Road trips, no matter where, are a source of great enjoyment. When I say road trip, I don’t mean an hours drive looking for somewhere to have a picnic with the kids but a destination that includes certain stop off points for historical or culture significance.
Every year my best friend Rob and I take a trip to God’s own country, Yorkshire. Actually, as a 40 year old, is it acceptable to still refer to someone as a best friend? It’s fine as a kid but somehow, as an adult it doesn’t sit well. Either way, he’s a great friend. In fact, he’s more of a slightly older brother to me. We’ve been through a lot together and we continue to share all good and bad times together. Anyway, every year we take a trip to visit his Mam in Northallerton, North Yorkshire. But each time we depart on our 6 hour journey, we always plan what stops are going to be made en-route and more importantly, which service stations we’ll be visiting.
During our most recent trip, we set off North with 3 specific stops planned. The first two were significant to music history in the market town of Macclesfield. The first was the final residence of Joy Divisions enigmatic lead singer Ian Curtis. The home in which he shared with his wife Deborah and his young daughter was also the house in which Curtis decided that life was just too much. In the days and weeks leading to his suicide, their relationship had turned incredibly hostile and whilst alone in the house, after watching films and listening to music, Ian penned one last note to Deborah before taking his own life.
Stood outside the house, I felt incredibly melancholic. I’m not sure what I expected but to be stood outside the house that stands as a symbol to the great man, it was quickly evident that the house represented and highlighted the troubles and untimely death of Curtis. I initially imagined us looking and then leaving quickly due to not wanting to be seen lingering outside a house that once may have belonged to a musical icon, but which is now just another family home to another insignificant family who are no doubt fed up with people like us hanging around outside. We did leave quickly but not for those reasons. It felt wrong. It wasn’t the place I imagined it to be. It left me feeling empty that such a tragic and untimely end should happen to someone so young and full of so much talent with a lot of it left to give.
It made me question our next stop. I was worried that visiting the final resting place of Ian Curtis would trigger similar feelings. However, Macclesfield cemetery is a beautiful setting and immensely peaceful. Due to some previous online research, it didn’t take long to find the small stone that marked Curtis’ memorial. Unbelievably, this is the third stone to be in place since his death in 1980. For some bizarre reason, the previous two had been stolen to act as a macabre trophy to those who deemed it a good idea to remove them. However as with his home, we stood for a short while, reading the notes that surrounded the small plot as well as all the photos, flowers and musical paraphernalia before taking our leave.
From Macclesfield we once again headed North, past Stockport and Manchester to the market town of Bury. For the past year, it had been my plan to go to Bury. Not for the market, not for the black pudding and nor for the Lancashire Fusiliers Museum but a small, independently run record and coffee shop called Wax and Beans. This store had been brought to my attention in 2019 as THE place to buy records. A good friend of mine introduced me to the owner Ben, who, with his partner Lou, conceived the idea to combine two extremely potent stimulants, vinyl records and coffee. My first few orders were placed online with the promise of one day taking the trip up to personally dig through their crates of records whilst sampling the already famous brew.
After driving around Bury's one way system for what seemed an eternity, we parked the car and followed our noses to where this unique little shop stood proud between an estate agent and local watering hole. Upon entering, it felt like no other record shop I had ever visited before. Around the outside perimeter of the shop stood shelves and shelves of vinyl records, whilst at the back stood a busy counter area filled with all manner of coffee machines, cakes and confectionery. Situated in the central area of the shop were a number of tables at which sat folk drinking coffee, eating food and mulling over purchases of records. This place was special. Not only a record shop, but a community hub, where everyone was made to feel welcome.
It didn’t take long for Ben to acknowledge our arrival. He was, as ever, busy talking music to one of his loyal customers but he broke away and greeted us with covid-friendly elbow “high-fives”. He greeted me like we had been friends for years when in fact, the odd text and phone call aside, it was the first time we had met in person. Immediately I knew I was in the presence of someone who I knew would share my obsession for many years to come. We were given the guided tour of the shop as well as the top floors that included a chill out room which is utilised by local school kids who could buy a coffee or soft drinks whilst sitting in relative peace and quiet as they hammered through their school work.
Sat in an office space, surrounded by boxes upon boxes of records sat Lou. Lou manages to juggle her very busy day job with the rigours of running a very busy shop as well as taking care of all of the online and social media commitments which is key to a successful enterprise like Wax and Beans. They both managed to pull themselves away from work so the four of us could go out and grab some lunch, over which we discussed nothing but music and occasional football banter.
