A decade as a lighting designer enabled Ed Warren to collect vinyl from all over the globe. Back in the UK, there was only one thing to do – open a record shop, he tells Gary Walker.

Margate’s Cliffs stands as a tangible reminder of co-owner Ed Warren’s travels around the world as the founder of Next Level Lights. At the top of its striking monochrome Victorian staircase, classic records by Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, The Smiths, The Who and Lou Reed – the souvenirs of Ed’s numerous world tours – watch over the crate-digging customers, while the intoxicating aroma of freshly ground coffee rises from the ground-floor cafe and in-house roastery.

Spending a decade on tour with the likes of Mumford & Sons, Metronomy and The Strokes, lighting stages everywhere from Glastonbury to Fuji Rock, Roskilde and The Hollywood Bowl, Ed was unwittingly doing the research for what would become Cliffs, exploring the world’s best record shops and bringing home suitcases full of vinyl from the US, Japan and all corners of Europe. Eventually, the penny dropped and Ed decided to hang up his AAA pass, return home and set up shop.

Opening last year on the site of a former oriental tea room and antiques shop, and injected with bohemian minimalist style by Ed’s partner, interior designer and yoga teacher Kier Muddiman, Cliffs has breathed new metropolitan life into the faded seaside glamour of the Kent town’s Northdown Road. Set over three floors, there are already more than 2,000 records on sale, a 50-seat cafe and a fully licensed 100-capacity basement gig venue. There’s even a hair salon and studio space that plays host to yoga, pilates, Tai Chi and antenatal classes. Make a list of on-point reasons to leave the house, and Cliffs has them all covered.
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Ed’s route to opening his own shop was a circuitous one, although fittingly enough, it started with a job in a record shop. “I finished university in Southampton with a journalism degree, but decided I didn’t want to be a journalist, so I got a job in a new record shop that was opening up,” he says.

“I worked there for a couple of years and had an amazing time, but knew it wasn’t something I wanted to do forever. A friend’s band, Delays, ended up getting a deal with Rough Trade and they were regulars in the shop.

Fortunate accidents

“I guess they liked the cut of my jib, as they offered me a job going on tour with them selling their T-shirts and albums. So I took that up without thinking twice, went on the road with them and ended up becoming their lighting guy through a series of fortunate accidents. Then it kind of just snowballed from there, working with bigger bands and bigger shows, through to where I am now, running my own lighting-design business.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been to some incredible places I’d have never gone to ordinarily. I’ve been to Brazil, Colombia, dark corners of Europe, South Africa, almost every state in the USA… I’ve lit the Glastonbury headliners (Mumford & Sons in 2013), Reading and Leeds (Mumfords in 2015 and The Strokes in 2011), been to Japan 10 times, including the Fuji Rock and Summer Sonic festivals, Roskilde in Denmark, Sasquatch in Washington State… The Hollywood Bowl, The O2 in London, Red Rocks in Colorado…

“Lighting design has taken me to some incredible places I’d have never gone to ordinarily. I’ve been to Brazil, Colombia, dark corners of Europe, South Africa, almost every State in the USA…”

A man of the world

“I’ve done some really dark and dank nightclubs in Europe and the backwaters of America, a gig in a baseball stadium, on school fields, in a school itself, in someone’s front room, in a shopping centre, on boats, trains, airports…”

From LA to Tokyo, the relentless round-the-clock schedule of working with touring bands – the transatlantic flights, late-night loadouts and debilitating stomach complaints – left Ed with enough downtime to expand his record collection to vast proportions. Waking early each day, he and his sound guy would jump on their bikes and explore the world’s cities – and their record shops.

“We’d pinpoint a record shop, go straight to it and pick up some records. It was the summer of 2015 and we just had a really enjoyable time finding record shops. I was on tour with Mumford & Sons, and I wouldn’t start work until noon, so I’d get up at eight o’clock, have breakfast and go and find record shops – that’s where this place has come from.

“More often than not, the record shops would be combined with a coffee shop, and it worked really well. I love hanging out in those spots, so I guess I was subconsciously doing research early on. It’s definitely rubbed off on this place. I love hanging out here, for one!

“I remember there was a really good record shop in Las Vegas called Record City, and I spent a lot of time in there, and bought a copy of Lola Versus Powerman by The Kinks in there, and I’ve kept it for myself because I was looking for the record at that very time, and they pressed play and put it on while I was in the shop.

“Kier and I went on holiday to Japan, too, and came back with two suitcases of records, a lot of Japanese versions of albums, Japanese Manga compilations and stuff. We brought back tonnes of stock, and it’s all out for sale – and has been selling.”

