Record shops

Yesterday I went to Heffers Sound and bought a couple of CDs, Marin Alsop’s recent acclaimed recording of Bernstein’s Mass and Ivo Pogorelich’s 1982 recording of Beethoven and Schumann, now rereleased with supplementary Chopin tracks harvested from his brilliant 1981 debut recital. I’m looking forward to comparing the Alsop with Bernstein’s own recording of the Mass, probably his most fascinating score. As for the Pogorelich, I’m not sure what to expect. I have long had a dubious habit of buying CDs largely if not wholly on the basis of cool or sexy cover photos. Pogorelich’s early albums are a case in point, as are the ones Lise de la Salle keeps bringing out. Fortunately, they both happen to be superb pianists. Pogorelich, like Olli Mustonen, another of my favourites, has his idiosyncrasies, but I have grown to love them, and his Chopin feels wonderfully organic to me, however unorthodox it does to others.

It’s a source of pleasure and some surprise to me that Heffers Sound is still in existence. The bookshop next door aside, all of the other branches of Heffers throughout Cambridge, which were numerous ten years ago, are no more. I hope that it may continue for years to come, but fear it may succumb to the recession as so many other shops of its kind have done. The rise of Amazon, now my first port of call for buying music, is partly responsible for this state of affairs. My passé yellow Heffers Sound reward card, which I finally cashed in yesterday, had been on the go since 2005. That equates to two visits per year. In fact I’ve visited more often than that, but not much more.

How times have changed, I meditated, as I wandered through my personal history of buying music. So many of the recordings I have bought are linked in my mind to the shops they came from. I bought my first pop album on cassette at the age of six from Martin’s newsagent in Frome. Society dictates I should be ashamed it was Ten Good Reasons by Jason Donovan, but I’m not. Sanitised, sterilised, homogenised and entirely shorn of the slightest scintilla of emotion or genuine feeling it may be, but it’s still one of my favourites. I spent ages sitting on my bedroom floor looking at the photos on the inlay card. There was one picture of Jason and Kylie Minogue looking very happy together, clearly drawing on their Scott and Charlene personas, which mesmerised me. I am positive, thinking back, that I was envious of one of them, but I cannot for the life of me remember which one. So many of my latent and presumably numerous psychological problems surely stem from this.

I started accumulating CDs from about the age of 10. Woolworths had their own ranges of reasonably priced CDs, decent repackaged recordings from Conifer, I think. Most exciting, though, was going to the Classical Record Shop in Leeds while on holiday, where a more extensive range of music was available. It was there that I bought my first recording of the Fauré Requiem (on which choice I remember being complimented by the shop assistant, despite the fact that it turned out to be a horribly muddy recording, though if I recall I bought it mainly for the incidental music to Masques et Bergamasques offered as a coupling), Bernstein’s On the Town and Gavin Bryars’ Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.

When I hit the age of about 12 I started going to Woolworths on my way home from school to buy singles and albums. I remember going home one afternoon, being overcome by a tremendous urge to buy Cake’s album Fashion Nugget, managing somehow to get enough money together, and racing back into town to make it to the shop before closing time. I think the cashier serving me raised an eyebrow at the parental advisory sticker, but let it pass. On the Monday morning in April 1996 when Northern Uproar’s debut album was released, a school-free day, I was there waiting outside to buy it when Woolworths opened.

In 1997, a new shop opened on Catherine Hill, Raves from the Grave, which still exists albeit on different premises. It specialised in vinyl, and I would spend hours in there on my way home from school browsing and sometimes buying old LPs and 7″ singles which never got played. It remains the only shop where I have liked a record that was playing so much that I asked what it was and bought it, a gatefold-sleeve double album of the Four Tops and three other Motown groups I’ve now forgotten. The only other good place in town to buy quality music was Hunting Raven, which had (and, I believe, still has) fine selections of Naxos and Hyperion in particular. It was there I bought Håkon Austbø’s Messiaen piano music and Domus and Anthony Marwood’s shimmering Fauré piano quintets.

Saturday trips to Bath gave a new dimension to my record collecting. At some point in my early teens I persuaded my parents that since child benefit, by token of its name, was presumably intended to benefit the child, I should receive it direct as pocket money. At that time the amount was about £40 per child per month (or so I was told – I now wonder if they may have been holding out on me given that it’s currently around double that). Not a sum to be taken lightly, at any rate. I don’t think they particularly begrudged me it, what with me not being a particular drain on their resources except for in the usual areas of food, occasional clothes, haircuts only when absolutely necessary and so on. The upshot of all this was that by judicious saving I could end up spending about £60 in Bath Compact Discs in a single visit, ending up with 5 or 6 new CDs, usually including some impulsive and not always wise purchase. Yuji Takahashi’s Cage, Donald Berman’s Ives, Rogé and Collard’s Satie, Ashkenazy’s Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues, Blandine Verlet’s Couperin. The list is extensive.

