London Calling

I swear I did not plan it, and it wasn’t obvious on the Google maps I pored over before we left but the back door of the fabulous Soho Hotel spilled right out onto Wardour Street, which was a block from Berwick Street, famous for its cluster, or more like the best cluster of independent record shops in London. Not to cast aspersions on Rough Trade or Honest Jons, or even Fopp if you must—in the Covent Garden Fopp I snagged a rather nice reissue of Curtis Mayfield’s first solo record for ten quid—but it was heaven to have some great indies within an easy stroll. After devouring as much exceedingly strong tea and as many English language newspapers as any one man could stand— best headline (in The Guardian of course): “Kanye and Dylan. Both called genius but who has final word.”— I was off for an afternoon of disk-ing. Berwick, the so-called “Golden Mile of Vinyl” is, as all deeply geeky indie rock fans know, the location of the cover shot for Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?.

The first stop was the most prominent storefront in that shot, the bright orange façade of Reckless Records where despite much coaxing, the American manager dude could not be talked into selling me several jazz funk classics he was playing in the store. I did manage to pick up a copy of Super Breaks, Essential Jazz, Soul and Funk Break Beats, Volume Two with VG++ vinyl and a slightly dinged jacket. Although they had a sign in the window (for the tourists no doubt), that trumpeted something about having lots of Beatles records on hand, a cursory flip through that and the Stones sections brought to mind what is now THE stone truth in the world of vintage vinyl: no one with a brain, the ability to run PayPal and a way of getting to a working post office sells valuable records to stores these days. Unless they just cannot be bothered, or it’s a scenario where grandpa died and they have a week to liquidate his earthly possessions, most valuable vintage vinyl now changes hands via eBay or even Discogs. You can make more money selling it yourself. The Reckless Beatles section was full of banged up mono copies. The Stones section literally did not exist. Perhaps it was high season for old records or they had a particularly good week of selling classics, but one look at those artists on eBay once I got back to the hotel confirmed again where the actual treasures, at top prices, are to be found. To dig even deeper and get even closer to the truth, a lot of really collectible records, original Blue Note Lps to use the most obvious example, never see the light of day. There’s a network of high end collectors out there who know and tend to buy and sell amongst themselves; a very select group indeed.

Across the street from Reckless was Sister Ray, named for the Velvets song, which was full of quality new vinyl, but nothing out of the ordinary, or fantastically interesting. The used stuff in the basement did not light any of my fires either. Having moved across the street from its old location, the new SR seems to be missing something though it’s still the one store with a wide selection, many genres, the full service, if you will, vinyl shop on Berwick Street. May have been an off day. It happens.

I spent the most time in Phonica over on nearby Poland Street if only because this is the home of electronic music, something of a UK obsession for many years running now. It was fascinating to jump on one of the many turntables they have available for listening and hear the near infinite mix of beats and bleats and rhythmic variety that has in the past decade changed popular music forever. Not surprisingly, this was the store that was full of customers and was selling the most CDs and LPs. Intrigued by some of the new sounds, as well as being a sucker for compilations of older material, I came away with weighty bag and a t-shirt that came in its own box!

What proved to be the ace in the hole however was the shop closest to the hotel, Sounds of the Universe on Broadwick Street. The retail outlet of a label that’s very prevalent in better indie shops in the States and around the world, Soul Jazz Records, this is the store that had the most interesting stuff at least to my tastes. Despite the name, Soul Jazz is really not a jazz label but is more focused on more older reggae, soul and older American music. Their New Orleans compilations, Saturday Night Fish Fry and New Orleans Funk on vinyl and CD are famously great. While I also picked up a copy of German classical/electronic pianist Nils Frahm’s, Music for the Motion Picture Victoria, I took advantage of being at Soul Jazz HQ and bought LP copies Of Delta Swamp Rock Volume 2 and Disco 2, a Further Fine Selection of Independent Disco, Modern Soul and Boogie 1976-80. And no, there is nothing quite like a guilty pleasure. All true music fans are riddled with them. I returned to the peaceful confines of New York City sans any old vinyl. Nary a Zoso to be found. I suspect that since the demise of Beanos in Croydon some years ago, record shopping in London has never quite been the same. Unable to cross the pond? All the shops mentioned have healthy web stores selling all that new vinyl.

John Atkinson's picture
Put down the credit card and back away from the cash register, Robert. Ask yourself: "Do I really need all this lovely vinyl?"

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

nunhgrader's picture

New Orleans in the house! I get a kick out of how popular my home town can be all around the world - great article!

dalethorn's picture

Alan Freed got his R&B records from friends in New Orleans.

DanGB's picture

Beano's was huge, but (in my experience) a bit too pricey.

Next time you're around, check out Flashback Records in Islington and Alan's Records in East Finchley.

The latter is a proper 'old school' second-hand shop, where the stock can barely be squeezed into the shop and every level-ish surface is covered with browser boxes. The longer you spend digging the more you find. Alan's a good guy to chat to, as well.

monetschemist's picture

... you might want to check out the Vinyl Factory. They have a pretty interesting presence including a car park that is converted into a presentation space. Plus some unusual albums...

otaku's picture

Four blocks from my first gig out of college,on Shaftsbury St!

spacehound's picture

London's got good record shops. And some world class HiFi shops too.

Cost? Compared to the equipment a lot of us buy it's so low it doesn't matter.

And who said that HiFi gear and the music to play on it is a contribution to our retirement plan anyway?


BKinTheBK's picture

I actually started this thread on the Hoffman forum ( to help me shop when i visited London. The big name shops are very so-so. They're definitely overpriced considering the condition a lot of the stuff is in. I didn't make it to Sounds of the Universe, but it will be my first stop the next time i go.