Talking Shop: Friendly Records, Bristol
How do you improve a well-stocked community record shop run by a true vinyl addict who’s worked in more or less every corner of the music industry? Easy. Open a bar next door. Gary Walker visits Bristol’s Friendly Records
Tom Friend’s CV read like a rough guide to working in the music industry before moving from London to Bristol’s cool and increasingly popular Southville area in 2006.
Born in Somerset, Friend had been a designer for Heavenly Recordings, an A&R man for DB, 679 and Island Records, managed bands, taught at a music college and opened an art gallery with Portishead’s Geoff Barrow. The only thing remaining was to launch a record shop, and he put that right in the summer of 2016, when Friendly Records opened on the city’s North Street
A bright and inviting space with rustic unfinished charm, neatly ordered racks and pot plants, Friendly Records lives up to its name – all are welcome in this South Bristol vinyl hub. While Friend has travelled a circuitous route to being a record store owner, the seeds of inspiration were sewn in the city at the tail end of the 1980s, when he’d make weekly teenage pilgrimages up the A38 to Bristol’s then formidable crop of record shops.
“In the late 80s there was a really good scene in Bristol,” he tells Long Live Vinyl. “I was in a band, coming up to play Bristol, and it all started with the record shops here. We used to go up to Bristol and go to the two Replay shops, then up Park Street to Tony’s.”
Got It Taped
“Revolver was a really important shop,” recalls Friend. “It was scary, because we were just kids, but it was great. A good friend of mine, Richard King, wrote the book Original Rockers, which I read and then immediately re-read; it perfectly captures that period in Bristol. You’d go into Revolver and be pretty intimidated, but would always find interesting records. There’d be a lot of records out the back that weren’t for sale, and Roger would say: ‘Come back later, I’ll tape it for you’. You’d go back at the end of the day and he’d put the record on a tape for £1.
“Later on, there was Purple Penguin, Imperial… They were important shops because it was pre-internet, pre-mobile phones. You just knew if you went there, there was a good chance you’d meet people you knew, other bands. It was
a golden era.”
Despite the attraction of nearby Bristol’s liberal charms, Friend felt the pull of the London-centric record industry after completing a graphic design degree, landing a job producing cover artwork for Heavenly Records under Jeff Barrett.
“We did the Beth Orton album, Chemical Brothers, The Charlatans… They had a press company in there, too,” he remembers. “I could see everybody else around me having a lot more fun than I was. I was sat there trying to work out typefaces, staring into a screen, really bored and there’d be a kerfuffle and Bobby Gillespie would come in regaling people with a story about some film he’d seen. He used to sleep under the desk, and all kinds of stuff went on that I couldn’t possibly talk about.
“I remember speaking to Jeff Barrett and Robin Turner. I said, ‘What are they all doing?’. And they said, ‘A&R’. I said, ‘What’s that?’ I loved being in bands, and I thought if I did this mythical, magical A&R job, I could do all of those things without having to be any good at singing or playing a guitar.
“I got a job working for DB Records, signed Electric Soft Parade who were Mercury nominated within a year, then Tom McRae, who was also Mercury nominated. Then I went to 679 Artists, who had The Streets, The Polyphonic Spree, Ben Kweller, Secret Machines and Plan B.
“We moved to Bristol when my eldest daughter was born and we wanted to get out of London, but I ended up getting pulled back in and working for Island Records for a while.”
Having finally settled in Bristol with a personal record collection starting to challenge the boundaries of the family home, it was time for the next entry on Friend’s musical CV. “My record collection was getting too big, out of hand, thousands and thousands of records… my wife suggested that I had too many.
“I’d always wanted to own a record shop, going right back to being a kid going to those Bristol record shops. I love records, obviously the music, but how the sleeves are made, who printed them, everything about them.
“We opened in the summer of 2016, and quite a lot of the stock was my own collection that I’d decided I was going to start the shop with. It was difficult, but it was also cathartic. I like the idea of having 100 or 200 records that somehow cover all the things I need, and it was kind of nice to strip away some of the wheat from the chaff.
“I used to buy a lot of hip-hop and I’d buy the American 12″, the British version, the 7″ – do I need multiple formats of the same song? A lot of that went in the shop. But if I see my favourite records in the wild for an affordable price, I can’t leave them behind. I still do that now. There’s probably something wrong with me and it’s probably become worse now I’ve got the shop if I’m honest.”
