Talking Shop: Sister Ray, Soho
Immortalised on the cover of an Oasis LP, the Golden Mile survivor defiantly stays ahead of the curve. Huw Baines finds out how…
In 1989, Soho was a very different place. Holding up a busted mirror to today’s slew of Prets, faceless flats and hipster-chic bars, it was sharp at the edges and unsanitised. Nestled at 94 Berwick Street, amid a sprawl that had mainlined sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll for decades, was a new record shop that wanted to add its two cents to London’s ever-shifting cultural conversation.
When current owner Phil Barton crossed the threshold at Sister Ray for the first time, he was working as a sales rep for one of the major record labels. He can’t remember which one. It might have been EMI, it might have been MCA. When you’ve been in the music business for over three decades, it’s hard to keep track.
“I was one of the first reps to call in,” he remembers. “Sales-repping, at the time, all you did was look for record shops that had chart machines. They had a chart machine, and it had become a hub for certain types of music: indie, metal, techno, ambient stuff. It was another shop that gave Berwick Street the kind of kudos that Soho’s always had.”
During its early thrashings, the man behind Sister Ray, which was named after the harrowing closer on The Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat, was Neil Brown, a glam-rock head who’d started out slinging records at Camden Market a couple of years earlier. “Bowie, Roxy Music, T-Rex, Mott, Gary Numan, that’s about it as far as he’s concerned,” Barton laughs. “Everyone else can go fuck themselves.”
Brown’s decision to open a bricks and mortar store soon gave him the chance to put down roots, but he would have to do so in an ultra-competitive area. At one time Berwick Street was known as ‘The Golden Mile’ thanks to its bevy of record haunts. But, even while surrounded by venerable, sadly defunct stores such as Selectadisc, Vinyl Junkies and Kubla, plus fellow survivors such as Reckless Records, Sister Ray attracted knowledgeable fans who were hooked on its killer combination of a deep stock list and ultra-competitive pricing.
Barton, who’d already served time with another legendary shop by manning the till at the Nottingham branch of Selectadisc, was one person who rapidly fell under its spell. So much so that when he wasn’t doing his actual job, he started rocking up at the store and pitching in. “If I had a gap in my life, I’d go and work in Sister Ray,” he says. “I’d just turn up, everyone knew me.”
What’s The Story?
Barton speaks with warmth about this period, with particular respect paid to Brown’s ability to forge a viable path in the crowded Soho scene. “We had our niches,” he says. “We did stuff that other shops in the area didn’t do, and if they did they didn’t do them as well. They certainly didn’t price match as well. We were unbelievably hot on price.
“With the way that Neil was buying, massive bulk on everything, we could pass on great prices. As a sales rep, they were buying so much gear from us, and selling it. They did the adverts in the back of the NME, which was a new thing, competing with people like Adrian’s at Wickford. And this is this cool shop in Soho. The whole business took off.”
Throughout the 90s, Sister Ray did its thing. As Berwick Street was immortalised on the sleeve of Oasis’ Cool Britannia rallying cry (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? with Selectadisc on one side and the current Sister Ray on the other, life at number 94 fizzed along. Barton, meanwhile, took over the reins at Brighton’s Rounder Records as the new millennium arrived, and three years later two of his passions would collide to pave the way for a major change in circumstances.
In 2003, the late Selectadisc supremo Brian Selby was heading towards retirement, and his old employee was only a phone call away. “He wanted a bit less on his plate, and he asked me if I’d be interested,” Barton remembers. “Neil at Sister Ray and I talked about it and thought there was no point in me buying it (Selectadisc) and him still being there. Things were getting tougher.
“So we decided we’d close down Sister Ray at 94 Berwick Street, and chuck our lot in together, me and him, at 34-35 Berwick Street, which was the old Selectadisc shop. We changed the name, put up a new sign, moved all the staff, and for a while it worked. It was still a fantastic shop, we’d do in-stores, it was great.”
But, as Barton alludes to, storm clouds were gathering overhead. The 2000s were not the 1990s, and any record shop proprietor could quickly break down the reasons why. It wasn’t only that vinyl was essentially lying on a mortuary slab, but that music consumption had been entirely redefined by the internet. The old way had become just that: the old way.
“The massive problem with downloads came, and the devaluation of music,” Barton laments. “Within 18 months, it was an incredible drop off a cliff. A lot of people in the industry felt the same way and a lot of record shops went at the same time. The ‘Napster period’, I call it, when everyone thought everything was going to be free, all the time. What’s the point of buying something that you can download for free?”
But it wasn’t just the pirates who had driven a dagger into the hearts of indie record stores. “The whole world was expecting music to be free, and the record companies didn’t help themselves, either,” Barton adds. “They gave away brand new albums with Sunday newspapers. This is how insane it was: artists were making more money by the Mail On Sunday, the world’s worst newspaper, saying, ‘We’ll give you a hundred grand for your album and have it as an exclusive to sell a load of papers’.
