Talking Shop: Groucho’s, Dundee
Described as the coolest record store in Britain, Groucho’s in Dundee has a celebrity following that has been building for 40 years. Now immortalised on film, we finds out what sets this distinctive music store apart…
Some record stores succeed by catering to niche markets, others crash and burn trying to cater to them all. A few find themselves at the centre of cultural movements, and then there are those who will be forever on the outside. Few have done all of this and more, and still command the support of a loyal band of customers who are as eclectic as the vinyl they sell. Groucho’s is one such outlet.
Adorned with the epitaphs of Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie, this stalwart of Scotland’s east-coast music scene has survived three enforced relocations and the varying fortunes of Scotland’s fourth-largest city. It celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2016 and has done all of this while receiving industry recognition, year after year.
Groucho’s scored a hat-trick of accolades when it was named the Dundee City Centre Independent Retailer Of The Year on three consecutive occasions. It won the title again in 2012 following a year off, seemingly balancing longevity and independence with a doting customer base.
Groucho’s – which was of course named after the writer, comedian and film star Groucho Marx – was first opened in 1976 by Alastair Brodie, known locally as ‘Breeks’. His pragmatic approach to business and a couple of cherished items are all that remain of the original shop.
“When we opened, we needed a sound system, which turned out to be a few bits and pieces, and a pair of Wharfedale speakers which were second-hand,” he says plainly. “Because we were selling second-hand records, we didn’t really want a fantastic sound system, and we try not to drown out the customers anyway. Today, the only things that are original from 1976 are me and the speakers.”
He continues: “We play music we want to hear, but we like to vary it. So you might hear Dave Brubeck or the Cocteau Twins or Public Enemy. The shop doesn’t have a musical identity as such.”
What it has is history. Brodie’s record retailing began in Edinburgh with a Saturday job at Varsity Records. A couple of years later, the then-20-year-old jumped at the chance of running a record stall at the Cockburn Street market. “I had a 10-minute interview and they asked if I could start tomorrow. A few days later, they said I needed an assistant, so I brought in my flatmate. Within a few days, I went from being unemployed to managing a record stall with an assistant. It was 1 April, 1974. It was great. One of the best times of my life.”
The community around the market provided a solid grounding for Brodie and his assistant, but they had plans of their own. As well as running the stall, they started a shop-fitting business (based on Brodie’s O-level in Woodwork). Following one project at a local bank, a £500 business loan was secured, which, along with his business partner’s record collection, was the rudimentary beginning of Groucho’s.
“We didn’t want to step on our customers’ toes by doing something in Edinburgh, and someone had offered us a cottage in Dundee,” he explains. “I had never been to Dundee in my life, but I was about to get married, so we decided to live in the country and start a business.”
After assessing the geography of the city’s existing record emporiums and identifying a gap, Brodie and his business partner secured their first retail outlet at 89 Perth Road. “It was £5 a week,” he says. “There was no toilet, no windows and no backshop. We shopfitted it during the summer of 1976, which was blisteringly hot. We knew from the word go it was going to work.”
“It was also the summer when punk exploded. I remember listening to Anarchy… for the first time and thinking, ‘That’s a load of nonsense’. It was a bit noisy. But we realised quickly that was what folk wanted, so within a year we were a full-blown punk shop.” – Alastair Brodie, owner of Groucho’s
“When it’s your own business, you can do something straightaway. You don’t have to think about it. I’ve followed that mantra for 40 years. I’ve never had any business projections. I don’t look ahead in a year’s time, or even six months ahead. I think in terms of tomorrow, next week or today.”
The capacity to be agile, react and respond to the fickle world of music is a must-have skill. It ensured Groucho’s was able to take advantage of the ebb and flow of changing clothing and accessory trends, as well as the music itself. It was, after all, a time of energy, rebellion and entrepreneurship. “A lot of people have great memories of that time, which they keep reminding us of,” he says.
As well as enjoying the burgeoning possibilities of music retail, there were also challenges; some more systemic than others. “The worst time was when Thatcher put up VAT from eight to 15%. That was when you paid VAT on your selling price, but because we were selling second-hand goods, we couldn’t claim it back. It meant we immediately doubled what we were paying in VAT. We were so destroyed that day, we just shut up shop and went home. That is the only time I have ever done that, apart from the odd funeral or a Scotland versus England game.”
The first incarnation of Groucho’s lasted for about seven years. A move was made inevitable, however, when the then-landlord opted not to renew the lease in 1983. As one door closed, another opened when an opportunity arose to take over the last 18 months of a 20-year lease. The premises – underneath one of Dundee’s main hotels, The Angus – proved to be ideal.
“A lot of touring bands stayed at The Angus, so they would drop into the shop. The Smiths came in the first time they were in Dundee and Johnny Marr still drops in when he’s up. My favourite customer was Peter Green, however, from Fleetwood Mac. I got a good wee chat with him. He was one of my heroes.” – Alastair Brodie
The shop made quite an impression. Marr described it as “the coolest record store in Britain”, although some have suggested it is far more important than that. Other customers have made an impression of their own. “There were a bunch of guys in the shop that I told the staff to keep an eye on, because they looked a bit dodgy,” says Brodie. “They turned out to be the band Then Jerico. I didn’t like the look of them.”