Come On In
Memories of plucking up the courage to enter foreboding record shops as a teenager inspired Friend to ensure his own store is welcoming and non-pretentious. Customers are not judged on their music taste at Friendly Records.
“There’s a certain snobbery that goes with record shops, and I think it’s really important shops aren’t like that. I wanted it to be open to everybody, and you’re not judged when you come in on any level. There’s probably not the mainstream stuff that you can get in other places, which is down to my tastes to a point, but we’ve got a big second-hand section that covers all those bases.
“I wouldn’t want anyone to feel they can’t come into the shop, whether that’s based on age, or gender or musical taste, it’s open to everybody. Quite a lot of those shops I went in as a kid, they were quite daunting. Even later on in London, going into Music & Video Exchange, where I ended up working. They’d almost judge you, guffawing, when you took in records to sell.
“A big part of what we sell is second-hand. We’re lucky that we get really good collections coming in off the street. We should always have most of the important well known stuff, like Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Neil Young… plus we’re getting good dance collections coming in, we’ve got a really good jazz section, funk, soul, Brazilian… then we try to put the key new releases alongside those things.”
Friendly Records is now at its second North Street site after the landlord of the first shop sold up in December 2017, and Friend has since added an adjoining bar to the Friendly family. With decks on the counter and a sizeable record collection sitting above the spirits, it houses music quizzes, film nights, in-store shows and DJ sets. When Long Live Vinyl drops in for a pint of Purity Session IPA, Tom’s gearing up for ABPHEX, a mind-boggling event dedicated equally to the music of ABBA and Aphex Twin, while Geoff Barrow of Portishead, BEAK> and Invada Records fame is a firm friend of the shop.
Friend explains: “I think we need to do stuff that other people don’t, and it needs to have a real local, Bristol leaning to it, because we can do it better than other places can. I have a lot of respect for Rough Trade, they’re very important, but because they’re there we have to do something different and come up with another angle.
“We wanted to make it a hub, all under the Friendly Records umbrella, where hopefully people trust it because we’ve been here a while and we’re doing it for the right reasons. We’re trying to be part of the community and we’re a library as much as anything else.
“Right when I first had the shop, I initially wanted to put coffee in and make it a nice space. The first shop wasn’t big enough, and when I took on this new space I knew there was a possibility. The bar next door became available and I decided to see if I can make it work as an extension of the shop.
“You Tell Me have played there, which was great. It was one o’clock on a Sunday and we had 40 or 50 people in there. We’ve got a weekly music and film quiz, a film night…”
Good Outweighs The Bad
It seems barely a year since Friendly Records first opened its doors, yet the shop is gearing up for its third Record Store Day, with Tom already planning the next phase of the Friendly story.
“People seem to really like it and the longer you survive the better it gets, but there’s still an element of survival in running a record shop in 2019. It’s like selling left-handed scissors or something, yet almost every day someone tells me about the vinyl revival, and how well I must be doing. “Truthfully, the best business model would probably be not to have a physical shop, but you’ve got to give people a reason to come in rather than buying online. Records are physical objects and you’re best served interacting with them, holding them, and also you bump into people.
“I try to be as positive as I can about Record Store Day because there are elements I have issues with, but the good it’s done far outweighs the bad. We try to make it an event, and that’s what the original intention was. It shouldn’t be about people desperately trying to get these limited edition records, running out of the shop and either keeping them or selling them on eBay. I want it to be about community, chatting to people in the queue, making new friends, swapping record stories and ideas for bands they should go and see or other shops to go and check out.
“It should be about celebrating record shops and music and how powerful and positive it can be. When it works, it works really well. Last year, we had a brilliant day, people camping out the night before with deckchairs and flasks, and being really good natured. Boy Azooga came and played, which came through Heavenly. This year, the pressure’s on to make it as good or better. We’ll have DJs playing in the bar throughout the day, live music, food and drink, trying to get people to realise that record shops are important.
“In record shops, we’re trying to sell something that’s really niche. Most people don’t buy records, we’re very much in the minority, so the idea of having a shop on the high street of so many towns and cities is amazing. There’s a lot of them out there now, and I hope most of them manage to survive this time round.”