Two weeks ago, one of my favourite record shops, Counter Culture in High Wycombe, became the latest to close its doors - albeit, hopefully, temporarily due to the lease coming to an end. It may have been small, and it may have been slightly out of the town centre but like Oven Ready Records, the record shop I first worked in and later managed, it was wonderful for exactly those reasons. Finding a new spot in the town for Counter Culture has now become something of a mission for a few of its loyal long term customers, keen to see it find fresh roots and remain a part of a dwindling independent record shop network across the UK.
The thing about indie stores though is that they're so much more than just retail units selling second hand vinyl - they're a huge part of the community. Working in Oven Ready 'back in the day', it was where people, (okay, mostly blokes), gathered to chat and to show off about which rarity they had, and brag about a band no-one else had heard of but which they all, of course, should have done if they could call themselves genuine aficionados. It fostered genuine friendships.
But more than anything, the finds unearthed within the shops turned into - without trying to sound overly pretentious (albeit probably unsuccessfully) - soundtracks to our lives. Jeff Buckley's outstandingly powerful debut, 'Grace', would never have, well, graced my turntable if I hadn't been told in no uncertain terms by the owner of Oven Ready that I was unwelcome back in if I didn't leave with a copy under my arm the day it came out. Likewise the Wu Tang's seminal 'Enter the Wu', Wilco's 'Being There', and Rancid's 'Out Come The Wolves'. This of course doesn't include various back catalogue stalwarts such as 'Astral Weeks', 'Ogden's Nut Gone Flake' and 'Bryter Layter'.
Jumping forward to 2015 and the old habits are still going strong, this time though with legendary stores Rough Trade and Sister Ray in London, where the likes of John Grant's 'Queen of Denmark', Public Service Broadcasting's debut, and Daughn Gibson's 'Me Moan' have barely left my deck in the last year; while Joey Bada$$, Sleater-Kinney, and John Carpenter have already dented my wallet in the first two months of 2015.
While these later buys reflect a strong music scene of course, connecting with (especially) Sister Ray on twitter and Facebook brings back the halcyon days of hanging out in shops and asking "what do I really need to buy today?". It's a connection which the ten year old vinyl kid in me still gets excited about, and I'm not ashamed to say it. Well, a bit.
But, crucially, not everyone is on social platforms, and the more than rising rents force smaller shops away from decent footfall areas on the high streets, the fewer these key community shops will remain. As a result, we've witnessed the surge in highly 'unbrowsable' high streets as they become commoditised transaction-led routes populated by exactly the same chain stores and Poundlands as every other main shopping area in Britain. There's a race to mediocrity and replicancy going on, and it's not a good thing - not for the small retailer, not for the people who live there, and definitely not for our collective culture.
Yes, record shops can be intimidatingly small, and often full of weirdos, but that's why I love them. We need more weirdos, and we need more opportunities to have an hour long argument about why 'Astral Weeks' is by far the better Van Morrison album than 'Moondance'.