I’ve always had a bittersweet relationship with travel. I love to explore, and to be put out of my comfort zone – but I hate flying, and am perfectly content at home, lost in a great book or record. I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen more of the world than most, and have spent half my adult life outside the country of my birth. At the root of my personality is a nagging curiosity – a desire to understand the world around me and know the people that occupy it. As I have written in the past, music is the driving force toward satiating and perpetuating this impulse. It builds bridges across boundary, brings us together, offers common ground and the means to speak. Despite the countless benefits of travel, nothing beats arriving in a new city and knowing records are out there, waiting to be discovered. My heart races. As the plane touches down, my white knuckled grip relaxes and restlessness grows. I need to dig. To know what’s out there. I love hunting for records. There’s nothing like it. Wondering what you’ll find. The result doesn’t matter. It’s a blend of hope and process. Giving yourself over to chance and circumstance. Even on days when I come away empty handed, my fingers flipping through the stacks is enough. It’s therapy.
Digging for records offers multiple dimensions of discovery. Record stores are usually located in wonderful neighborhoods. Places tourists don’t go – filled with great bars, restaurants and people similar to myself. They aren’t in fancy places, nor do they cater to fancy people. They’re for people like me. We’re a tribe. Wherever I am, in record shops, I’m home. They are how I navigate a city. My map and how it unfolds. My door. My connection to its people and its history.
Every record collector is obsessed with discovery – with learning something new, and peering into the unknown. Travel is the best way to gratify this. Obviously you’ll discover new music from France, when in France – that goes without saying. But records are the legacies of history. Some cites have surprising deposits of music, not necessarily their own. Both Paris and Stockholm gave incredible support to American Free-Jazz during the 1960’s and 70’s. As a result, they offer some of the best digging for that music in the world. France, also during the 60’s and 70’s, had an unparalleled production of ethnographic records – thus there’s no better place to hunt for field recordings from Africa and beyond. Boston once had a prominent folk scene, the only legacy of which is found gathering dust in its record bins. Travel thrusts these sub-histories forward, brought across time by chance and circumstance. Geography guides your discovery. Like the places you go, it’s rarely what you expect.
This series is dedicated to the record shops around the world that hold a special place in my heart. The ones that have brought the most to my ears and the greatest joy to my heart. Many, by simply being what they are, have introduced me to so many albums that my gratitude is incalculable. Sadly, I can’t be wholly inclusive. Though some cities have more shops than others, it would be impossible to include them all. I’ve chosen the ones that I visit first – that mean the most to me, and can’t be missed. This is a start. A place to begin. I leave it to you to find the others. I’ve been debated writing this series for a while. As I prepare to leave London, it seems like the good time to profile the shops in this city that have meant the most to me. As a series, this will be slow to progress. Rather than going back and revisiting the many places I have been, I will build it as I go, and thus will be constrained to my movements.
I’ve lived in London, on an off, for 14 years. It has been an axis, with New York, in my restless life. I’ve drifted from one to the other. It’s the good cop, in a good cop/ bad cop discourse, running between the two cities, and across all those years. I love it here, and like anywhere, I get frustrated with it. London is easier to survive in, on your own terms, than many places. There is more freedom to determine your economy and priorities. This is obviously changing. The city is becoming more expensive, and less accommodating for people like myself, but it’s still easier here. The freedom it offered allowed me time to think, and just enough money to buy a ton of music.
England deserves a lot of credit for the resurgence of vinyl we’ve seen over the last few years. It’s always had a strong presence here. People in the UK never stopped buying LP’s, largely because of the popularity of DJs and the prominence of dance culture. When I first arrived, there were more shops dedicated to vinyl than I had ever seen. There was no equivalent in America – most independent shops only carried CDs during those years. Living in the UK shifted my gaze toward vinyl and ultimately toward the seriousness with which I now approach music.
As with most cities, I’ve seen far too many of London’s best record shops close over the years. Sadly it’s the nature of the beast. Selling records isn’t a big money maker. It’s a labor of love. It’s this love that has kept me going, and brought so much meaning and experience into my life. It’s love that bleeds out of each of these shops.
During my years in London, Honest Jon’s has been incredibly important. It’s the first place I go after I get a paycheck. I mentioned it briefly in River of Empathy – for further context. Despite the amount of time I’ve spent there, the shop is an anomaly in my collecting. I rarely buy new records. It’s a matter of economy, and the fact that I am obsessed with discovery – picking at the shadows of history rather than being at the cutting edge of what’s hip. I rarely find myself excited about new music in the way that I once was, and thus, most of what I buy is second hand. Honest Jon’s almost exclusively sells new records and I rarely leave it without a hefty stack of purchases. The shop is one of a few remaining in Notting Hill. A neighborhood which once had a remarkably vibrant Caribbean community and countless purveyors of amazing music. These days it’s a tourist trap and the home to the upper classes. Honest Jon’s is part of the legacy of a richer moment in the community, and draws its inspiration and love for music from the world around it. The music it stocks is incredibly broad. If I had to sum it up, I would say that it sells people’s music. Music that brings communities together and is often shared collectively. Music that makes you dance. There’s Soul, Funk, Reggae, Folk music from around the world, Jazz, Dubstep, and on and on. It’s my love for music in a nutshell. They are always up to date, with one eye forward and one on history. They also run an amazing label that I highly recommend. The staff are as sweet as they come and are bound to turn you onto things you never dreamed existed. This should be your first stop on every visit to London.
