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Tale of a city: Thank you for the music

Dorian Lynskey celebrates the Rough Trade record shop.

A great record shop should feel a little overwhelming. It’s a maze of possibilities that you learn to navigate with the aid of a subtle guiding hand. Rough Trade, which has operated from 130 Talbot Road in Notting Hill since 1983, is almost the Platonic ideal. A space the size of a living room is dense with racks of CDs and vinyl, each one bearing a descriptive label or scrawled recommendation: “On form!” “Don’t hang about!” Between the ranks of new releases and flyers, the walls are plastered with history in the shape of old concert posters and a collage of faded seven-inch single sleeves from the punk era.

Near the counter, there’s a glass frame containing signed photos of celebrated customers. In one of them, the Ramones are standing outside Rough Trade’s old premises at 202 Kensington Park Road. When Geoff Travis, who still runs the Rough Trade record label, opened the doors in 1976 it was a bomb-damaged plot surrounded by sheet metal. The area’s grand houses were mostly abandoned, some of them squats. It was the year the Notting Hill Carnival became a running battle with the police. All Saints Road was known as “the Front Line”, and you ventured there at your peril. “It’s changed a lot,” says the shop’s manager, Nigel House. “Not completely for the better.”

House moved to London from Somerset in 1977, ostensibly to study geography but chiefly to pursue punk rock. “It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I thought London was going to be full of punks. When I went to King’s College, there were two.” He was too late for the Sex Pistols but he saw everyone else: the Clash, the Jam, Joy Division. He became a regular at Rough Trade. The old shop was long and thin with a cubbyhole at one end where you’d lean in to buy your punk and reggae records from Travis. “It was a funny old place,” says House, a cheerful man who looks younger than his 54 years. Chaotic? “Yes, but in a good way.”

House gained a postgraduate degree in landscape architecture, but there was a recession and no jobs, so he started working at the shop. London’s music scene had a streak of danger back then, with punks and skinheads behaving like warring tribes. Rough Trade used to hire a security guard on Saturday afternoons in case of a visit from the notorious Ladbroke Grove skins. House was working as a steward at ULU (University of London students’ union) one night when some of the skins turned up without tickets. He said they couldn’t come in. One of them headbutted the door. He let them in.

By 1982, Rough Trade was the most iconic record shop in London. It was also broke. Outwardly it seemed a roaring success, having expanded into releasing, distributing and exporting records, but the finances were chaotic. In a bad way. When House and two fellow employees, Pete Donne and Judith Crighton, learned that the shop was to close they decided to save it. “No kids, no mortgage. We thought we’d give it a go.” They raised £7,000 to buy the existing stock from Travis, matched the amount with a bank loan and paid themselves what they would have received on the dole. A sign appeared on the door: “Please tell all your friends if you want to see us continue.”

Record industry lore celebrates charismatic motormouths such as Tony Wilson and Alan McGee, but charisma alone doesn’t pay the bills and the business has always depended on calm professionals like House. The shop survived, partly by selling skateboards as well as records. GIs from US army bases were among the customers splashing out on skate gear and the latest shipments of hardcore punk from the US. “It was like a feeding frenzy.” A few years later, the partners opened a second branch in Covent Garden, where they squeezed sweaty gigs into the basement. They still have an archive of DAT recordings, including shows by the Beastie Boys, P J Harvey and the late Jeff Buckley.

Back then, Rough Trade kept a close eye on its competitors. Now, most have gone, shuttered by falling sales and cut-price online retailers. Yet Rough Trade flirted with disaster only once, ten years ago, when a failing Paris branch threatened to bring down the whole business. The shop was days from closure when it found an investor. House laughs nervously as he recalls the eleventh-hour reprieve. In 2007, it replaced its Covent Garden branch with a vast new shop on Brick Lane, where it attracts the students and artists long priced out of Notting Hill. The current regulars at Talbot Road are more likely to work in banking or advertising. The shop across the street is a branch of Jack Wills. The Kensington Park Road site is now a health centre.

Visiting rights

House says you can buy records cheaper online, but you can’t prop up the counter on a Saturday afternoon, talking about music and getting personal recommendations. His aim has always been to run the kind of shop he’d be happy to visit. He disdains the kind of intimidating elitist portrayed by Jack Black in High Fidelity, though he is convinced the character was modelled on a former Rough Trade employee. “It’s a bit like Cheers. People like to come in where they’re known. When you know someone, you can say: ‘You don’t want this record, it’s rubbish.’” Next July he will have worked in the same building for 30 years. Sometimes the passing of time strikes him. Two of his staff members are the daughters of long-time customers. Another veteran regular comes in now with his son and grandson. His own children, he says a little sadly, don’t love music with the same intensity.

Sometimes he gets wistful for punk, as you might if the past were staring down at you from the walls, but then he plays a new record and he gets excited again. “You can’t wallow in nostalgia. I’m always a glass-half-full type of person.”

The neighbourhood and the industry have changed beyond recognition, but House is still here, which surprises him as much as anyone. He didn’t think, back in 1982, that this shop would become his life’s work. “But I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve loved every minute. When it comes down to it, I just love selling stuff.”

Dorian Lynskey is the author of “33 Revolutions Per Minute: a History of Protest Songs” (Faber & Faber, £17.99)

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist, host of the Remainiacs podcast and author of The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984. He tweets at @Dorianlynskey.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue