Talking Shop: The Diskery, Birmingham
One of the UK’s longest-standing record shops, Morris Hunting’s The Diskery is a well-loved Birmingham Institution.
The Diskery is quite simply a legendary record shop. It’s also one of the longest-surviving record shops in England. Situated in central Birmingham, The Diskery first opened its doors in 1952 and has only ever shifted location once – in 1972 moving from 92 Hurst Street to 99 Bromsgrove Street. Over those 67 years, it’s only changed owners once, which makes it a remarkable institution in a city that seems to be forever in the process of knocking down and rebuilding.
Morris Hunting opened The Diskery in 1952, its stock initially reflecting his passion for jazz. He realised quickly that while jazz fans flocked to his shop so did other locals who wanted different genres of music. Hunting continued to import jazz records from the US, his ability to track down rare jazz 78s giving The Diskery a very high standing during the years when trad and modern jazz were provoking passionate debate, but his nose for desirable records extended to other genres, too.
Hunting’s instincts proved invaluable when rock ’n’ roll took off, and even more so in the 1960s when the local mods came in searching for R&B gold: not only did The Diskery stock the new releases on labels such as London and Sue, but Hunting used his US contacts to import 45s that weren’t given a UK release. This meant the shop gained a reputation as a Midlands Mecca of sorts for dance music fans, and many of the original Northern Soul DJs mention travelling to Birmingham specifically to shop at The Diskery.
The city’s growing Caribbean community ensured Hunting stocked calypso records and later ska. And Birmingham’s bustling music scene meant The Diskery stocked and sold records to the likes of The Moody Blues, The Spencer Davis Group, Black Sabbath and ELO, alongside many others.
For Hunting, The Diskery was his life’s passion and he refused to consider retiring. Indeed, he was still running the shop when he died aged 82 in 2012.
Local news paid fulsome tributes to the man they called ‘Mr Vinyl’ and reported that the first time The Diskery ever closed its shutters on a weekday was for his funeral. Hunting’s widow was determined that The Diskery remain open and his two record clerks, Jim and Liam, did their best to keep the shop trading. But in today’s climate Mrs Hunting quickly realised that The Diskery needed both capital and fresh management to make it work. Enter Lee Dearn.
“Prior to coming in as owner, I was not a regular in The Diskery,” says Dearn. “You have to understand that I spent decades working abroad. I’d come back to Birmingham to visit my mum but records were not practical things to purchase when you’re living out of a suitcase. That said, I did know of The Diskery – if you’re a music lover, it’s part of Birmingham’s fabric. If I had been a regular customer I mightn’t have bought the shop! (laughs). No, I’m happy here. I’ve certainly had to learn a lot.
“I was back in Birmingham working as a brick layer and heard that the lease was coming up and other people were sniffing around but playing games, so I went and made an offer. It was time for me to do something different – I always liked music, so it was time to get involved in selling records.”
I visited The Diskery back in 2015 when researching my book on record shops, Going For A Song, and found
Lee, then not long in the driving seat, and his pal Danny Young sorting through the shop’s stock and working on how to develop it for today’s vinyl lovers. It was obvious that as Hunting had aged, so had the shop – everything felt a little tired and in need of some tender loving care. Ashtrays were strategically placed alongside LPs and the walls had faded to a nicotine yellow tint. That said, I found a wealth of good jazz, country, flamenco and blues LPs, and Danny, who is a reggae expert, recommended a selection of rare UK roots 45s. Since then, The Diskery has blossomed.
A Focal Point
“We have had a lot of old customers return to the shop after not using it for years,” says Dearn. “It had got run down and the service had got a bit blunt, to say the least. We’re also now getting all kinds of people coming in who hadn’t been here before because there’s this vinyl revival, so you get youngsters and people who had grown up on CDs and such all coming in. It’s good, as we have a really wide stock.”
Working alongside Lee and Danny is Liam Scully, who has laboured at the Diskery for the past 47 years. “I’m a believer in experience and Liam certainly has it,” says Dearn. “His experience has certainly been useful for me in learning what sells and what doesn’t sell. We buy people’s record collections, and we get some good ones and some bad ones. It’s a lot of hard work.”
Birmingham may be the UK’s second city, but it’s surprisingly bereft of record shops today. Beyond the excellent Swordfish Records and eclectic Polar Bear, there’s little on offer. The city’s once thriving reggae record shops – Don Christie, Brian Harris and Black Wax – have vanished. Which means The Diskery isn’t simply the city’s oldest record shop but its focal point. To this end, Dearn has grudgingly adapted to Record Store Day.
“We do participate, but it’s so hard to sell new vinyl when you are competing with Tesco, Sainsbury’s and HMV. Record Store Day means I have to spend a lot of money to get the new releases and it’s not a money maker. We do it because our customers want to be involved.
“With the combined expertise of Danny, Liam and myself, we are pretty careful about what we buy for Record Store Day, but it is a risk. I’ve been in record shops where they have boxes of unsold Record Store Day releases – that’s expensive! So I’m in two minds about it – in some ways there’s people being asked to pay a lot of money for re-pressings and limited editions and people coming in and buying things they immediately throw on eBay. At the same time, it gets people buying vinyl.
“At the end of the day, we are primarily a used record shop, and a lot of people come to The Diskery because they want a first pressing. Now, a first pressing of a Sabbath or a Zeppelin album is not going to be cheap and I tell them this but I constantly get the answer, ‘that’s OK. I want the original’. We sell everything. I have people coming in and buying Osmonds LPs; I even have a gentleman who collects The Wurzels.
“We have thousands of 78s and some of them are historic artefacts – Lord Haw-Haw, Adolf Hitler, stuff you don’t want to sell but are fascinated to find. When you come in The Diskery, it’s paradise for cratediggers because we have all kinds of records.
“Rock is our largest section because that’s what people want the most, but we do stock a bit of everything – we have
a World section and lots of reggae, although the public only seem to like albums by Bob Marley, Burning Spear and Aswad. They always sell quickly.
“The original pressing of Catch A Fire with the Zippo cover is a real collector’s item – as long as it still works! It’s held together by a brass stud and if that hasn’t been ripped off and the vinyl is in good nick then it goes for at least £100.
“Black Sabbath are probably the band that people most regularly buy. Obviously, they’re locals so there’s a strong sense of loyalty to them. And if it’s a pressing on the original Vertigo label and has the bag with it, then those albums can go for a pretty fair whack.”
Having traded for so many decades, The Diskery has customers coming from far and wide. Some of them very famous indeed. “We’ve had all kinds of well known musicians drop in. Robert Plant, Noddy Holder, Ranking Roger, Steve Winwood, Chaka Khan. Robert Cray came in two days running. He’s a lovely bloke and a cracking guitar player.
“We try and put on local bands and encourage the young musicians. It’s harder now for the young musicians because there’s less pubs for them to play in, so putting on events in record shops is a good idea.”
Keeping it determinedly old-school, Dearn doesn’t have much time for selling online and emphasises the unique value of a bricks and mortar record shop. It’s what The Diskery has been doing for nearly 70 years. “If I wanted to sell records on the internet then why own a record shop in the first place? I’d have to sit in front of a computer all day. It’s so much better to come in and have a chat and a cuppa and listen to some music. Entering a record shop means you never know what you might find.”