After lunch, we headed back to the shop where I proceeded to finger through every single rack, picking out records as I went. As well as some new wax, I found a couple of diamonds amongst the pre-loved shelves and ended up with an impressive haul. We spent the rest of the afternoon sat with Ben about what it takes to run a successful record store. Ben openly admits that neither side of the business could survive without the other but combining the two makes for an impressive business plan. A business that seems to be growing stronger every day. It was evident that whilst the country is in turmoil and other businesses are finding the covid pandemic crippling, it’s propelled Wax and Beans to the heights it currently finds itself in. People are stuck at home, unable to go out, but at the same time in dire need of the one thing that makes everything OK. With a few clicks online and thanks to Wax and Beans unique door-step drop off service, the business thrives as the people get what they need.
I shared my dream with Ben about one day owning my own record shop and asked questions on the best ways to get started. The whole time I was talking to Ben he was quietly tapping away on his laptop. I asked what he was doing and he informed me that it was a constant battle every day to keep the website up to date with all upcoming releases. You see, getting pre-orders live on his site means that his customers have quick access to everything that is due for release over the coming weeks and months. He relies heavily on his online sales which was the cornerstone of the business during the previous lockdown. It was then that I made a flippant comment that although I lived 5 hours away, I was prepared to help him in his running of Wax and Beans in any way that I could. I didn’t think much of the comment at the time but Ben did. His enthusiasm was instant. He offered me the chance to help upload the pre-orders onto the site as well as any other work that could be done remotely. I told him to get in touch with me as and when he needed a hand and we said our goodbyes but not before I promised to see him again in a couple of weeks. I had already made the decision to make a return trip for the next instalment of record store day. I even offered my assistance in the shop to help make the day a little easier on them. For them it was an extra pair of hands for what would prove another very busy day but for me, it was a dream come true, a chance for me to live my dream of being surrounded by not only records and music but like minded people who share the same fascination and obsession as me. After the remaining weekend away, I returned home full of excitement of the possibility of being involved with a real, physical record store, albeit from a distance.
It was a couple of days later when I took a call from Ben who had taken my offer seriously and had loads of ideas as to how I could help. We quickly shelved the idea of me helping with the pre-orders as it was something that Ben needed doing quickly as each pre-order email dropped into his inbox. It was decided instead that my job would now be producing a monthly newsletter showcasing all things Wax and Beans. This was to include records of the month, customer recommendations, soon to be released albums, special offers as well as an update about what has been going on in the shop. Also, it was agreed that I could include an occasional blog that would be available to read on the website as well as the newsletter. As well as this Ben invited me up for the upcoming record store day! I was to work in an actual record shop. Not make believe or inside my head but a real, bonafide record store. To say I was excited was an understatement. Even the 5 hour drive for the privilege wouldn’t put me off.
When the weekend came around, I decided to leave work early on the Friday and drive straight up that afternoon, so I could start nice and early with Ben and Lou on the Saturday morning. After the long drive, I met Ben at the shop as the afternoon was drawing to an end. The last few customers remained, drinking coffee and making final decisions as to whether they were going to take home any of the records that had caught their eye.
When everyone had left the shop for the night, Lou then arrived with a car full of boxes. These were all the special release RSD records that we’d be selling the following morning. As we were unloading the car and putting the records in order, Ben and Lou were telling me what to expect the next day. This year's RSD had been split into three separate days due to the covid pandemic. Drop one was a pretty manic affair they told me. They had people queuing outside the shop from the early hours to make sure they got their hands on their coveted prizes. Lou explained that due to the small quantity of records on drop two that they didn’t expect such a frenzy this time round. Still, I was stacking shelves in a record store and I couldn’t have been any happier.
The plan for Saturday was simple. It was a first come first served basis. Whoever was waiting at the door first would be handed a sheet with all of the day’s releases printed out with a half hour time slot issued to them. If there were any particular records that they wanted, they needed to tick off each record, hand the sheet back to us and then return during their allotted time to see how lucky they had been. You see, the quantity of each record was a bit of a lottery. Ben requested a certain amount of each release but those numbers were never guaranteed. Take for instance the Alternative Rumours album by Fleetwood Mac. This was going to be highly sought after but we were only given 5 copies. That meant that if the first five people in the queue all ticked that album then Mr. Number six in the queue would be left disappointed. We couldn’t tell the customers the numbers we had in stock so for them it was going to be waiting game.
