order firms wringing their hands at the prospect of another period of online-only trade in your sector.
“They will be, but I’m also worried about the supermarkets. There were mentions of that in Wales (for their earlier circuit-breaker lockdown), when people asked – rightly so – ‘Why should they be allowed to sell clothes? Why should they be allowed to sell anything that’s not food or deemed an essential item?’”
I guess there’s a knock-on effect, even if it’s just someone buying a Lewis Capaldi CD or a bestselling paperback on the way to the tills.
“Yeah, and why should they be allowed to sell that? Supermarkets have absolutely cleaned up. They may not be in the same market as me, but they’re in the same market as a lot of others. Even HMV has to close.”
If anything positive is coming out of this, it’s various independent book stores and other non-retail giants coming together as mail order concerns, to try and compete with bigger online businesses.
“Well, there is that. And there’s the Entertainment Retail Association, behind Record Store Day and all that (involving more than 200 independent record shops across the UK). We were meant to have this RSD (Record Store Day) Black Friday retail promotion for record stores coming up (November 27th), but that’s just before we’re meant to open … if we are allowed to then.”
And yet, customer loyalty is something that’s helped you get through before now.
“Yeah … we’re hoping. As long as we can pay the bills and all that … it’s just a case of getting through, hoping we’re not shut after the beginning of December. Christmas is maybe not what it used to be – for anyone these days – but it’s still a big piece of business.”
It’s a similar story at Vinyl Exchange, a shop lots of record lovers across the region will know well, in the heart of Manchester’s Northern Quarter, set up in 1988 by Jo Bindley and Mark Jarrett, who worked at London’s Reckless Records and realised a similar business model could work elsewhere, relocating accordingly. They began in a smaller shop, mostly selling records from their own collection to get things going before expanding into the current premises on Oldham Street in 1991 as the business grew.
Richard Farnell, originally from Deepcar, near Stocksbridge, on the outskirts of Sheffield, started working there in 1995, having relocated from South Yorkshire, telling me he ‘was tired of living in grotty shared houses back in Sheffield’ and ‘wanted a change of scene’.
“I’d had a Christmas job in Our Price over there, which expanded to about six months, then worked in a second-hand shop, Jack’s Records, one or two days a week. I also worked nights on the bar at The Leadmill. I was mostly focused on playing bass in a band and naively thought working in record shops would be something to do before getting famous!”
That band was indie favourites The Suncharms, who by 1993 – by his own admission – ‘had fizzled out’, Richard ‘doing a whole lot of nothing for a while’. But two years later he decided to send his ‘meagre CV’ to various record shops around the country, ending up with an interview at Vinyl Exchange, ‘no doubt helped by the fact that my brother was friends with one of the staff’.
“I’d been visiting Manchester since 1986 when my brother moved here to study, so it didn’t feel like too much of a scary move. I had two interviews – one to get to know me and another to gauge my music knowledge – and got offered the job. Within two weeks I’d moved over and found myself living in another grotty shared house, but now on the ‘wrong’ side of the Pennines!”
Having worked his way up to a supervisory then a management role, when the owners decided to sell the business, he joined forces with fellow manager, James, buying the business as a going concern, taking over in August 2008.
So, a dozen years on, how’s it going for this 51-year-old – married with two children and living in Sale, South Manchester – as we enter a second UK lockdown?
“Initially, the first lockdown was pretty positive. It gave us chance to catch our breath, and the website did really well in the first few weeks. However, towards the end it felt the novelty was wearing off, and it was less busy. We furloughed all but two of 11 of us. Our customers were really supportive, and you could recognise many regulars’ names appearing on online orders who we’d normally see in the shop.
“I hope we get the same level of support this time, but it does feel like this lockdown might be different. I’m concerned people might be less inclined to spend if worried about their jobs and income. But I guess we’ll see.”
Does it make it worse being on the run-up to Christmas?
“Potentially, as I suspect many people will be tightening their belts, but on the other hand there should hopefully be enough people wanting to treat themselves to records, CDs and DVDs to while away the hours of lockdown boredom. And I remain fairly positive that there are enough music lovers out there who want to support independent shops like ours.”
Is there a good community feel where you are? The Northern Quarter has a good reputation for its nightlife and general vibe, and I’ve enjoyed past visits to The Band on the Wall, and the Night and Day café a few doors from you, where I caught the reformed version of The Chesterfields last year, supported by a certain outfit also back recording and playing occasional shows, The Suncharms.
“Ha! Yeah, it’s a very vibrant area, but much of that’s based around the bars and cafes, which of course can’t properly function now. It’s nice that there are a few record shops within spitting distance of each other, and we know them all and feel we’re all mutually supportive of each other. And we’re a ticket outlet for a couple of local gig promoters like Hey! Manchester.”
Was there a feeling of solidarity regarding Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham’s recent stand for local businesses and battle with the Government? The last few weeks seem to have – cliché alert – put the region back on the map in a show of resilience and independent spirit.
“I think most local businesses were pleased with Mr Burnham’s stance. There is a proud tradition in Manchester of putting up some resistance when things get tough.”
True enough. And like Gordon over at Action Records in Preston, do you see it similarly with regard to the threat of online competition, supermarkets, and so on?
“I totally get where he’s coming from, and yes, there’s a lot of competition online. But supermarkets selling vinyl is possibly a passing trend, and they only really focus on a few current pop acts and reissues of the usual ‘heritage’ bands. If they start stocking second-hand copies of rare psych-folk albums or punk singles though, then I’ll be worried!
“I think our strength is that as well as the big-name artists from the past, we also focus on many different niche genres, and a lot of rarities and collectable one-off items.”
For more details about Action Records’ online operation, head to their online site or keep in touch via the shop’s Facebook page. For Vinyl Exchange info, head here and keep in touch via Facebook. And for details of other record shops involved with RSD Black Friday on November 27th, follow this link.