Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Record stores in Wellington, 1991 roundup.

Ebony Records, Wellington - ad, Scope magazine Dec 1991

Scope 7, December 1991. Music column, By DJ Mac & Tashkent Bray

"Back in the early 70s, there was a shop called Chelsea Records where the Quest salon now sits in Plimmer’s Emporium on Plimmer’s Steps.

It was an incense-burning, crystal-windowed, hip-attitude record store at a time when most 

people bought their LPs for $5 from uninformed, shirt&tie-uniformed shop assistants at department or electrical stores.

Chelsea service was informal, the staff were helpful; customers went back because they liked the people, the atmosphere, the service, the selection.

Chelsea branched out from there to Manner’s Mall, Porirua, Lambton Quay - for a long time it was the Manners shop was the big shop in town — but it all fell apart this year.

Chelsea was carrying too much stock that people weren’t buying and didn’t (couldn't?) stock the new stuff people wanted to buy. The shops sat on expensive frontage. People always seem to have money for music, but with the economy in the toilet and everyone stretched for cash, shoppers this year were really putting the discretion back into discretionary spending.

The opening of Brash’s across the mall finished things off for Chelsea. The Australian retail company bought the HMV chain and opened the refurbished stores with a sale that cleared out heaps of back-catalogue vinyl plus stacks of tapes and CDs, all at rock-bottom prices. It gave Brash’s that all-important cash flow, and strangled Chelsea in the process. Chelsea had their big sale, dumped a lot of stock, and closed, to reopen as part of the Tandy’s chain.

Both Tandy’s and Brash’s are targeting a chart-oriented.clientele, principally youth, who want music in its most popular medium — cassettes or alternatively CD. 

Colin Morris gets the youth too. But his net is flung far wider, he carries more - and  undoubtedly more varied — stock than Brash’s or Tandy’s. Colin, who's been in the business for 22 years, sees the major change during that time as the displacement of vinyl by compact disc. That, and an increased professionalism in shop layout.

Then there’s the loosening of foreign exchange regulations, which has made importing much easier. Today there is almost nothing that can’t be ordered , and in most cases acquired, from overseas.

“We can bring in stuff from the US within five working days, which is a phenomenal speed,” Colin says.

“The advent of credit cards and faxes have speeded up my business to the extent that there’s really no excuse for me not being on top of new releases.”

Although the present Colin Morris store in Willis Street doesn’t seem that large (full, yes), Colin would like to go back to a smaller shop, more like his first shop on the Terrace.

“Most people like me in that sized shop,” he says. “They think it’s more comfortable and more friendly, which it is to a certain extent.”

Colin opened a second shop this year, in Lambton Quay; a brave move considering the depressed state of the retail market. “It's the hardest I’ve ever seen it,” he admits, adding that his own business has been down each month for the past three months.

And then there’s the mammoth amount of new and re-releases, so many that “you can’t pick up on everything, it’s just so diverse”, which in turn demands staff that know their stuff.

“The fragmentation, the explosion of the music scene has made our job much more difficult, because now you really have to be a specialist in everything, where before in a lot of cases it was just grouped together as pop music or rock music.”

But there are advantages in this increased specialisation, especially if you know how specialised to get.

Allan’s CD Shop opened in December 1988, and apart from the odd LP, a couple of cases of music videos, a few blank tapes and some Viz mags and books, it’s only ever sold CDs. This specialist approach has paid off, and with the speedy access of imported discs from the States and the UK, Allans are bringing in heaps of unusual and obscure music, particularly reggae, rap and US and UK alternative rock, along with entire catalogue re-releases of the likes of Can, Funkadelic and Parliament.

Almost anything's available now, and Allans have had a good year, as word of their specialist service commitment spreads.

Neither Allans of Colin Morris retailer thinks CDs are overpriced here — not compared to overseas prices. Anyway, most of what you want — imports aside — can usually be picked up for $20 (there are choice budget CD pickings and a primo country selection at Troubadour in the Wakefield Market).

Wellington prices tend to be a few dollars higher across the board than in Auckland, and we really have nothing to match that city’s record institutions: Marbecks or Real Groovy Records.

We do however have a recycling trove on the Cuba/Vivian vortice, with each of the secondhand shops targeting a specialist niche. All have pared down their stock to the extent that there's very little dross to be found, except in the cheapo bins.

Slow Boat Records, the biggest of the secondhand stores has the most organised layout and comprehensive range of LPs in town (and three local music stars behind the counter).

Silvios, ad in Scope, Dec 1991

Silvio’s has almost as much paraphenalia (heaps of T-shirts) as it does music, but there are still bargains among the picture discs and rock oddities. 

Solid Air Records have a consistently wide range of old, new and obscure NZ records and tapes, plus a select but expanding CD section.

Compact discs are now swamping the secondhand market; as well as their bins of LPs, Real Groovy in Auckland has a huge wall of vinyl that they will probably never shift.

There’s still a big demand for certain records though, and with superb packages like the new Public Enemy LP around that’s not going to decline too rapidly.

Ebony Records, run by young entrepreneur Irene [Chan] in Cuba Mall, aims to fill that demand, particularly in the 12" dance and hiphop single niche. Her shop is ultra-specialist, looking almost like a comfortable* living room (“Is this a nightclub at night?” asked one customer, seeing the DJ turntables.)

Irene used to work at The Soul Mine, and doubtless picked up a few tips off Tony Murdoch, the owner of the Kilbirnie record haven. Tony was an early champion of rap, dance and other narrowstream musics, on vinyl and import particularly, and though much of his stock is now CD, the Soul Mine is a bastion of vinylised music in the eastern suburbs, and not just for residents.

People keep going back to The Soul Mine and shops like it for good reasons: service, selection, knowl-edge and that personal touch from owners and staff who know and love music. Long may they thrive."

From Wellington City Recollect: "Scope was a Wellington magazine published between March 1991 and November 1992 that reflected the city's alternative culture. It was edited by its founders Mark Cubey & Michael Lockhart who were joined by Jim Scott and was published by Cadre Communications, a company then owned by Lockhart and Cubey. 

"It featured cutting-edge design, often irreverent articles and tapped into the new dance music scene that was emerging in Wellington.  Published at a time when the internet was confined to universities and government institutions, the magazine also printed extensive listings of arts and entertainment events + reviews. It attracted contributors as diverse as the journalist John Campbell [under the pseudonym ‘Sparky Plug’], the fashion photographer Craig Owen and the writer Emily Perkins."

Read the history of Scope magazine here, on Wellington City Library's site. Wellington City Library has digitised the magazine, with the support of Cadre Communications (Mark Cubey and Michael Lockhart), who published Scope.It's a great time capsule of early 1990s Wellington.

More: Audioculture on The Soul Mine, Wellington's lost record stores part one, and part two.

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