I should think Bath Compact Discs is still just about the best independent classical record shop in the country, even if their website still says “We would like to thank all our customers for voting us once again ‘Gramophone’ Magazine Classical Retailer of the Year 2001/02”. In Bath there were also Milsom’s (Duck, Son and Pinker), where I happened by serendipity on a recording of Haydn’s lira concerti that I had known and loved from an LP we had at home but hadn’t ever expected to make it to CD, and HMV, where I started buying jazz – Charlie Parker above all, but also Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Oscar Peterson and so on, undoubtedly inspired by Louis Malle’s Le Souffle au Coeur, still a film that means a great deal to me. The opening, which shows the 14-year-old Laurent and his friend walking through the streets of Dijon and then going into Dijon-Musique to steal Parker’s latest LP, was magical to me then.

When I got to university new avenues opened up, several of them sadly gone already. There was not only Heffers Sound but also MDC Classic Music in Rose Crescent (which I was saddened to find at the start of one term had suddenly disappeared during my absence over the vacation), Borders (requiescat), Fopp (which happily came back shortly after closing down) and a decent selection of CDs at Miller’s/Ken Stevens. I remember hotfooting it there one morning in May 2004 to buy what I surmised was probably the only CD in town of Schoenberg’s Begleitmusik zu einer Lichtspielszene, which was that year’s set work for the analysis exam. Just as I was paying another student came in looking for the same thing and was told I’d just snaffled it, on which I felt sheepish and made myself scarce.

The rot had already started to set in by then, and I was buying most of my CDs online. I can’t deny that part of the appeal of record shops is that you choose a particular copy of a CD rather than having one you’ve never seen before sent by someone without a face running a small business in Egham, but there’s an excitement too about getting lovely things in the post. One of the nicest things about coming back to college for Easter Term 2003, I remember, was finding a package of CDs I’d ordered waiting for me, which included among other things several piano concertos (Arrau’s Brahms, Kovacevich’s Grieg and Schumann, Moiseiwitsch’s Delius), Czech choral music sung by the Prague Chamber Choir, and Aimee Mann’s Magnolia soundtrack.

I worry I’ve forgotten how to use record shops. When I used to go to Bath, I’d make a short list of composers to look out for on the back of an envelope or some such thing. Nowadays I find myself printing out a list of CDs I’ve had my eye on, with the prices from Amazon so I can make sure I’m getting a good deal. How cold that is. I applied for a couple of jobs in Heffers Sound shortly after graduating in 2005. I’m still waiting to hear back about one of them, and in the years since have contemplated in my more perverse moments writing a letter instructing them to disregard my application due to my having another job. I’d have loved working there, but sadly it doesn’t look like a steady career at the moment. I think I may make a resolution to buy something there at least once a month. It would be a crying shame to lose the shop.

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4 Responses to “Record shops”

  1. Percy Bysshe Says:

    I have a definite policy for CD buying – whenever possible, I will buy directly from the artist, either at a gig, or via their website (difficult for Mozart, Haydn etc of course) as this means more of the profits go to the band. However, buying from Amazon means that the sales figures look good. Difficult one.

  2. Gareth Says:

    One website I do buy from regularly, and I’ve already raved about it to you and others elsewhere, is Hyperion Records. They make it easy for you to spend money there (this may be a double-edged sword), with frequent special offers and no postage charges. It’s a good way to support my favourite record label, which had to pay damages of £1 million after an unwise court case a few years ago and is now just about back on its feet. I’m afraid cost and convenience are my main considerations, but there’s no doubt that ordering everything from Amazon takes the romance out of things.

  3. Evie Says:

    There used to be a fabulous classical CD shop in Bristol – called, needless to say, Bristol Classical Discs – owned by the lovely Roger, who had a very impressive moustache and an even more impressive knowledge of music and interpretations of music. I used to go in armed with a few recommendations from the Penguin CD guide, and he would play things for you to listen to and give his own recommendations – it was always a treat to go in there. It had a secondhand section too, always good for a bargain. I think it closed a while back, though.

    As a child, Woolworths was my usual haunt for LPs (no CDs in those days!), and we also had a lovely local record shop called Discotrek, I think…for pop records, that was the place to go. It closed a long time ago though, and became a toy shop, and is now sadly part of a series of shop buildings that have just been demolished – makes me sad to walk past it. The good news is that the independent bookshop, just opposite it, is still going!

  4. Gareth Says:

    I remember you writing about Bristol Classical Discs before. I’m fairly sure I never visited it, but I can picture it from your description. I always feel at home in such places. It’s a shame these independent shops are disappearing, but it makes me all the more grateful for those that are still around.

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