Mark Elliott continues his crate-digging odyssey in the West Country’s vinyl HQ…

Go West… The mantra behind Pet Shop Boys’ last mega-hit, of course, and actually (see what I did there?) it’s today’s mission. Now, I always feel sorry for those couples I spot where one person is frantically flicking through a box of vinyl and the other half is supportively, but so obviously, struggling to appear even remotely interested. The ‘royal We’ just don’t do it anymore. So here I am, travelling solo to Bristol. The other half’s at home minding the dog and I have a whole day, armed with my iPhone and a scribbled-down list of places to visit. Travelling out from London’s Paddington station, I decide to test how successful I can be in the dance and hip-hop capital of the West,with a search for three specific items, as well as the usual haul I’m certain to buy on a whim.

It’s a sweet and familiar balance for all collectors – the records you keep an eye out for constantly and the dozens that simply catch your eye while you’re out searching. No number of online trawls will ever compare to the heady thrill of stumbling across something unexpected amongst a pile of dross.

Bristol’s going to prove quite a treasure hunt – so I commit to seeing how prescriptive I can be with the mission to add to my pitiful collection of The Cure by sourcing a copy of The Walk single in any format. I also decide to see if I can find the final piece of my Billy Idol jigsaw – a 12″ of the 1990 No. 47 ‘flop’ Prodigal Blues – and, finally, a remedy to the rather shocking lack of later Bowie LPs currently shaming my collection. The rest we’ll leave to chance.

Arriving at Temple Meads station, the first thing that’s apparent is that, unlike some other cities, the shops I seek here are spread out and a cab (or, if I’d been better organised,
a car) is going to prove essential if I’m buying more than a handful of items. I will be. First stop, then, the Gloucester Road end of town.

Getting there

GWR trains take just under two hours from London and leave around every 30 minutes. Temple Meads station serves trains from all over the UK. The distances between some stores are walkable at a push, but buses are easy to navigate, and I used a cab for a couple of trips. There is parking near most stores, but you may need to pay.

1. Plastic Wax

This is perhaps the granddaddy of Bristol record shops and has acted as a magnet for other retailers to the area, with three now within a few minutes’ walk of Plastic Wax, which started out in 1978. The shop is 10 minutes by car from Temple Meads and, billed as Bristol’s longest-established indie, Plastic Wax is a great place to start, with well-ordered vinyl, keenly priced. Since the top floors have been converted to flats, much of the stock has been shifted around and the 7″ singles I remember from my only previous visit are less obvious than they were, tucked away under racks of LPs and out the back.

Manager Dave Kellard says he’s seen a real shift in the stuff that’s selling. “In the past, you’d have been hard pressed to get rid of a record like The Sound Of Music soundtrack and, now, decent copies go very quickly,” he says. “It’s not so much the youngsters, it’s older people like me revisiting stuff they used to love.”

The interest has sparked an army of over-confident punters fixated on the idea that everything they want to sell is worth a fortune. Dave says the internet is to blame, but he’ll politely point them back in that direction if they are determined to retire on the proceeds of a copy of Kings Of The Wild Frontier.

Occasionally, a rare gem will crop up in the piles of stuff people are trying to flog. He recalls a copy of the mail-order Record Club issue of Electric Jimi Hendrix, valued at circa £800, turning up a while back. I don’t come across that, but relieve him of a 2008 issue of The Smiths’ Singles Box set. It complements my other finds, which include the Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) 1987 Thunder LP and a 7″ of Into The Groove (Medley) by 80s cover act Mirage. At £1, it’s considerably cheaper than The Smiths package, despite Dave offering a decent discount. I’ve already spent more than I expected – this is looking like being an expensive day out…

2. PK Music Exchange

A couple of hundred metres further up Gloucester Road from Plastic Wax, you’ll find PK Music Exchange. Bristol is celebrated for its dance culture and this is one of the best stores for second-hand stock of that type I’ve ever come across. There’s a huge amount of vinyl, much of it segregated into genres, and the ground floor carries a phenomenal number of 12″ singles, particularly from the past two decades.

Shuffling through the Italo-disco section, I source a nice copy of a Valerie Dore megamix from 1986, and, elsewhere, a couple of later Gloria Estefan promos from her mid-90s disco-diva incarnation. This is one of those shops where the range of stock outranks presentation concerns, and owner Paul Kavanagh’s USP as the go-to guy for local bands and DJs sourcing instruments and PA kit means he sees a steady stream of white-label releases. Paul has been serving them for 16 years and says business is brisk. Upstairs, there’s a wider range of rock, soul and pop genres, where I pick up a nice picture-disc LP of Eurythmics’ Touch and Peter Schilling’s German-issued maxi single The Different Story (World Of Lust And Crime); this slice of Hi-NRG/synth-pop heaven is a steal at just £5. And then, bingo! There’s the 12″ picture disc of Billy Idol’s Prodigal Blues.

Success so early bodes well, but I’m already worrying about how to carry it all home.