We finished stacking the shelves with the special releases and I managed a quick dig through all of the crates with a particular eye on a few of them, but it would have to wait. I was there to do a job.
After a night of chilling out with Ben and Lou, we were up at 5:30am to make sure we were at the shop by 6am. Low and behold, there was a queue. A long line of dedicated enthusiasts, all waiting to get their morning record fix. Whilst I took everyones coffee orders, I was fascinated to hear some of their stories. The guy that was first in line had been there since 3am. He was desperate to get hold of a Notorious B.I.G box set. I’m not sure if he was aware that we had only been allocated one copy but he was taking no chances. I remember thinking to myself how happy he was going to be once he got his hands on it. The entire process of getting up early, sitting in the freezing cold night air all for one record. Not many people will understand this level of commitment but to me it made complete sense. One guy had walked for 4 hours to make sure he was in line nice and early. When I quizzed him on this, his explanation was simple. “There are no buses at that time, so I walked”. The best bit is, no one saw this as strange. Of course. I was stood amongst serious collectors. None of the folk would dare snigger or pass judgement on someone walking 4 hours to get hold of a special edition record. To them, it’s just part of the experience. Part of the commitment. Part of the obsession. All of a sudden, I felt at home. Not home as in a “this is where I want to live” type way, but more “this is what I want to do with my life”. Yes, it would be great to work full time in a record shop, but realistically it wasn’t something that I could commit to at this point in my life. I was just happy to be included with these people. To be surrounded by like minded record collectors that knew the difference between Amazon.com and the real value of an independently run store.
Once everyone had filled in their sheets and left to warm themselves up, I began to pick and pack everyone's requests. Jarrod, Mr. 3am, was of course first and I was thrilled as I packed up his Biggy box set. I knew how happy it would make him feel when he knew he was successful. Forget the almost £200 price tag, this would put a serious smile on his face.
And so it went on for the next couple of hours. I picked and packed and people came back to see how their luck had gone. There were a few success stories like Jarrod. Mr. Walk 4 hours was successful in his quest, although on his list was a single record. A 4 hour walk for a single record? Fair play. He left happy and got the bus home. One fella in particular had a list of 6 albums but by the time it came for him to collect, all but one had sold out. Regardless, he was over the moon with the one album he did manage to bag and I had the same level of happiness for the guy as I did for Jarrod. Everyone knew the score. Nothing was guaranteed, but they were all happy to be in the mix. I, of course, had my eye on a few records, but as an employee, I had to wait until everyone that had come before me were served. Fair’s fair.
Halfway through the morning, we took a call from a desperate sounding young woman who had been to “all the stores in Manchester” looking for a particular record and did we have any left? I was a tad surprised as we had a huge stack of this particular record. Not a single request so far for it, but not to pour water over her flames, I played it up a little bit and pretended that we only had a couple of copies left and that yes, I would put one back for her. When she finally arrived, she was out of breath and incredibly excited to get her hands on a copy. Like I said, I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we still had 20 plus copies of it in the racks. She was over the moon and even made a fist pump motion as she left the shop. It was clear, that in the world of obsessive record collecting, I was just a mere drop in the ocean. However, I was a part of this world and I couldn’t have been happier.
I spent the rest of the day chatting to customers, flicking though the racks and basically immersing myself in the real world of records. It was just so refreshing to talk to people about something that I was so fascinated with. Regardless of their musical tastes, hearing the passion in their voices was captivating. That passion is something that I shared with them. There was no competitiveness or jealousy. There wasn’t the urge to belittle or judge. But an overall acceptance of the music. I’m reminded a lot, if everyone was the same, the world would be a boring place. But thanks to music and the sheer diversity of genres and acts, we have a never ending supply of conversation material. A conversation that will never, ever get boring. Your football team will be good one day and poor the next, but a good piece of music will forever remain good. Even if your tastes change, that one piece of music that you once held in such high regard, may not always make you feel that way, but upon listening again, it will remind you of the time when it was all that mattered.
My plan was to re-visit Wax and Beans for RSD drop 3 but thanks to the government tier system and second lockdown, I was unable to travel up again, so I have to sit and wait until everything returns to some resemblance of normality before I can make the trip North again. But for now, I will continue to work from home.