A Guide to Record Shopping in London
There are few things we find more pleasurable than an hour or two spent flipping through the vinyl bins in a well-stocked record store. There’s really nothing like tracking down great used copies of old favorites or a bargain-priced new hunk o’ wax to spin on the old hi-fi.
We heard London had some really good record stores and, having exhausted our local supply of rummage-worthy indie shops, we put on our capes and flew across the Atlantic (our transporter was broken) to check out what the Brits had to offer.
Now, should you consider following our lead and checking out some of these places, you should keep some basic tips in mind:
- Set a budget. You can go nuts if you're not careful, so it’s good to build some parameters around your shopping expedition.
- Ignore the budget, if there’s stuff you really want. Of course, there’s no sense being a jerk about keeping to those parameters.
- Know where you’re going. London has an extensive, well-run public transportation system that will take you anywhere you need to go in the city. There are smart phone apps that can help you plan your jaunts, and we suggest you find one you like and use it. We did, but, since we are directionally impaired, we still got lost just about every time out.
- Understand the peculiarities of shopping there. For example, when shopping for used vinyl, know that the actual records will not be in their sleeves in the bins; Brits keep them behind the counter, but will still let you inspect your selections prior to buying them. Some even insist on it.
- Pack accordingly. Make sure you can get your haul back home once you’ve amassed it. We went over with an empty DJ gig back as a carry-on, and returned home with it filled.
Here’s what we thought, and what we bought.
30 Berwick Street, Soho
This tight space houses a small but varied stock of used vinyl and a smattering of new titles. Just-arrived used stuff is closest to the door, and should be the first thing you check out. There’s a definite clubhouse-like vibe in the store, which is the sole U.K. location of a Chicago-based chain. The staff in the back of the place was spinning early ‘80s 45s like Men at Work’s “Down Under” and Haircut 100’s “Love Plus One,” and people were combing through all sections is if it were a lazy Sunday late morning, which, in this case, it was. We found some things we couldn’t find in the U.S. (like Dexys Midnight Runners’ Searching for the Young Soul Rebels) and left happy but sweaty.
51 Poland Street, Soho
A cool, hip meeting place, complete with comfy sofas as you walk in and plenty of space to browse and hang out. Turntables are at the ready in the back of the store, if you want to listen to your selections before you purchase. It’s stocked mostly for club DJs and experimental mix artists, with lots of dance, international records and a good bit of dub and jazz. We dug their selection of reggae albums (we bought one of them — Studio One's first Black Man’s Pride compilation) and hung out for a bit to enjoy the vibe.
75 Berwick Street, Soho
Right across the street from Reckless Records is the unassuming but mighty Sister Ray. Walk in and find yourself surrounded by CDs of every stripe and genre. Head downstairs, though, and you’ll find long bins of rock and pop vinyl, with a smattering of punk and a middle island of singles. We did very well here, picking up some newer selections, including David Bowie’s Reality (which we forgot we already owned) and a copy of Paul McCartney’s All the Best compilation from 1988 — the British version, which contains “Once Upon a Long Ago,” one of our favorite Macca ballads. We went upstairs to pay and had a very pleasant conversation with a friendly attendant, who even gifted us with a Sister Ray T-shirt. In all, it was a terrific vinyl shopping experience.
Rough Trade East
91 Brick Lane
This is the flagship store in the Rough Trade mini-empire, complete with a performance stage (alas, unoccupied on our visit, save four empty chairs) and a small coffee shop. We got ridiculously lost trying to find the place and are willing to admit that might have had something to do with our disappointment with it. There was no used vinyl and somewhat pricey new stuff (we got a sale-priced copy of Manic Street Preachers’ 2013 album Rewind the Film). There are lots of books to browse through, though, from music to philosophy (go for the new Parquet Floors album, stay for the Descartes).
50 Essex Road, Islington
There are three Flashback locations; we visited the Islington store and hit the motherlode, easily the equal of Sister Ray in selection, and in the same in-store location — downstairs (with a sign pointing toward "Vinyl Heaven" to show us the way). Helpful staff made the experience a pleasant one, and we found affordable new and used items on our wish list, including a sealed copy of Bruce Springsteen’s three-LP set The Promise at used price and My Bloody Valentine's mbv for £20 — a steal on either side of the Atlantic.
Abbey Road Shop
3 Abbey Road, St. John's Wood
We went to the center of the pop universe and, unable to gain entry as mere pilgrims, we went to the gift shop instead. We imagine heaven will be something like this, as well. It is a remarkably clean, very white space, with a generous sampling of Beatles product — seemingly a set of keychains, magnets, T-shirts, tote bags and the like for each Beatles album. We were hoping to score a vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the Giles Martin stereo mix from 2017, but they didn’t have it, except in a £35 picture disc format, which we declined to purchase. Bummer. It did seem odd to be at the Abbey Road Shop and not purchase some Beatles vinyl, so we picked up a copy of the Yellow Submarine “songtrack.” On the way out we assisted a couple in taking a picture of themselves at the exit, so at least we felt good about doing a good deed for the day.
363 Oxford St.
Remember Sam Goody? Musicland? Record Bar? They were mall stores that sold records at full retail, with little fanfare, their positive traits being their convenience and — back in the day, at least — their selection, an outgrowth of having a lot of floor space to fill. They were fine for what they were, but they lacked the soul of a small, mom-and-pop record shop. They certainly lacked the soul of Sister Ray or Flashback, as does HMV, the closest correlative in the U.K. to the mall stores. No soul at all, but a friendly staff and a decent selection of new and recent vinyl. We picked up Oasis’ Definitely Maybe and the Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow, because we thought it would be rude to leave the U.K. without at least one Oasis and one Smiths record.
1 Earlham St.
HMV’s quasi-“indie” subsidiary, Fopp offers a similar selection of vinyl and a ton more books, at largely similar prices. There are some differences, but they’re mostly cosmetic, and we found the staff at the location we visited to be rather brusque (“Your signature must match the one on your card, I’m afraid,” we were told as we checked out, as if we signed differently each time we shopped). While we were a bit disappointed with the service, we were quite happy with the booty we found, including a £9 copy of Teenage Fanclub’s last record, 2016’s Here, and a fair-priced copy of their 1991 classic Bandwagonesque .