“I can’t figure out how they work… it baffles me.”
For someone that’s spent 44 years working in a vinyl record store, Liam Skully doesn’t know much about the technical side of the format which he loves. But I’m fairly sure that his encyclopaedic knowledge of music makes up for it.
All pictures courtesy of Vlad Palamariu.
The Diskery is certainly Birmingham’s oldest record store; an enduring fixture of the Birmingham music scene since Morris Hunting opened up a specialist jazz record store selling 58’s on Moor Street in 1952. 2 moves and 20 or so years later, the specialist jazz store had morphed into an all-encompassing smorgasbord of popular music, and had just moved into its current home on Bromsgrove Street, located in 3 old back-to-backs (formerly accommodation for the workers of the Wellington Hotel next door) next to the concrete behemoth of the A38 Bristol Road.
Skully had worked at The Diskery in its former premises (on Hurst Street, just down the road) for around a year. He wasn’t even supposed to be there for that long;
“I should’ve only been here for a couple of weeks! They needed someone while the manager was off, and my mate asked me if I fancied it. I was just an art student who needed a part-time job, so I went along, and it turned into a month’s trial, and I’ve been incarcerated here ever since!”
Despite making it sound suspiciously like the American justice system, it is clear that Skully has it very, very good. I mean, imagine waking up every day, knowing that you work in a record store; knowing that you literally get to listen to music and talk about music and find new music and introduce people to music every single day.
Yeah, sure, you could argue that it doesn’t quite have the cache of a Premier League footballer (and it certainly doesn’t have the wages). And it’s doubtful that you’ll be able to mess around with the ondes martenot like the lead guitarist of Radiohead.
But I don’t think there’s that many jobs out there that would be as enjoyable as the one that Skully has, and he knows it;
“It’s not really a job, is it? I mean, it’s that old cliché, but I’ve never really worked a day in my life, or at least since I’ve been here. I genuinely love coming to work… and I’ve met so many interesting people through being here.”
And he’s certainly met more in the past few years. Vinyl sales have shot through the roof in the last few years, increasing by 64% from 2014 to 2015 to a 21 year peak.
“…there’s been the realisation that you can’t beat the warmth of the sound of vinyl records. It’s indisputable that music just sounds better on vinyl.”
But in 2007, no-one agreed; vinyl LPs only accounted for 0.1% of the British music market, and it looked like the format was dead. So how exactly did The Diskery survive in a period in which three quarters of their peers closed down?
“There was a hardcore that always believed in vinyl, and they definitely kept us going through the lean years; but we certainly didn’t have that many new collectors. People turn up who haven’t been in years and they’re all surprised we’re still going! But we are… we managed to weather the storm.”
What probably helped The Diskery is that it is so much more than a record shop. To some, it’s a place for therapy (“You end up being more of a counsellor than anything else”). To others, it’s a celebrity haunt (for example, Henry Rollins, of Black Flag fame, was in the other week, and Robert Cray came in on a Friday, bought a couple of LPs and then returned with his band on the Saturday). To some, it’s useful as a refrigeration unit (seriously, you don’t realise how cold upstairs is…). To Skully, it’s “a magpie of a shop”;
“We’ve bought a lot of stuff… we just tend to accumulate things, and when the weather’s good and we put some of the bric-a-brac outside, people don’t realise we’re a record store! Well, until they come inside anyway…”
And yes, there’s VHS’s DVD’s and old copies of Football Manager and “How To Kick A Football Soccer-Style” instructional books for American football kickers and punters; but as soon as you step inside, it’s unmistakably a record store- one straight out of the old-school. It’s the ‘straight toe’ to the soccer-style punt, to use the American football term.
“The look of this place hasn’t changed in 40 years, but I think that’s what makes it so popular. People come in and they’re like, ‘I’ve found a proper record shop!’ And we get a lot of musicians coming in, and they’ve been around the world, in every record store there is, and they say they haven’t found a better one.”
There can’t be that many stores with the same amount of records anyway; Skully reckons there must be at least 100,000 in the store at any one time (including 12,000 78’s; the precursor to vinyl which is much stiffer and much more delicate). From Cliff Richard to Fela Kuti, Elton John to Tangerine Dream, Scritti Politti to The Kinks… you’ll probably find it here.
But of course, there isn’t many people out there rushing out to buy 78’s. There are not throngs of crowds outside, queuing up to buy Scritti Politti records either. It’s always the usual suspects (“your Smiths, Fleetwood Mac, New Order, Bowie, Joy Division… that kind of stuff”) that fly out of the door quickly.
“With all of the iconic, obvious stuff, it comes from the era when records sold in massive numbers so there’s plenty of stock around.”
But of course, for every £3 7th repressing of Hunky Dory, there’s 10p novelty 7 inch singles, and then of course, there’s your £30 first edition Blue Monday….
“We do sell records from both ends of the spectrum, from 10p singles to more collectible, expensive stock; it’s simply common sense that the more collectible and rare it is, the more it goes for.”
With records being so collectible, and in some cases, rare, some punters have complained about The Diskery’s price of records, especially when compared to online. But Skully doesn’t feel that’s particularly warranted.
“Unfortunately today, online sets the precedent, but they don’t have the overheads that we do, what with several members of staff and the upkeep of the building. I think we’re fair; I certainly don’t think we overprice anyway.”
But what some people fail to realise is that, for what you save buying online, you lose out in terms of the experience. Yeah, you can buy that record cheaper on Discogs…but you can’t get new recommendations, you can’t chat away to anyone through a screen and you certainly don’t feel the same when you find that one LP you’ve been after for months.
“For me, coming into stores like The Diskery is like going into your local butchers instead of Tesco… it feels better helping independent retailers out. I do think [online] takes the fun out of record collecting… you get a great buzz from picking records up in stores, it’s all part of the experience, aint it?”
Skully doesn’t switch off from music. On his days off, he’s trawling through record shops, looking to add to his own personal collection. It already takes up all available space in his house (“The wife reluctantly accepts it, but I think we might have to move house soon, because we’re running out of room!”). When I’m looking around the store, I hear him singing along to the records being played out in the store (although you wouldn’t catch him singing along to his favourite act, the Swedish instrumental jazz trio, Esbjörn Svensson Trio)… and he’s being paid for it!
Things have changed a little at The Diskery recently. After 50 years of ownership, Morris Hunting passed away in 2012, and the shop was recently bought in June by Lee Dearn (“he’s kept the same ethos and philosophy that we always had under Morris, but we’ve moved into the 21st century now. We’ve got a website, we’re on the social medias… That wouldn’t have happened beforehand”).
Scully recently received a promotion as well; 45 years after his arrival, the retirement of Jimmy Shannon meant that “the longest stint as an understudy” had finally came to an end, and he was to become the manager.
And that certainly means one thing will never change.
“The one record I’ll never sell is this one by Stiff Records, called The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan. We’ve had it since the Seventies…we always bring it out and play it to people, and tell them how great it is, but it’s a blank record… on both sides there’s nothing. We get people coming in and they’ll ask to hear the wit, and people coming in asking to hear the wisdom… all they hear is the crackle of the vinyl…. We’ve had big offers for it but it’s just too quirky to get rid of.”