The Record Dealers of Spitalfields
“I was one of the first people who went to the States in the sixties looking for records,” recalled old-school record dealer Piers Chalmers, reminiscing affectionately in his rich baritone voice, while clutching a rare copy of Elvis’ second album worth many thousands of pounds. “It was all word of mouth in those days. You’d get on Greyhound bus and go to Memphis and there’d be two hundred labels. Then I’d be in New York ready to get on the boat with all my sacks of records and there’d be a phone call, ‘Get your ass down here to Jackson.’ And I’d go down there and discover a whole warehouse full of records!”
It was inspiring to encounter the warmth of Piers’ enthusiasm in the sub-zero temperatures of the market, where Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Jeremy Freedman and I had come to seek out the hardy record dealers of Spitalfields who convene there on alternate Fridays throughout the year, whatever the weather. Last Friday, the temperature was too low even for the ink in my pen to flow but these zealots were all passionate to eulogise about vinyls.
Rob Henson who runs Pop Classics, fondly introduced his business partner Damian Jones as “a horrible cockney who knows nothing,” which provoked a brief playful tussle between the two men, after which Rob resumed our conversation by telling me he had collected records from the age of eleven until he was twenty, when he sold his collection and became a dealer. And from this interaction I realised that a certain happy masculine camaraderie of the playground existed among these dealers, who for the most part discovered the affection for vinyl recordings in their youth – which this circumstance of being surrounded by vinyl and kindred vinyl enthusiasts permits them the licence to relive.
Personally, I could not resist the feeling that there was a certain insanity to standing around in the frost, surrounded by stacks of vinyls and chatting about music, but the dealers were blissfully unconcerned. “I used to be in menswear but I got sick of it, so a friend and me went to the States and bought a lot of records and sold them all at Camden Lock,” confessed cool-cat Tony James, recounting the tale of his personal bid for freedom. “It’s nice to be involved with one of your passions,” he declared persuasively, wolfing a hot dish of refried beans while leaning over a table laden with his favourite music,”that way you can take the rough with the smooth more easily.”
“I was a milkman for fifteen years, so I am used to being out in the cold,” claimed Dave Neale, also sprightly with stoic cheeriness. A collector for thirty years and a dealer for the past ten, he now spends his time working his way around record fairs at Luton, Southend, Bexley, Chelmsford and Harlow. Just a fraction of the regular nationwide circuit that exists, he informed me.
A different tone was set by Alan Dallison, a native of Shoreditch. “I was a DJ for the pirate radio ‘Voice of Peace’ in 1974,” he told me proudly, before revealing an ambivalence about recent developments, “And then I learnt how to do leather table tops and I had Dallisons Leather Works in Stratford but nobody wants my trade any more, so now I do this instead.” Adding with a wan smile,“The only good thing is you get to meet some nice people.” A tall spindly man with a table of punk music who would only give his name as Ray extended this melancholy chord. “It’s not a business, it’s just me selling off my record collection to get some money. I’m not working at the moment, so I am doing this until I can find something else to do.” he told me plainly. Yet it was clear that both these men sought consolation and found acceptance amongst the community of record dealers in the market – many of whom had also come, once upon a time, like Ray to sell their own collection to earn some cash and then discovered a new career in the process.
Ritchie Wheeler got a job in a London record shop when he was thirteen, growing up in the eighties and discovering a passion for rare groove and vibe. “After twenty-five years, I am totally absorbed by music, and that’s what keeps my interest.” he explained with gleaming eyes, “It’s not the easiest way to make a living but I get so much out of it.” Ritchie’s pal Chris Energy at the next stall had a similar tale to tell, “I got into buying, selling and collecting music as a teenager,” he admitted, “It’s been my life for the twenty-four years that I’ve been collecting.” As well as dealing here, Chris is DJ at the Vibe Bar in the Truman Brewery and sells his records on Brick Lane at weekends, plus he goes off to buy and sell at the fairs in Paris three times a year and Holland twice a year. My awareness of the international market was further expanded by Pete Flanagan of Soho Music, another dealer who started out as a collector. He sells a lot to Japanese customers and told me that the Spitalfields Record Fair attracts many of the international dealers when they are in the United Kingdom to buy records.
I learnt the entire history of independent record dealing that morning, but it was a growing matter of concern that there were so few customers, beyond me and the dealers – many of whom had fought their way through snowy roads from their homes outside London to get there. Yet by the time I had spoken to everyone, the market had filled up, thereby demonstrating that the record collectors were not discouraged by snow and ice either. And in braving the frost, they had proved themselves every bit as committed as the evangelical record dealers of Spitalfields to the absolute belief that vinyl is the pre-eminent form of recorded music.
There is only one record fair left to buy vinyls before Christmas on Friday 17th December in the Spitalfields Market.
Rob Henson of www.pop-classics.com - “my partner is a horrible cockney”
Tony James - “I also do rock and psychedelic”
Chris Energy – “It’s been my life for twenty-four years”
Alan Dallison - “I was a DJ for the ‘Voice of Peace’ in 1974″
Ritchie Wheeler - “I am totally absorbed by music”
Pete Flanagan of www.sohomusic.com - “I’ve always done it.”
Ray - “selling off my punk”
Dave Neale - “I used to be a milkman for fifteen years”
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman