Talking Shop: David’s Music, Letchworth
David’s Music is a thriving Hertfordshire record shop that attracts repeat visits not only from record collectors but also bands. Christopher Barrett looks at what’s in store…
The UK’s earliest garden city, Letchworth is home to the UK’s first roundabout, but more importantly for those interested in smaller and more rewarding circular objects, it’s also the home of one of the UK’s best-loved independent record stores.
Opened in 1963, David’s has expanded over the years and now consists of three linked shops, encompassing a bookshop, record store and cafe. With its yellow signature branding on green background, David’s is a timeless presence on Letchworth’s Eastcheap.
“Some people will spend most of the day here, moving between the shops and cafe. David’s has become a hub for the community, there are lots of clubs and organisations that are run out of here because it is in the centre of town and lends itself well to a community spirit,” says the store’s assistant manager Ashlie Sky.
It is nearly 10 years since Ashlie joined David’s Music, straight from university. “It was supposed to be a short-term thing while I worked out what to do with my life, but I had always wanted to work in a record shop and soon found myself getting swept along by the success of Record Store Day. Shortly after that, I was elected onto the Entertainment Retailers Association board and became more involved that way,” she says.
The 800-square-foot record shop has more than 5,000 records on sale, with a fairly even split of new and second-hand vinyl. Ashlie can still recall the buzz she felt while taking payment for the most expensive album she has sold at David’s; a first pressing of Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut with turquoise lettering on the cover. It went for £1,000. She works alongside manager Andy Oaten, who has been with the shop since 1984.
Andy says David’s has sold many records for between £100 and £800, including a first pressing of The Who’s Live At Leeds with all inserts, The Who Sell Out first press with poster, Hendrix’s Are You Experienced? and Electric Ladyland first pressings.
“Some LPs from more recent times can also fetch a good price,” he says. “We recently sold a copy of Prince’s The Black Album for £250 and some Queen and Pink Floyd albums from the late 1980s and early 1990s that went for big money.”
Sky says David’s used to sell second-hand vinyl on eBay and Discogs, but they decided to call a stop to it because it was negatively impacting the shop. “Most of the really good stuff was going abroad, which is fine, but it seemed a shame to not be able to offer the best records to people that make the effort to come into the shop,” she says.
David’s may stock a good number of highly sought-after records, but Sky says the staff make sure the atmosphere in the shop is always welcoming and unpretentious.
“We don’t have that cool, aloof, record shop vibe, there is none of that here. Our customer base is pretty broad, we cater to a lot of people, and we are seeing an increasing number of females coming in. So, we make sure the atmosphere here is as inclusive as possible and people don’t feel stupid asking for something by Barbra Streisand,” she says.
With the aim of accommodating all budgets, David’s stocks a wide array of vinyl albums for £3, and has an ongoing ‘4 for £10’ offer. “We sell a huge amount of those,” says Ashlie. “It is appealing to teenagers, or someone new to vinyl, who doesn’t want to invest a lot of money in it yet.”
When it comes to acquiring used vinyl, Ashlie says it’s not necessary to go out looking for it. “We benefit from good word-of-mouth recommendations. We have people travel long distances to bring stuff in to us because we have a good reputation for offering fair prices. Occasionally, if it is a big collection, we will go to them, we have a dedicated van that goes out and picks up extensive collections. “We have thousands of lines. We do a lot of rock and pop but also a selection of world music, hip hop, jazz, blues, soundtracks – all tastes are catered for, but rock and pop dominates the space.”
Since Ashlie first joined David’s Music, she has seen the revival of interest in vinyl first-hand and has worked to increase the shop’s range of new releases. “We have always had new and second-hand vinyl, but when I started the new vinyl was a much smaller section – 10 years ago, it was not looking good for record stores,” she says.
Ashlie was integral in the shop’s involvement in Record Store Day in 2009, but it wasn’t until the following year that David’s went beyond simply selling the limited-edition releases.