3. Prime Cuts

A few doors along from PK is RePsycho Clothing and, once you’ve navigated the vertigo-inducing staircase into its basement, you’ll find a true Aladdin’s Cave in Prime Cuts. Owner Michael Savage has been in business for 17 years and prides himself on a reputation for being able to sell everything, although he admits some of the less interesting stock shifts only once he’s put it online.

A newly arrived set of classical discs from Austria is battling for Michael’s cleaning and indexing attention, and the store is busy with mid-20s guys depleting his stock of jungle – a genre Michael’s perhaps most renowned for. I head for the soundtracks and source a good copy of the Brian May-helmed Mad Max 2 LP and the atmospheric score to Kiss Of The Spider Woman, one of my favourite films. Then there’s a 12″ I have never heard of – the 1978 disco theme to Battlestar Galactica from The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. Michael’s eye-catching labelling suggests it’s awesome disco and I decide to trust him on that.

On the way out, I also spot Bob Andy And Marcia Griffiths’ Young, Gifted And Black album on Trojan displayed on the wall. It’s rare to see a good copy of this and I snap it up. I’ve always loved this 1970 hit – it’s one of the first records I remember hearing as a toddler. Not for the first time, I’m reminded how powerful the pull of nostalgia is for this record-collecting boom.

4. The Centre For Better Grooves

Now, if record collecting can be described as a religion, then this shop just might be one of its high chapels to the faith, such is the calm, loving air of curation that pervades it. Gordon Montgomery is the man who founded the Fopp chain after a distinguished career at HMV and Virgin Megastores. Now, he’s keeping it simple. “There’s one landlord, one member of staff and no petty cash thieves,” he tells me and, although he admits he’d like to own the world’s biggest record shop, it’s clear this elegant and beautifully presented space is serving him and the customers well.

While I’m here, he deals with a chap looking for some disco 12″s for his brother’s birthday and spends time helping him make his choice. It’s a warm and friendly exchange that plays to Gordon’s passion for soul and R&B. He’s also delighted to have taken in some fine jazz finds recently, including a pristine copy of a 1965 Dorothy Ashby album he’s in the process of pricing up. I pick up some soul 12″s and Moroder’s soundtrack to Cat People, which is my first Bowie-related 80s success of the day.

5. Idle Hands

Bristol’s dynamic and diverse dance scene needs generous servicing and Idle Hands is a real specialist. Most cities have one decent shop stocking these new releases, and the team have been running Idle Hands since 2011. The range is great and the place looks busy with DJs – likely because, on my brief visit, the store has only just reopened again after relocating from Stokes Croft to St Paul’s. They’re still buying second-hand stock, though, and there are plans to expand the range. It’s a bigger space than before and is bright and airy, despite the crowd. It looks like it’s going to be another hit.

6. The Vintage Market

Heading back towards the centre of town, I stop off in the busy bohemian Stokes Croft area and dive into the Vintage Market. It has the usual eclectic range of stalls selling everything from books, taxidermy and, of course, records to clothing and furniture.

A couple of stalls, particularly Collector Cave, have some good stuff. I pick up a 7″ by The Pretenders – Never Do That – which failed to chart in 1990, and a programme from a 1976 Diana Ross European tour.

Rare pop memorabilia of this kind always excites me – how I wish I could have made one of those eight nights she played at the New Victoria Theatre, London, across March and April of that year.

7. Rise

Next, we climb up the long and winding Park Row, past the city’s Museum & Art Gallery and stunning Wills Memorial Building towards Clifton. This branch of the regional chain of three independents is a Bristol institution and well worth a visit, with a very strong selection of new vinyl and a small selection of second-hand records.

It’s clear this place is gearing up for this year’s Record Store Day, and prices are better than I expected. There are some great deals and I pick up a copy of Blondie’s Plastic Letters, the last missing LP from Debbie Harry and company in my collection, for just £10. The store has a nice cafe and hosts a decent range of events and in-store performances, and there’s a wider stock of CDs, books and DVDs – which I know is off-topic, but I find myself drawn to as well. Time for a quick pit-stop in the café, before heading on…

Top Tips

1. Allow plenty of time
Bristol is a city of many different areas and communities – often separated by steep hills. While there are clusters of shops in certain areas – Cheltenham/Gloucester Road and St Nicholas Market, for example – some of the best stores are more than a quick stroll from the centre. Be prepared to expend some shoe leather in your pursuit of vinyl.
2. Don’t expect an unbelievable deal
Most of Bristol’s record traders have been in the game for a good few years, and will have been offered a copy of Neil Diamond’s All-Time Greatest Hits before. Often a dealer’s first offer will be the best you’ll get. Only attempt to bargain if you genuinely know your stuff, because they will know theirs.
3. Pick your moment
Saturdays are busy in central Bristol, particularly in St Nick’s market where four of these stores are, so the best time to go is midweek. Avoid lunchtimes, though, because the market is busy with office workers taking advantage of the mouthwatering array of food stalls [we recommend the Al Bab Mansour Moroccan stall or Eat A Pitta, Ed].
4. Take in a record fair
Bristol plays host to some first-class record fairs, not least the one held four times a year over four floors at Colston Hall – the largest in the South West.
5. Go further afield
Bath is only around 15 miles away, with a few excellent record shops of its own, while a pitstop en route at Keynsham’s Longwell Records will be well worth your while.

