Wednesday, 23 January 2013

The decline of second-hand record shops

The recent collapse of HMV presented an inconvenience for buyers of headphones, games and chart CDs; music fans whose tastes venture outside of the top 10, generic compilation CDs and budget classic rock reissues can have their needs met by an independent shop. If you want to buy second-hand records from a shop, though, your choices are increasingly limited and more expensive than ever.

The great romance of going to a different town used to be seeking out its second-hand record shop. Journeys end in lovers meeting. Now? You’ll be lucky to find a second-hand record shop in most towns.

Second-hand record shops started closing in large numbers in the late 90s for two main reasons: CDs and the dominance of chain stores like HMV.

Every retail market needs the next generation to buy, or at least aspire to buy, its product. In the late 90s, the new generation largely bought CDs and had no interest in ever buying vinyl. They could buy CDs cheaply from high street outlets like HMV, who stocked reissues of hitherto unavailable albums.

London’s Hanway Street used to be legendary for its second-hand record shops. There are still some there. Its most famous shop was probably Vinyl Experience. I knew some people who worked there in 1997 when it closed down. They told me the main reason they were closing was because of the massive Virgin Megastore 50 yards away.

The other reason they were closing was because nearby Berwick Street was usurping Hanway Street as central London’s second-hand record mecca. Vinyl Experience was ridiculously overpriced, so was obvious prey to competition.

I’ve worked in second-hand record shops; some of my friends still do. They tell me that in the past 5 years the current young generation of music buyers buy vinyl almost exclusively. A big chunk of the second-hand shops’ market was promos. As these are on CD, they’re now hard to sell.

Potential purchasers can often download the songs before release or buy a new copy from Amazon (without the sticker or sleeve cut-out) close to the price offered in a second-hand shop. This has mostly been bad news for underpaid music journalists who relied on promos to supplement their income.

The young generation aren’t buying the vinyl rarities, though. I’m not surprised – they’re way overpriced. The sky-high prices are justified as sellers ‘know what the records are worth because they’ve seen them online, so we have to buy them for a higher price’. I call bullshit here. Everyone who’s ever worked in a second-hand record shop screams inside whenever The Book is mentioned.

The Book is the Rare Record Price Guide. It lists the price of 100,000 records. Their prices are regarded as at least 10% too high by shops. What sellers never understand is that the prices are for mint copies. One shop owner, now retired from the game, told me that anyone who tried the old ‘but The Book says…’ got the response: “if you see my name in that book then I’ll pay that price”.

The internet is the new Book. It’s even more misleading than The Book. The highest price paid for a record on ebay is indicative of how much two people wanted it. Once those two people have a copy, the price will settle at its true value.

I know that you need a lot of knowledge to buy second-hand records. It’s even more difficult for young staff to become buyers because they need to know about the past 50 years of releases.

That retired owner I mentioned? He’s 55. He started working in record shops in the mid-70s. Born in 1957, he got most of his music knowledge as it happened. Someone born in the mid-90s has got a hell of a lot of catching up to do.

So I’m not surprised that younger staff use the internet as a resource. I was surprised that the owner was letting them get away with their high prices until I found out that the shop gets about a quarter of its sales online.

Without online sales, the shop would have an uncertain future. However, many of their rare records sit on the walls for a long time and are seldom bought by customers in the shop itself. I concede that having such a fine display of rare records makes the shop look good; it’s less attractive for buyers who go hunting for second-hand records without the dizzying online premium.

I had this conversation with a second-hand record shop proprietor in Melbourne last year. He agreed with it all. Then I tried to buy a record from him. It was from a new collection of 7” singles he’d just got so wasn’t priced up. He checked on his computer and came up with the absurd figure of $40. I declined.

Back in my hotel, I looked at discogs. There was one copy for $40. What the record shop owner hadn’t done was check the sales history: average of $7. I bought one last week from discogs for $8. The $40 copy is still not sold on discogs; it never will at that price. I have no doubt that the copy I saw in the Melbourne shop is still sitting there at $40.

Even if that shop gets a website, he’ll have to slash the price to sell it. His shop will probably be alright, though, because Australia’s enjoying good economic times.

In the UK, recessions have always meant boom time for second-hand record shops in so far as getting great stock in. Selling it on was always a problem until the economy picked up. Now, though, buyers worldwide ensure the stock ticks over nicely online.

That second-hand record shop is also doing well because there’s little competition in London as so many second-hand record shops have gone to the wall. It’s still a good place to shop – much of its stock is reasonably priced and you can pick up some bargains (no matter how good your staff, they’ll always miss something valuable, or just not know about it, when pricing up hundreds of records). The prices on pretty standard second-hand stuff you see on ebay that I can only euphemistically describe as “optimistic” aren’t often replicated in shops, simply because they never sell at those prices.

Despite a resurgence of interest in vinyl and the rude health of a few second-hand record shops, I don’t think there’s any room in the market for more shops. Not unless they have a strong collection of high-priced rarities for the overseas market.

Oh, and if you’re dreaming of working in a second-hand record shop, remember this: you’ll spend most of your day pulling out records for bedroom DJs to check out for unused breakbeats. And then re-filing them. They never buy anything.


  1. At one point during the nineties there were no less than three second hand record shops in Tamworth (where I live). This in addition to Our Price and local indie shop Inner Sleeve. If you include Woolworths, then that's six record retailers in a small market town! Soon there will be no record shops at all in the town when our branch of HMV closes.

    Nearby Burton-on-Trent still has a great shop, Henry's, with a great range of cool suff at reasonable prices. Burton is one of the few places in the UK that's still fairly cheap to live - a three bed house on average sells for about £75,000. Presumably shop leases/rents are still relatively affordable. Maybe towns like Burton hold the key to the second hand record retailers surival.

  2. I think when all the HMVs are gone, those giant Tescos will be like a physical Amazon where people can buy most things, including a few chart CDs, at low prices.

    Second-hand record shops need a regular local clientele and to be good enough for outsiders to make the effort to travel to. My feeling is unless there are other things in the town - shops, pubs, venues - these trips might not happen often enough.

    Second-hand shops are reliant on frequently refreshing their stock with good collections. A shop near me in London just bought 25,000 records from the family of a deceased club DJ and collector. That sort of collection isn't going to be broken up and sold online, but I wonder if much smaller ones are being sold piecemeal by the owners online instead of to second-hand shops.