“People were signing up to this left, right and centre. The prices started coming down, down, down, until you got to a five-track Status Quo CD one week and another five-track Status Quo CD the next week. And like any commercial enterprise they rinsed it until they realised it wasn’t going to work anymore. But it instilled in the public’s mind that music was this throwaway item that you didn’t really have to pay for anymore.”
Things hit a wall for Sister Ray in 2008. Their star hadn’t faded for tastemakers and die-hards, they were way ahead of the curve in stocking Arctic Monkeys’ first EP in 2005, and bands were still pitching up for in-stores, but they tumbled into administration. “Along with a lot of other places, we had a really tough three, four years where takings went through the floor,” Barton remembers. “People weren’t buying records, people weren’t buying CDs, people weren’t visiting record shops.
“Being where we are, we’ve got massive rent to pay, staff to pay, and it’s not easy. We restructured everything and decided we’d concentrate on what we were good at, not to price match with anybody, and just carry onby making it slimmer and trying to make it work. We got through it. It was really difficult, and that was the point where Neil didn’t want to own the shop anymore. He wanted to work here, but he didn’t want to own it anymore. At the time, it was a bold move to want to carry on, but I personally wanted to.”
For one thing, what else was he going to do? Barton laughs at that idea today, deriding it as stupid, but the lure of record shop life, the changing faces in front of the counter and the buzz of a great find, through to the basics like buying overstocks, was too strong to walk away from. Sister Ray concentrated on getting decent kit on the shelves and keeping the regular crowd happy. Slowly but surely, its fortunes began to change.
“We became the last man standing, if you will, on Berwick Street,” he continues. “The last full service record shop that did a bit of everything: cheap overstocks, lots of interesting gear from America. The record companies slowly got into gear, tamed all this Pirate Bay, Napster stuff, and people realised that they couldn’t get everything for free. We weren’t competing on price. We were competing on the quality of our releases. That saved us. We managed to get our margins to a reasonable level because we were selling things that no one else had, or you’d struggle to find.”
Soon, though, another change would lead Sister Ray to its current spot. Packing up the old Selectadisc location (the brand lives on in shirts and slipmats available in Barton’s store) they shifted across Berwick Street to number 75 and established a sleek, organised spot for the discerning wax nerd.
Its ground floor space is devoted to CDs, but the basement is a vinyl haven compiling a mass of box fresh records, with second-hand gems secreted throughout. Stencilled on the wall are nods to Bowie, the Sex Pistols, Kiss and Kraftwerk, which is perhaps too narrow a range to cover what’s actually going on down there. Stacked alongside myriad new releases are soundtracks, a bulletproof punk section, a cultured hip hop corner and an ever-growing dub and reggae selection.
“My ethos is: if they come in looking for something and we don’t have it, they’ll be happy walking away with something they didn’t know they needed,” Barton says. “What is really important to me is when people walk into the shop and look through a section, when they walk back in three months later it’s different. I see so many record shops that don’t turn their stock over, either because they don’t know how or they’re too lazy to check.
“The turnover’s not there, and there’s a guy sat at the back waiting for people to come in, he’s not looking at the stock and going, ‘I haven’t sold that but it says it’s worth £10’. If you’ve had it for a year and it hasn’t sold, it isn’t worth £10, clearly. If you’d put that out for a fiver, you could have reinvested that fiver 20 times, but you’re an idiot and you haven’t.”
These days, Barton spends some of his time passing on that wisdom. Having become involved in Record Store Day on the ground floor in 2012, with Sister Ray representing exactly the sort of place that the event was designed to showcase, he also sits on the board of the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) and mentors other owners. He has a passion for the job, and is navigating the vagaries of the vinyl revival with serrated, hard-won knowhow.
“The funny thing is, when it comes to collecting myself, I don’t really do it much anymore,” he laughs. “I like buying because I know someone will walk in the shop and go, ‘Oh God, I really wanted that’. It’s becoming harder to find stuff, and because of the internet everyone’s an expert. Everyone knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. You go to value people’s collections and they go, ‘Well, I can get £1,000 on Discogs for that’. And you go, ‘Well, sell it on Discogs then, mate’.
“No one’s going to buy off you because you’ve never sold anything before. You’re going to price it wrong, you’re going to describe it wrong and you’re going to get it back in the post because the person who’s bought it wanted to be told about the bend in the sleeve and the spot on side two, track four. We spend a lot of time curating, turning the lights on and paying electric bills. No, you ain’t going to get that price for that record here, because we have to make a profit. We can get that price because we work bloody hard at it. We’re professionals. This is what we do.”