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Doing What I Know For God And The Economy (and Independent Record Stores)

The badly managed response to the effects of Covid on the music industry has been commented on in the ProgBlog pages and in a recent letter to Prog magazine, Alex Aikman (Fourth Emergency Service! Prog 124) rightly points out the threat posed by the pandemic to independent record stores and our role as music lovers to ensure that they remain viable. It may be true that in its early days tech-giant Amazon facilitated the rediscovery of rare releases on CD but its online dominance, bolstered by a lack of competition during lockdowns while ‘non-essential’ shops in the high street were closed, means that anyone serious about recorded music should boycott what is essentially a vehicle for funding Jeff Bezos’ space fantasies.

I'm as guilty as anyone for purchasing music in all formats from Amazon when I've been unable to put my hands on a physical copy of a particular release, but it has to be a last resort. It’s not that online shopping is inappropriate because the rise of musician-oriented sites like Bandcamp and Burning Shed means there's an equally efficient Amazon-alternative way of sourcing new music and re-releases which is to be applauded. When it comes to second-hand items, I'm not unhappy to use eBay, where sellers often also have a physical store; I believe this is the key to running a successful independent record shop, offering both on-line sales with a well catalogued stock and a personal touch to customers who do bother to walk in off the street. One example of a successful shop shunning Google and Facebook is Keswick Collectables (18 St James’s Street, Keswick, Cumbria) where the stock is impressive and the turnover of vinyl, according to the owner, is roughly every two weeks. I was somewhat surprised to come across such a good record shop in the Lake District where catering for tourists generally takes precedent over serving the local population. I don’t imagine many tourists visit Keswick with the aim of buying vinyl but the shop sells a range of antiques, including products from the former Keswick School of Industrial Arts where local silversmiths produced some of the best arts and crafts pieces ever made in the UK.

I grew up in the far south west of Cumbria where between the ages of 13 and 19 in an era of progressive rock domination I was able to choose between three or four independent record shops, plus Boot’s and Woolworth’s record departments. My last purchase in Barrow was either the 4CD Van der Graaf Generator remastered retrospective The Box or Peter Hammill’s 2CD live set compilation Typical from Andy’s Records, dating from the last time I had a good wander around the town centre, over 20 years ago. I may need to take another look, because TNT Records (86 Duke St., Barrow-in-Furness) was voted the Long Live Vinyl Record Shop of the Year in 2019. I’ve since discovered that there are extant record shops in Ulverston (The Music Room, 28A Queen St., Ulverston) and Kendal (151 Records, 151 Highgate, Kendal) but they were both closed when I visited, so it’s worth checking their respective opening times if you’re planning a trip.

Flicking through racks of LPs is an enjoyable enough, but the knowledge of some record store owners adds value. For instance, on a day trip to Canterbury I popped into Canterbury Rock (12 Whitstable Road, Canterbury, Kent) and after presenting my two selected albums to owner Jim we were having a chat when he reached down and pulled out an original copy of Third by Soft Machine with a school photograph of Mike Ratledge from his Simon Langton days pasted in. It’s the place to visit for tales of the old Canterbury bands. On the same trip I found the owner-customer relationship works both ways when I visited Vinylstore Jr. (20 Castle Street, Canterbury, Kent) a not-long opened shop selling mostly new vinyl which is now thriving. I enquired about Canterbury-related LPs and was asked for my suggestions of what to stock!

Wherever I travel, around the UK or anywhere in the world, I seek out record stores and if they’re any good, whether or not I come out with any records or CDs, I ask for a business card and if it's OK to take a photo of the shop, then post short articles on social media. 22 of the 40 albums on the ProgBlog October playlist were bought from record stores going back to 1975; six were downloads, comprising four that I’d been asked to write about and two that piqued my interest; two were part of the Mrs Vee Recordings ‘landfill prog’ collection; one was bought at a gig; one was a birthday present; and eight were acquired over the internet – none from Amazon. With the exception of just two of the forty, I can remember the shop where each was bought.

When I first started sourcing progressivo italiano in Italy I was exclusively buying CDs but it soon became fairly obvious to me, when once-yearly family holidays became shorter visits every two months or so, that the Italians were early adopters of the vinyl resurgence and that I could just as easily bring home LPs. I thought that the extensive Italian prog CD section in Pisa’s Galleria del Disco (Via San Francesco 96, 56127 Pisa) was amazing when I visited in 2013, but a trip upstairs revealed a whole floor of vinyl. I'm no longer surprised to find at least one record store in every small Italian town I visit and I buy nearly as much vinyl in European shops as I do around the UK. Black Widow Records in Genoa (Via del Campo 8, 16124 Genova) is a personal favourite, right at the heart of the modern Italian prog scene and with amazing musical connections throughout Europe. Massimo Gasperini and Pino Pintabona have a phenomenal knowledge of prog and I often rely on their recommendations to fill gaps in my collection. I also ensure I’ve got sufficient luggage allowance for the return trip. I’d previously supplemented my collection using the website as it specialises in reissues of classic Italian prog, accepting that I’d get clobbered with hefty shipping costs, but popping into a record shop somewhere on one of my Italian adventures does away with any delivery charges.

It’s nice to pick up material by local bands in record stores whether it’s Il Cerchio d’Oro in Savona, Synkopy in Brno or Frágil in Lima, but I don’t restrict myself to buying the music of a particular country in that country if there’s something intriguing or desirable from elsewhere in the world, for example I’ve bought Brazilian prog in Palermo and New Zealand art rock in Amsterdam, demonstrating the importance of physical stores stocking a wide range of music. I’m grateful that most of the record store staff I’ve come into contact with outside the UK are willing to speak English, though I’ve come to realise any language barrier tends to be overcome by an appreciation of the music. After citing the name of a few bands to staff in Bontonland (Westfield Chodov Praha 11, Roztylská 2321/19 148 00, Prague) I was handed a pile of CDs by Czech bands and allowed to listen away to my heart’s content.

Seeking out record stores has become part of my travel plans, even when I’m getting on a train down to a town on the south coast, and advertising the presence of these outlets on social media is my way of saying ‘thank you’ for being there. Vinyl may be back in fashion and as yet there’s no sign of the revival slowing down, but the continued presence of Covid and the emergence of new viral strains remains a threat to the livelihoods of shop owners faced with a potential future lockdown. I think that an on-line presence provides an opportunity for the local independent record store to continue to operate amidst this uncertainty but I’d urge all music lovers to hit their local record stores – with a face mask covering their nose and mouth – and do what they can for the economy.

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