What could be a better way to spend an autumnal Saturday than flipping through some records, searching for a rare gem or a new discovery. Despite the digital age, there’s no replacement for such an experience and the independent record shop is the best place to experience it. Here is our take on London’s best record shops.
Alan’s Record and CD Shop
Alan’s is THE one-of-a-kind north London record shop. This place has enough variety to keep you in there for a month, whether you’re looking for samples, rarities or cassettes for £1. Cunningly luring customers with boxes of cheap records out on the pavement, Alan’s then stuns you with thousands of choice picks from punk 45s (including US and Scottish bands), 1970s West African classics, jazz, rock, spoken word LPs (Malcolm X being one) and pretty much every other genre you can dream up. As an added benefit, you can get keys cut in the back.
People’s Sound Records
More than a source of vinyl and CDs, People’s Sound is decorated, stocked and run by people with a care for old-school Jamaican style and culture. One wall is just 1960s Studio One discs, and the boxes hold dub, soca, ragga, and roots, but there are no section labels. The entire organizational system is in Daddy VGO’s head, so ask and he will dig for whatever you are looking for – and give you suggestions for what to pick up next time. People’s Sound is a proper neighbourhood place, only one street away from the market hustle, and with some older imports you may not get elsewhere.
If a record is so rare you thought it was a rumour, you will quite probably find it at Flashback. Burt Bacharach, Prince and Adam Ant discs for 99p lurk in the trays outside. Inside, it’s usually full of clients – all ages, all styles, both sexes. They’re hunting for everything, from rediscovered Detroit house to 1950s Elvis Presley 45s (in original sleeves); and from 1960s rocksteady beauty Phyllis Dillon to Charlie Mingus. Lovely find: a Gallows 7-inch double in a beautifully artworked box.
The kitschy prints of hunting dogs in the front window may not be worth anything, but the sheer volume of vinyl inside Haggle Vinyl certainly is. This is the sort of place you need to visit regularly to get the most of in terms of rare picks – there’s a lot to go through. Not just the usual behind-the-counter space, the rare records section is the same size as the rest of the shop, and rammed. Choice picks from the regular secondhands: Mantronix Ladies, a limited edition Spiritualized Amazing Grace EP1 of 3, and some 1970s French and Francophone African classics.
On the Beat
This secondhand record shop is like music’s attic. On the Beat has everything, but you need to explore. Looking for flamenco songs? They’re here, in a box on a chair at the back. Dying to get your hands on some glam metal or ‘70s soul and funk? There’s plenty to the right. On the Beat even has a small classical/opera section, which is rare in non-specialist shops. This is also the place to come for vintage music magazines, but be prepared to get on your knees and have a good look through.
Phonica feels like the living room you would have if you could. It’s spacious, it’s bright, it’s lined with vinyl and listening decks. And every so often there will be a live show by a visiting DJ or producer. For anyone who likes their dance music as music, this is one of the best places to come. They have quite a few limited editions, rarities like Tumblack, and a good mix of European, US, Japanese and UK talent. If it isn’t good, you won’t find it in here.
Sounds of the Universe
There’s something sunny about Sounds of the Universe. Must be the huge selection of Afro-influenced and Latin music from Brazil, the US, Panama and others that sits nicely alongside downbeat luminaries like Shackleton, Koushik, and Sun Ra. Or else it’s the fact that there’s active interest in what you are looking for and what else you’d like. People talk to each other when they are inside – which is what the record shop experience should be about – rather than just getting lost in their own music mission.
BM Soho is renowned as d’n’b guru Nicky Blackmarket’s operation, and employs other well-known producers and DJs behind the counters. With a shopfront open onto the street, and a line of decks hiding any sign of a cash desk, it’s got the feel of a really easygoing club that also happens to stock music. You’ll find up-and-coming house and dubstep producers, as well as the tried-and-tested of soulful house, minimal, and UK funky. Go into the basement and you’ll get lost for an hour trawling through the dubstep and drum & bass.
Sister Ray is like a non-tribal, tasteful teenager’s room. Most of Soho shows up here to find audio treasure, so if you find something fantastic that you had forgotten you wanted, don’t ‘go away and think about it’. It will be gone by the time you come back. The turquoise walls of Sister Ray contain early punk, 1960s pop, hard rock, funk, dub, classic dubstep, 2-step and electronica. Along with some hip hop, 1970s soul and new wave. It’s all at convenient waist height, so no sore backs, and the staff sleeve notes are good.
Firebird brothers Paul and Garry keep all the best stuff in-shop rather than online. As a result, you get a whole range of prices, depending on rarity and condition, but practically every record on the stalls is a beautiful object in itself. Firebird’s focus is on the value of the record as a complete musical-visual package. If you want original issues (with inserts) of The Sorrows, Jethro Tull, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd and many Motown and Blue Note artists, this place is great. Plus, they give tips on cool art places like the amazing Robert Opie Packaging Museum around the corner.
If you want a decent exchange rate (or just some cash) then head to Reckless Records. They have a large range of secondhand and brand new vinyl in-house, so it’s always worth checking out as you wander round Soho. Reckless’s punk, reggae and rock sections are particularly strong, but you’ll also get some worthy Chicago house, disco and Detroit techno. Don’t be put off by the battling crowds midday – winning makes whatever you find so much more worthwhile.
Very tasty and very underrated. Rat Records has a comprehensive selection of house, techno, hip hop, dub and soul at completely ridiculous prices, even for secondhand vinyl. That means prices from £1, and for a lot of records you would be proud to say you own. The most expensive item I’ve found in here was a Velvet Underground with Lou Reed double album for £9.99.
If the sound system is on, you can hear the rich bass from about half a block away. And if you want to hear something played, it will be played at full tilt, not secretly so no one knows what you’re into. Not that you should be too concerned – I’ve heard everything from Gyptian to Adamski played in this place.
Tom is the owner, and he’s got that wry sense of humour that every good record shop owner requires. He’s also into supporting the neighbourhood, which gives Rat special character. It’s cool that they take part in Oxjam, and hold the flag for records in an otherwise independents-free zone. Camberwell has been hiding Rat Records for a while… It’s time for the rest of London to find this great shop.