The price is right

With more than 2,000 records in store, Ed says that bargain buys are proving the most popular with Cliffs’ customers, and he resists the temptation to raise the bar too high. “We sell a lot of lower- and mid-priced stuff in store, the stuff that ranges from £3 to £7 is probably our highest-selling range. People love a bargain and I like to price my records so we sell them. I don’t want them to hang around for ages.

“I’ve got the Edgar Broughton Band’s Wasa Wasa for sale for a very reasonable £140, compared to how much other people are selling it for online. I’ve got the Led Zeppelin six-LP boxset for £150, an Appetite For Destruction still shrinkwrapped, a lot of great old jazz records and, of course, my Star Trek collection. Most of the higher-priced stuff sells via our Discogs site – in store, we tend to sell more of the £3 to £12 albums.

“We’ve got a copy of Sgt. Pepper’s… in top condition, and a compilation that surprised me, called From Bromley With Love. It’s an 80s new-wave synth compilation from 1981 that’s going for £100. It’s quite a rare compilation in excellent condition. We’ve got a really good selection of Smiths records, Tom Waits records, Led Zeppelin, Sex Pistols, 70s disco 12” singles – a lot of Chic and Donna Summer, that kind of stuff. We sell a lot of disco and hip-hop stuff, but the classics always sell.

“Someone sold me their whole collection on eBay for next to nothing, and it was full of loads of old Nirvana, Metallica, Britpop, a fully intact Beatles ‘White Album’ with photos inside, stuff like Blur, Oasis and Suede that was all worth quite a bit of money and in really good nick, so that was a great find.

“Some people have no idea what records are worth. I bought someone’s heavy-metal collection, which included a load of amazing picture discs and limited-edition records. I’m also obsessed with buying Star Trek albums! I have all the movie soundtracks on vinyl, and tons of these comic books with 7” accompaniments. They’re great and the kind of thing I would have been obsessed with as a kid – and still am! Like most record shop owners, I’m building exactly the kind of shop I would want to see.”

The reaction from the people of Margate to this temple of urban cool has been universally positive, with people from all demographics calling its relaxed environs a home from home. It’s no exaggeration to state that an entire community has been built around vinyl. Freelance media types stare into their MacBooks, parents sink into stylish olive-green armchairs and nurse cappuccinos while their children play, and crate-diggers of all persuasions feed their vinyl addiction. “I enjoy watching people’s reactions as they walk in for the first time,” reflects Ed.

“The best thing is when parents put their kids on the listening station with a record and they sit and listen to music on headphones for the first time. It’s like opening them up to a whole new world”

“Everyone who comes in to look around comments on how nice it looks and how at home it makes them feel. We get people come and stay here for hours, to hang out and to meet people.

“It’s given Margate another place to meet and bump into people, and a lot of creative people come and work here all day and work off each other. People come in with their dogs, there’s an old guy who comes in every day and has a cup of tea and sits down for half an hour… we’ve got so many regulars.

“Kier is an amazing interior designer and architect. She sourced all the furniture locally. It’s a very minimal, Scandinavian, clutter-free vibe with the emphasis on keeping the incredible old building as natural-looking as possible. We’ve got an amazing Victorian stairway going up the middle of the building; it’s one of the first things you see when you walk in. We built all the racks and the counter ourselves, and just wanted to create somewhere you’d want to spend all day.

“We’re also very kid-friendly – we have two play areas, and the new generation of kids love it! The best thing is when parents put their kids on the listening station with a record and they sit and listen to music on headphones for the first time. It’s like opening them up to a whole new world.”

Ed says the reason for the industry’s recent resurgence is simple: “Because you can hold the record in your hand and feel it. You can feel the complete album and carry it home with you, and it’s a nice thing to own. Everyone loves their record collection out on display, nobody hides it away. Actually holding an album in your hands is something that’s been lost over the years – each album is a work of art. It’s a nice way to listen to music, too, you feel more involved. It’s kind of therapeutic.

“You listen to it and you’re not looking at your phone or pressing buttons or trying to block the outside world out with headphones.

“I’m adding new stock every day, we can fit in around 3,000 records comfortably. We’re going to start opening later with more in-store appearances and gigs downstairs. The kitchen’s open now so we can do proper food, we’re hosting a wedding, a few birthday parties, a baby shower…

“We’re just going to keep going as we’re going. Building up the stock, building the events we’re putting on, increasing the cafe menu and developing naturally rather than having a gameplan. Luckily, it’s gone our way. It’s a lot more successful than we expected it to be, we’re fortunate with that, and we’ve got the scope to toy around with it and see what works.”

Find out more about Cliffs here.

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