Monday, December 03, 2007

Robert Forster on Rough Trade shopping

“Rough Trade is one of those shops that, just by being in it, tells you what a city is like.”

In the current issue of The Monthly, Robert Forster eulogises about Rough Trade. And rightly so. That all bases of the underground are covered, that all of the nooks and crannies of the counter-culture’s cottage industries are explored to provide a shop bursting with the best (and, obviously, the unlistenable: surely no one could enjoy all of the moveable feast that is Rough Trade’s stock) new releases is something to be cherished.

And cherish it Forster does:

“No visit to a record store these days is complete without a worrying thought about its survival as you leave. One large chain in the UK announced recently that the record store has to be reinvented, and as part of the shake-up they will be selling smoothies. You can’t imagine smoothies in Rough Trade. The shop’s too small, for a start, and the German and Spanish customers you hear amid the racks haven’t travelled this far for that. So what do they want? And what is the modern record store? I don’t know. But at the door I pick up a copy of the Stool Pigeon, an excellent new free weekly; I check the best-of list for 2006 on the wall. I’ve touched the rock books on the counter and seen what’s on the listening posts, and overheard some hipsters talking to the staff at the counter. I step out of the shop. London sorted.”

You’ve seen the flaw here, though, haven’t you? Yes, it’s the Talbot Road store Forster’s talking about, not the new Brick Lane one (“Rough Trade East”) which does sell smoothies, which has something called a “snug” and which has far too much space and far too few records. While I’d agree that RTE has improved since it opened four months ago, the shelves are still padded out by multiple copies of releases rather than by a broad selection of discrete releases. It feels far too much like an Indie Megastore and lacks the romance, the buzz and the ability to automatically quicken the pulse of the record buyer that the Talbot Road branch has.

A problem common to both Rough Trade shops, however, is that they’re too expensive. The mark-up on their stock is higher than other indie stores. Even more bizarrely, their mail order service is yet more expensive than their shops’ stock. The second and last time I used that service, I sent the records back because they’d taken far too long to arrive (“in stock” my arse) and I’d bought them elsewhere (some at the Rough Trade shop, funnily enough) as I’d wanted them before I saw gigs by those bands whose records I’d ordered. Fair enough, they took the records back, but they didn’t respond to any of my queries about why their mail order stock is more expensive than their already overpriced shop stock.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a leisurely couple of hours going through the 7” singles at RTE and came away with some cracking releases (I also played some absolute howlers, but, you know, one man’s shit is another man’s gold). The most encouraging aspect of that particular enterprise was that one of them, despite being released 6 months ago, was entirely new to me. Whirring by Arms is a dirty NYC guitar groove, like when The Strokes had a fighting chance of being rock’n’roll’s saviours. Only better. And played by Elvis Costello. I know! It’s for such eye-opening wonders that people return faithfully to Rough Trade.

Forster’s reminiscence that he:
“…first went to the shop in 1979. It was a pilgrimage. A trip to London was not complete without at least one visit, and more were needed, as this was a time when stunning releases were coming out of independent labels every week.”

would not be an inappropriate comment about the music scene in 2007. There has been at least one new record to get excited about every week this year. That for Londoners these new records are not all bought at Rough Trade – and I’m certain they all could have been – probably says as much about the convenience of, say, norman records and listening before you buy on, say, myspace rather than the in-store turntable, as it does about Rough Trade’s overpricing. I hope Rough Trade East survives, but it must improve if it is to stick around. Rough Trade in Talbot Road is a national institution and I would, like many, be distraught if that ever shut.

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