8. Payback Records

Next, a quick stride down Park Street, to the city centre and St Nicholas Market. Payback, which started in 1998, earns its reputation as a reggae specialist, but I find plenty of other good stuff, too. Like other retailers I’ve spoken to, I’m told it’s people my age who are contributing the most to this vinyl boom.

“If I put a decent Fleetwood Mac or Led Zeppelin disc out now, it will be gone in a morning,” says owner Paul Craine. “It didn’t used to be like that.” He also thinks it’s getting harder to source really interesting stock. “It can be that shops are seen as the places people bring stuff they can’t shift online,” he says.

There’s little evidence of that, though, in his racks and my prize find is a great boxset of The Dance Decade 1973-1983 from the Street Sounds label. At £40, it’s something I have hoped to find for a while – with Hues Corporation, Freeez and Sugarhill Gang tracks amongst many others on an epic 28 sides of vinyl, it’s a party in a box. Payback also accepts Bristol Pounds – a local barter scheme that speaks volumes about the city’s sense of community. Everyone is so friendly! It seems light years from London.

9. Face The Dawn Records

Clustered in another corner of the market, I find the first of three record shops within a stone’s throw of each other. Weighed down by my purchases, I’m almost disappointed to discover this is another well-stocked gem. Thinking practically, I focus on the generous 7″ racks.

I pick up a handful of choice finds, including one of the things I love about crate digging: the record you’ve never heard of that you buy because it may just be The Best Thing Ever. Who can say what happened with Cowboys International, a Virgin signing from 1979, after this sole release from 1980? A look at Discogs on my phone tells me Today Today is power pop and features an uncredited Marco Pirroni. Good enough for me.

10. The Rock Shop

With a clear bias towards punk, rock and new wave, this eclectic store actually carries a wide range of other memorabilia with its vinyl. Owner Ziggy tells me the records started as a sideline because he was a big collector and needed somewhere to offload them. After divorcing, he was able to pursue his passion properly and set up this multi-faceted music business.

The next plan is to set up a rock café somewhere and, on my visit, he’s going through a stack of old NME and Kerrang! editions to source some cuttings to decorate the walls. I pick up a copy of The Stranglers’ cover of All Day And All Of The Night on 7″ and go to pay. Ziggy passes over a couple of free CDs for me to review when I tell him that I write for magazines. “No expectation,” he tells me and, I have to admit, Criminal Mind and The Dukes Of Bordello don’t strike me as typical of my taste, but I promise to give them a listen.

Yet again, I’m struck by how warm the welcome is. It’s a cliché, but record-shop staff can struggle to make eye contact sometimes, let alone conversation. Not in Bristol, though… it may be the sunshine, but it seems like everyone’s on happy pills.

11. Wanted Records

Now, John Stapleton, who runs Wanted, is a man who clearly knows his stuff. The sign on the door makes a borderline chilly declaration – Chris De Burgh records are not needed ­– but the welcome’s as friendly here as elsewhere and I’m certain if the Irish singer came knocking with a collection of his material, John would be obliging enough.

In truth, John knows it’s because some records still won’t sell – despite the upturn – and while I’m there, a punter turns up with boxes of largely dross to try to offload. This is a real collector’s store with everything in great condition, but prices are fair. John makes a conscious effort not to sell the best stock online and it explains why, after nearly eight years, it’s one of the Bristol stores with the best reputation.

I pick up very nice editions of David Bowie’s Let’s Dance and Never Let Me Down albums. One a classic, of course; the other rather less so, but you’ll have guessed by now that the 1980s really do it for me. John’s a big collector, too, with a particular interest in 1960s singles, acid folk and British jazz. We spend some time discussing other shops across the UK and it’s clear John’s been to most of them, which prompts me to head off again. Grabbing a cab, I notice the Saturday market also has a guy with a large vinyl stall. I just don’t have time to linger…

12. Friendly Records

It’s the last whistle-stop visit of the day and is based in the south of the city, on Bedminster’s cool North Street. Alongside T-shirts, accessories and turntables for sale, there’s a good range of new and used vinyl. Tom Friend, who runs the store, buys stock, and hosts in-store sessions. It’s an attractive-looking venue and I’m pleased to find some nice tote bags branded by the store that will come in handy now my plastic bags are splitting and the flight case I’m wheeling around is full. I’m out of time and almost out of cash, so I reluctantly leave without a single record, promising to come back when I haven’t got a train to catch and a cashpoint allowance that’s dried up.

Bristol has defeated me with its incredible range of shops and stock. I didn’t even get to HMV or Fopp, or Longwell Records in Keynsham, and then there’s Resolution Records in nearby Bath. I had no luck with The Cure, but could just as easily have missed a copy or failed to ask if one was lurking in a stockroom.

I loved my trip crate digging to Brighton, but I’m wondering if Bristol is now the UK’s record-shopping city to beat…