The new premises brought other benefits. A watertight tenancy agreement devised by Brodie’s legal-eagle brother-in-law meant a forced move from The Angus in the 1990s, resulting in Groucho’s relocating to larger premises while retaining the original rental deal. It meant that, rather than paying £35,000 for the new prime shop location with “massive amounts of space”, Brodie continued to pay £6,000 annually. Not surprisingly, takings doubled and, as an added bonus, the temporary move lasted two years.
Events took an even greater turn for the better when, in 1999, Brodie’s landlords sought to relocate Groucho’s again, this time to a permanent residence. “The landlords bought the lease and offered to shopfit it for us, so we had a blank canvas. I sat down and drew out what I wanted – with an office here, a staff room there and a mezzanine floor above. And they did it. When you consider the cheap rent, solicitors’ fees and shopfitting, the move from the shopping centre to where we are now cost the landlords the best part of a quarter-of-a-million pounds, which is money we didn’t have.”
Remarkably, each move had been compulsory, brought about by decisions made elsewhere. And yet, with increasing fortune, each one brought its own opportunities. 18 years later, the Groucho’s Nethergate site, at the crossing point between Dundee’s student and commercial quarters, is established as the go-to place for concert tickets, badges and of course vinyl.
“Not being too greedy is also important, as is having really good staff and working – working hard. We don’t come in and fart about. All the staff know what they have to do.” – Alastair Brodie
You don’t survive 40 years in an “easy browsing shop” without picking up some tips and tricks. But while you would think the secret to Groucho’s success might be fine-tuning your fashion antenna or accurately predicting onrushing musical trends, according to Brodie, the winning formula boils down to filing, benevolence and hard work. “I’m a stickler for getting things filed,” he says, “because you never know when someone is going to want to get it. Get the good stuff priced and out on the shelves and the rest gets filed.”
Groucho’s is run by a core team – Brodie’s two principals have chalked up 50 years’ service between them. “Frank is the manager,” Brodie explains. “He looks after the CDs, LPs and the 12″ singles; the dance stuff, which I have no knowledge about. Not my thing. I used to do all the vinyl, but I just don’t have the time or energy any more. Morag was always on videos and DVDs, but sales of DVDs have dwindled, so she’s now moved on to the 7″ singles and concert tickets.”
Brodie is kept in check by his wife Stella, who ensures he maintains a healthy work-life balance. “Me,” he says, lastly, “I price all the old LPs and 7″ singles. I tend to price the rarer stuff, which we put up on the walls so people don’t steal them. To be honest, during the 1970s and 1980s, our customers were teenagers or young adults and you had to keep an eye on them. Nowadays, it’s the opposite. Most of our customers are as honest as the day is long. They’re great.”
The shifting integrity of his customers isn’t the only thing Brodie has noted over the years.
“Music that we were struggling to sell a few years ago, we can sell no problem now. People of my generation can be musical snobs. I was into Frank Zappa, so I wouldn’t pay too much attention to ABBA or Boney M. Young people now don’t have that filter. For them, buying a Boney M. album along with a Bowie album and a Genesis album – it’s all the same.” – Alastair Brodie
He continues: “Music goes in cycles. There was a spell when we had a massive number of albums that we had to chuck in the cheapo box for £1, just to get rid of them. We’re talking Ziggy Stardust… and Fleetwood Mac Rumours, and that’s exactly what people want now. ELO sells particularly well. For some reason, the double album of War Of The Worlds is a mega seller. And we can’t get enough reggae.”
As Brodie says, you can only sell what people bring to the shop. “There are major acts that you just don’t see. The Smiths, for example. We might get one Smiths album a month, because people don’t sell them. People come in every day looking for The Specials, Nirvana and good Bob Marley stuff. Hopefully, they find something else, because you can only stock what people bring in.”
Last month, Brodie was immortalised when he made a cameo appearance in a feature film set in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Schemers is a movie that deals with bold youth culture and an audacious plan to bring the fledgling rock gods Iron Maiden to the city of Dundee.
“The mum of the guy who wrote and directed it, Kyle Titterton, painted our original shop sign, so I knew him from before he was born,” Brodie says proudly. “They needed a record shop in which to recreate Groucho’s from 1981. They had somebody playing me and I was given a wee walk-on part playing a customer. Weirdly, I got served by myself.”
Cleaning records the Groucho’s way
“I spend a lot of time cleaning records. We make our own cleaning fluid on my kitchen table – because our old supplier stopped making theirs, since ‘no one was buying records anymore’ – so we had to come up with our own. I use a strong light above and behind me, so when I look at a record, I can see every scratch. I buy microfibre cloths from £1 shops and wash them every so often. When you’re getting mould off records, it doesn’t take long before your cloth becomes absolutely manky. What you’re trying to do is get it looking as good as possible and sounding better.”
The Groucho’s cleaning formula is one-part Isopropyl alcohol to three-parts distilled water and a tiny bit of Fairy Liquid. Apparently, some people use vodka!