Record Store Day tomorrow, and it brings back happy memories of my Saturday job working in Downtown Records, Romford, when I was but a schoolboy, aged just 15. Downtown Records was without doubt the hippest place to work in Romford, no – Essex actually – probably London – if not Europe, in fact the shop was the centre of the known universe when I was a lad, and I had a job in it – keeping it supplied. Yes, I was a storesman to the centre of the universe.
The job did of course catapult me into the higher echelons of popularity at school, and even gave the somewhat gauche and nerdy boy his first real connections with girls (as they were then).
This is a story of glamour and romance. The store was at the other end of the mall (The Liberty, Romford) to Sainsbury’s, where I would go for lunch supplies on a Saturday. Charmaine was her name, quite Romford as names go at the time but Ian Dury never managed to find a suitable rhythm for it. She worked behind the checkout, and she recognised me from Downtown Records. Need I say more? We spoke, it was instant attraction and that Saturday night we ponced underage drinks in the modern pub beneath Mercury House – its name escapes me – conveniently located opposite the main doors of the supermarket.
After closing time, I escorted Charmaine home on the 174 bus to the door of her parents house near Gallows Corner. We repeated this several times until we just didn’t any more, and I can’t remember why. The height of this romance was the fact that we shared ownership of one of the new fangled cardboard bus ticket strips that London transport introduced as the Routemasters were fading out. One clunk from the strip each for the trip to Gallows Corner. I’d then have the ticket, and it’d be one clunk more to get me to my own door. I’d carry it in my top pocket the following Saturday, and the ticket would last three weeks.
Anyway, I digress – and I also think that Charmaine story is more than likely riddled with inaccuracies, but that’s how it stays in my memory. However what is true is that I bought the latest box jacket styles (mine were all sky blue) in Granditers in Romford Market, to look as reem as possible for these meetings with the Sainsbury’s till girl – who I recall just wore her uniform, which was, as it happens fine. I have of course googled Charmaine, and all I got was a picture of Ben Elton, certainly not as I remember her.
I spent most of my early life in Downtown Records listening to LPs in the headphone booths, and the staff spent most of their working lives putting records on turntables for the booths – a consumer facility that seemed to generate very little income for the store. There was some notional time limit for each listener, and also some ban on the booths during busy times, but it was always busy and the booths were never out of bounds.
The job came about after I was walking past the shop one school day evening at about 5pm. A small note in the shop window informed the curious viewer that they were looking for p/t Saturday staff. I peered into the shop interior, my heart pounding, in through the screen of clear plastic squares that held the sleeves of the latest releases, and which filled the window. This was it. My moment had arrived.
By now I was already a jazz junky, following off-the-wall stuff. The job application consisted of filling in a form with the usual data, and then a big question: name ten or more record labels. My list went beyond the small box supplied and nearly filled the blank reverse side of the form. It consisted of labels such as SayDisc, and the then not well-known, ECM records. Downtown Records did not sell any of the products of these record labels, but the bloke interviewing me was very impressed that I knew all these small labels and offered me a job there and then. I took it, of course, and in a whirl of faint-headed celebration, pinching myself – was this really happening to me? It was. It was real, and the following Saturday I started work.
The SayDisc record I had was ‘Portraits’ by Graham Collier, a fine slice of British jazz that stands the test of time without blemish.
When it came to Downtown Records, I thought I’d seen it all from my position as a consumer. The naivety of the customer laid bare. At the far end of the shop was the spacious customer service area with its tills and booths and till-side items, and the other booth at the end of the counter where you could order tickets for major rock stadium gigs. Behind the till area, there was a wall of records, and then a small doorway closed only by a hanging blind of multi-coloured plastic strips, in which staff would go clutching empty record sleeves before returing store side with shining black vinyl in its pure white vest, and a new sleeve, not the thumbed card of the display copy, which was hurled into a store box beneath the till. It soon became my job to refile those display sleeves, and accuracy was everything.
Little did I know that the stairway beside all of this, mostly hidden behind the counter, lead to a first floor labyrinth of records in their wholesale boxes – thousands of records which had been delivered through a service door at the back of the store, and which were carried box by box up the stairs to be checked and stocked.