“In 2010, we realised we could really make something of it and have a party in the shop. We stocked a lot more titles, had T-shirts and stickers, bands performing all afternoon and then DJs. It felt like a turning point, from then on we started stocking a lot more new-release vinyl,” she says.
While David’s no longer sells second-hand vinyl online, it does sell a small number of new releases via its website. It is one of a group of 24 indie record shops around the UK that exclusively sell releases from Dinked Editions,the collective launched in 2018 by Drift in Totnes, Piccadilly in Manchester, Resident in Brighton and Transmission in Margate.
It started with Kurt Vile’s Bottle It In, and now some 35 Dinked Editions are available, including sumptuous versions of Cate Le Bon’s Reward and Portico Quartet’s Memory Streams. Says Ashlie: “There is a lot of interest in them, some of our customers have collected all of the Dinked releases.
“It is really nice being be part of a little collective of great shops, it feels like a community and we all help each other out.”
David’s also sells copies of new albums that have been signed by visiting artists. Both Ashlie and Andy have found it relatively easy to persuade some of their favourite acts to perform in store.
“We have loads of in-stores. We try and chase bands we really enjoy, so for me getting Wolf People, who are signed to Jagjaguwar, to play in the shop was a huge treat. It was like having one of my favourite bands play in my living room,” she says.
For Andy, a fan of The Divine Comedy, getting Neil Hannon to play in the shop on two occasions was huge, while both of them were elated to see 10cc’s Graham Gouldman play a set there.
“We are big 10cc fans and so we emailed him, he emailed back, came in and played. It was all so easy, he was so approachable and unpretentious. It’s great that people want to come here and play. I think it helps being midway between London and Cambridge, and the fact we have been around a long time,” says Ashlie.
Brothers David and William Armitage launched David’s Bookshop in March 1963 and began selling new and second-hand records from the store shortly afterwards. The music department proved so successful that by the early 1980s it warranted its own shop.
“David’s became a destination store, people made a pilgrimage to it because they managed to get quite rare items in — there wasn’t much going on in Letchworth in the late 1960s and early 1970s,” says Sky.
“Now there are three units all joined together, Music at number 12, books at 14 and a couple of years ago we opened the cafe and knocked them all through, so it is a massive space. It keeps growing, which is amazing,” she says.
The Armitage brothers sold David’s to its current owner, Paul Wallace, in 2009, but William Armitgage remains involved with the shop as a director and still owns the building.
The bustling cafe, with its wooden floors, walls adorned with metro tiles, shelves of beautifully bound second-hand books and framed newspaper cuttings about the store, is the latest addition to David’s and has proven popular with locals and helped to boost the record store’s business.
“The cafe has been really beneficial,” says Ashlie. “It started out as a small operation at the back of the record shop. We would tailor what we played to the people in the coffee shop and recommend things to them. People would ask us to play new albums, it won us a lot of sales.
“The cafe is a separate space, it works really well but we do have to be careful, we can’t play anything too out-there. It’s great to be able to use the cafe to advertise new releases and in-store events. At Christmas, we make hampers that include tea bags, books and records, and sell them in the cafe — the businesses all go together really nicely.”
Having ridden the crest of the wave of the vinyl revival for the past decade, Ashlie is not concerned by reports that the format’s sales have begun to plateau. She says that many of David’s customers are young and enthusiastic about collecting records and consider having a subscription to a streaming service as complementary to their vinyl collection.
“Something I hear all the time from customers is, ‘I’ve been listening to it on Spotify non-stop and now I really want to own it’. It tends to be younger people with less disposable income. Older people will just buy an album if they like the band, but younger people with less disposable income are having to be more choosey and Spotify gives them the opportunity to try before they buy.
“People used to come into record stores to discover new music and now maybe that’s not so much the case. We do take pride in recommending things to people, but Spotify does that very well without you having to leave the house.
“I hope the future is well rounded, there is nothing wrong with Spotify, but I think people are increasingly realising what an amazing resource a record shop is.”