A friend of mine, Rich Ferguson came to film The Gramophone Emporium and its customers during the final days. This was the last shop of its kind as far as I can tell, anywhere. Who knows, with a bit more notice, a campaign to save the shop could maybe have been arranged backed by an appearance on the One Show or even some Lottery funding. It ever a shop was a working museum it was The Gramophone Emporium. It was run on the love of the music and the machines. Ah! Antiques and curios in oak and mahogany and in all shapes and sizes… but enough about their customers! With it now closed, the hub of knowledge and the wonderful club for vintage men is gone and I still miss looking out the VoxBox window towards the shop across the road. Being open 3 half days a week was never really financially viable but they made a go of it for decades and had something that money can’t buy. A customer in the film says that the shops closure will create a haggard void. Perfect words.
Bill, the shop’s owner had a humungous stock of 78s. However, not all records are worth anything and I was told that one time he disposed of 250 000 hard to shift records that were taking up storage space. A quarter of a million shellac discs were used to help create a breakwater for a harbour somewhere. It’s nice to think that this could give some future Time Team a glorious headscratcher. The shop had a decent trade but ultimately the bills were paid by the most valuable records being sold online. Good records would sometimes come in from people’s boxes from the attic but more and more often the better records would come from whole collections that would become available as elderly collectors died. Some were friends and customers. There’s a creeping similarity with vinyl there.
Two men, Ken and Billy ran the shop essentially for free as I don’t think they ever were paid or asked for money for their time and were both supposed to be retired. They were and remain true enthusiasts with unsurpassed knowledge. Like any experts, they were snobs in their own way, but nice with it. Billy would chuckle to himself if you played a record with the wrong size needle or brought in a machine that had the wrong horn. As a boy, Billy told me he had played the same record once every day for a year just to see if the sound quality would deteriorate. Played with a fresh needle every time, it didn’t! Their love of the format was certainly contagious. Saying that, they could also be brutal when it came to worthless records. Jimmy Shand records would be smashed before being disposed of. Otherwise, very often the very boxes that they had thrown out would be rescued from the bin by a kind soul and be brought back to the shop for a valuation.
I do miss the stories. Mark, who appears in the film but sadly doesn’t say much (he is a wonderful talker) is a retired teacher and a part-time clock restorer that accidentally became the shop’s Gramophone repair man. He had walked past the shop when it was located where VoxBox is now, something like 20 years ago and heard a gramophone playing. He thought it sounded terrible and came in only to let the owner know about it. “That sounds awful. The sound-box has really seen better days.” And as an afterthought… “I could fix that.” So he was allowed to take it away. When he brought it back spick and span the following week there was a large box of knackered sound-boxes waiting for him.
As Billy says in the film, the earliest records were recorded live. This is pure analogue and if played through the right machine, you can actually feel the air around you vibrate and for a few spine-tingling minutes you will be in the room with Caruso himself. Rich never managed to spend as much time in the shop as he would have liked as the stress of the impending closure was taking its toll on the team. However, in this short film he has managed to capture a wee glimpse of a wonderful place the like of which may never be seen again.
His short film will be shown in late August as part of the Nightpiece Film Festival but you can watch it here:
A few afterthoughts:
Billy still curates Oxfam’s 78s on Raeburn Place. That’s a good place to bring your 78s from the loft.
I set up The Gramophone Emporium Facebook page when we opened and posted a few photos but I never really had time to do much with it. It was taken over and has been kept alive and thriving by Graeme; A Gramophone Emporium customer and gramophone DJ. Have a look here! There are lots of photos and also links to the new Scottish Gramophone Group that meets regularly. There is an old shop blog post from 2012 about The Gramophone Emporium called The Last Shop Standing. He DJs under the name Lord Holyrude and is available for events and weddings and the odd Torture Garden appearance… His contact details are here.
We only really deal in Jazz and Rock and Roll but I’m always happy to look at a collection. As a general rule, Scottish and religious records are usually worthless. Pre-war British pop are also hard to sell as is Bing Crosby and even Frank Sinatra. Cliff Richard 78s are still very collectable despite his bad press and there are some Indian Beatles records that are sought after as are many foreign records. Classical 78s are usually not worth much but unfortunately, some are worth a fortune so don’t throw anything out. Look out for odd things. One sided 78s are earlier and usually sellable and a record with the title scratched out could be a Jamaican DJs floorfiller. Some people managed to record their voices on privately pressed discs so you can have one of a kind unique items that are nevertheless worth little but have great historical value and should never be thrown away. But mainly, if you get the chance, do try to play them. You could quite easily be the first person to have listened to that recording in over 50 years and that is a lovely and special feeling. I might do a wee piece on shellac in the future if I have the time.
The Shellac that the 78rpm records were made from is a product of the Lac beetle. They create a resin that they secrete on tree branches that protects their young. This is scraped off the tree and put in a pot before being melted, purified with added ingredients and turned into a record. The beetle is found in India among other places. As Britain had its Empire back then, we had access to the best Indian shellac and therefore made the best quality records. The vinyl 45rpm disc was at least in part invented in America due to a shortage of shellac during WWII. In India, 78s were made well into the 1960s so keep an eye out for the Beatles on Beetles.
Finally, here’s a clip from the RCA vaults showing the complex process of how records were made.