Alan’s is a diggers delight. It’s a mess and stacked full of wonderful things. It’s probably my favorite place to go digging in London. Like the best record shops, you never know what you might find. It’s a treasure trove, and the prices are about as good as it gets. Unfortunately, it’s far out of the way. It’s in East Finchley, and as a result, I only discovered it about 5 years ago. I shudder to think what I might have found, if I had known about it sooner or made it there more often. Alan’s a super sweet guy. The best that this world has to offer. He clearly puts the music first and values his customers. The shop, and it’s owner, are incredibly generous. The stock is about as diverse as it gets. There’s a great selection of international records, Jazz, Soul, Disco 12’s, Reggae, Punk, and rock and roll. Everything about this place is worth the effort, both getting there and digging through the stock.
I’ve probably spent more time in Flashback than any other store in London. There are reasons for this. It’s one of the best second hand shops in the city, historically has a great turnover and prices, and was close to my home. It was easy and worth my time. I go to the shop on Essex Road most, but they have three locations – one in Crouch End and one at the top of Brick Lane. All three are great and are worth visiting. Though their focuses are the same, they are predominantly second hand, thus the stock doesn’t repeat, and each is distinct. What’s great about Flashback is the breadth of what their stock covers. Almost all genres of music find equal representation, while allowing for both the high end of the market and the low. You are as likely to find crazy rare records as you are £1 pop records. They’re also incredibly attentive to pressings. Though you are unlikely to walk out with a rare first press at bargain prices, you are far more likely to get a good price on the second pressing. Condition is also well considered. Many shops won’t touch a record bellow VG+, Flashback does, and prices it low. It’s a great place to fill in the gaps for cheap – if you don’t mind a little crackle and pop. I’ve probably bought more records from Flashback than anywhere else in London. They know what they’re doing, and they do it well. It’s a great place for Reggae and Soul, particularly on 45, but you can find nearly anything across countless genres. Definitely worth the stop.
Out on the Floor is one of the last shops in Camden – a neighborhood which once had one of the highest concentrations of record stores in the city. It’s a little heartbreaking. Fortunately, of all those I have seen come and go, Out on the Floor has always been my favorite in the area. It’s a great little shop. They stock a pretty diverse range of stuff, but I go for Soul, Funk and most specifically Reggae. If you’re into music from Jamaica, this place is a must. There are three bins overflowing with Reggae 12’s, LPs, and a ton of 45s sitting on the counter. They also have pretty good Jazz and Folk Bins, which are worth picking through. I’ve found great stuff here over the years, and have always felt their prices were more than fair. There’s also another shop in the basement bellow, which has a stronger focus on Rock and Indie. If you can manage the crowds of tourists outside, Out on the Floor is always worth a visit.
Sounds of the Universe
Sounds of the Universe is part of a slowly thinning cluster of record shops around Berwick Street in Soho. I’ve seen a lot of these close over the years, as property developers attack the rich and vibrant life across the neighborhood. If I was going to choose one to stand outside of and fend developers off with a stick, Sounds of the Universe would be it. It’s great. You’re bound to find things here that you won’t find anywhere else. It has a strong focus on Reggae, Soul, Funk, Jazz, Disco and contemporary dance music. The upstairs is dedicated to new records and downstairs to second hand. Everyone who works there is super nice, and always helpful if you’re looking for something you don’t see. I usually end up chatting over the register for at least 10 minutes after I’ve paid. This is also the home of Soul Jazz Records, and it’s sub-labels – World Audio Foundation and Universal Sound. I’m a big fan of all three. Sounds of the Universe has the prices on any of these releases. Check out their recent run of rare funk represses – only available at the shop. Everything about this place is worth your time.
Cosmos is the youngest spot to appear on this list. They’ve only been open for about a month. It’s one of a growing number of shops opening across the east end, and signal a hopeful future for record shops in general. I wandered past shortly after it opened and stuck my head in. I was blown away. Cosmos has what is easily the strongest second hand stock in the city. It’s mind boggling. There are things on the wall you’d be lucky to see in the flesh, once a decade. They’ve got a shop in Toronto, and send most of their records from there. They focus on Soul, Funk, Disco, Boogie and Jazz – the bulk of which are American pressings. This does have some bearing on the price point, as American pressings tend to command high prices in the UK. This is not your average shop, nor is it for your casual buyer. This is for heavy hitters. Most of what they have is pretty rare, and they have a lot. The price are on the high side, but sometimes you gotta pay to get the goods. The stock is absolutely impeccable, and the folks who work there are about as sweet as they come.
Photos – BB