On day 1, I was sent upstairs and given orders about orders.
The hot vinyl at the time included Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of the Moon – old even then but still selling like hash cakes. On an average Saturday, when I started, we sold so many of these that instead of carefully taking the wholesale boxes down the stairs to the waiting salesman yelling up his requirements, we’d just throw the box down and it really didn’t matter if a few copies got smashed or dented on route.
I had never seen so much money in my life. At least every two hours on a Saturday, the tills would be full and were emptied and the cash stashed in the backroom somewhere, but always by the older staff.
ELP sold well, and Yes and Genesis, and of course singles. Downtown Records was a 45rpm goldmine, outselling the WH Smith’s opposite (which had a large pop music collection and was good for the 45s).
Rumours by Fleetwood Mac and MeatLoaf’s Bat Out of Hell also sold by the crumpled box load, but the biggest seller I recall was Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, and I hated it. Concept albums were everywhere. Music was not enough in the 70s, it need to be herded into linked sets and then silkscreen coated with layers of pretension.
The most damaged display sleeve by far was Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones. Unlike WH Smiths, we had this on public display. I never saw a copy of that record sleeve in which the zip wasn’t broken, having become derailed in the undone position. It was without doubt one of the most erotic things I’d ever seen in my brief stay on the planet at that time, and the scratched and dented zone behind the zip was evidence that the ardour of my adolescent contemporaries was even more insatiable than my own in the company of this provocative affront to public decency.
But back to the store. The pay was good, too, very good. I had cash in my pockets. But the real money was to be made on the up- to- 50% discount on records that the shop offered its staff. This meant that every Monday morning I’d go to school and open a list for anyone at the school to write down what they wanted, give me the money, and I’d deliver the following Monday – and I’d sell it to them at about a 20% discount, making about 30% for myself. This list would run into pages of A4 every week. I was happy, the punter was happy, the record shop didn’t know. LPs at that time sold for about £4 each. I was making about £1 on every transaction.
I quickly went from being an invisible nobody in a large, comprehensive school class of only slightly less insignificant nobodies, to being the unofficial, fringe, head boy. The one my peers really looked-up to, not the learned nerd chosen by Jakey, the elderly headmaster who remained head from the time that it was a grammar school. I was the people’s champion, a vinyl Robin Hood – who’d courted his Maid Marion (Charmaine in this analogy) – and what’s more I got to inhale the unique aroma of a vinyl store stock room at least once a week, and to feel the near-death inducing jolt of the huge static discharges that came from the racks of plastic and plastic lined inner sleeves, on the same regular basis. The discharge was almost always caused by the brushing of synthetics, and the cheap carpet that led from the shop to the store being polished by myriad, crepe-soled wedges.
Sometimes, if short-staffed, I’d work a lunch shift on the tills. I often imagine what attaining Nirvana is actually like, it cannot be as good a feeling as being in the public eye in Downtown Records, Romford, selling records and attending to the listening booths.
But it couldn’t last – and it didn’t. I got bored, or something, and left. Charmaine and me drifted apart – with a terrible denouement occuring on a rain-soaked Saturday night, a few hundred yards from the fly over of the A12. I was given the cardboard bus ticket for good by Charmaine, and with her angry words telling me that I could keep it, I left the scene of that romance for the last time, and returned to my sad life – the life of an unknown personage – following Dagenham FC on Saturday’s, and that didn’t last either.
The message of this rambling, inaccurate and inflated history is plain – no one adores you today for selling MP3s, or even CDs in quite the same way as they did the heroes associated with vinyl retail in the 70s, and me being a record store storesman. The panache, the local celebrity stuff, just isn’t in the music retail trade anymore, unless of course you’re punting vinyl.
I had it all back then, and all these year’s later I look back at it with pride, in the same way as, I guess, Brucie reflects on his glittering chin, and his long-toothed TV career.
Sadly, no pictures of Downtown Records survive. The picture here is the The Liberty Shopping Centre in which it was located, but out of view.