The demise of HMV and the public outpouring of grief that has signalled the end of the 'golden age' of high street music shopping has stirred memories of my own time spent working for the music man in a record shop chain. In many ways I had forgotten that this chapter of my working life had ever happened, in part possibly due to the frankly bizarre working environment and the inability for my brain to accept some aspects of it as fact.
The chain in question was Our Price and my time there came to an end, ironically, when the shiny new HMV store opposite opened its doors as ours was entering the long flat spin towards receivership. Many factors were behind the closure of our little corner of the music world, but I remember well locking the doors for the last time and glancing with envy into the shop opposite, effortlessly oozing corporate cool onto the pavement and inviting in our former customers to sample the delights of its many racks. In my mind, I knew we could never compete with such corporate might and I believed that such a retail behemoth would always face up to any fury the turbulent record industry could summon.
I studied Music Technology at university and, like most of my peers, had drunk the majority of my student loan by week three. If I was to successfully navigate such seemingly trivial matters as paying my rent it would be necessary to find a job. The problem was that I was 18 and had dyed hair, piercings, tattoos and a ‘creative’ (pronounced “tragic”) approach to dressing myself. In my mind I was the coolest person ever to walk the streets of this sleepy seaside town and had to be very careful to find the kind of job to befit my wrongly self-declared status. My joy was palpable when a sign sprang up in the window of Our Price declaring that a vacancy had become available.
I applied and dutifully attended the interview I was offered with the store manager, Stewart. Keen to impress upon him my extensive knowledge of all the best the 90’s music scene had to offer, I turned up in a tie-dyed Sonic Youth T-shirt, ripped jeans and a highly visible CD Walkman the size of a small dog. Miraculously, and with the benefit of discovering two months later that I was the only applicant for the job, a letter arrived a week later offering me the post.
This was it. I was certain it would be exactly like Empire Records. Bands would play on the roof every weekend, I’d be giving highly tactile record-buying advice to a steady stream of music loving hot things and falling asleep each night beneath Liv Tyler. This illusion was brutally shattered by mid morning, day one.
Being at the thrifty end of the doomed Virgin music group, the shop was sparse in decoration and had something of a Kwik Save feel. The sombre tone of the shop was reflected in the clientele who shuffled through the doors in search of either guilty pleasures they wouldn’t dare buy from somebody they respected or bargain bin classics. On any occasion a customer had a specific purchase in mind, they were more often than not told there was none in stock and given the choice between waiting for it to be shipped in from a bigger store or just going elsewhere, invariably they opted for the latter. CDs were still king despite the advent of MP3s which were still regarded by many as a passing fad and Napster was only just rearing its head.
The only competition in town was an Andy’s Records. This was where the cool kids bought their records, being the closest thing to an independent shop we had at the time. Though I was holed up in the chain that time forgot, I saw it as a stepping stone into the music industry which would eventually see me rising as the next Richard Branson and turning down invitations to hang out with Bono.
Aside from the Stewart the manager, I had two co-workers at the shop, Dean and Wendy. We were meant to also have an assistant manager but somehow this post had never been filled and this detail had gone unnoticed in the upper echelons of Our Price HQ.
Things started becoming really weird a few months into working there when Stewart vanished. Day after day he failed to turn up but as we were responsible for opening up the shop anyway (Stewart was a big fan of his lie-ins) we just carried on as normal. When head office occasionally phoned asking to speak to him, we came up with an endless string of excuses as to why he was unavailable ranging from sudden family illness to being locked in a toilet cubicle waiting for a locksmith to rescue him.
Looking back I find it difficult to imagine why we were not especially concerned as to Stewart’s wellbeing. On our minds was the surety that we could do the job just as well without him, and that head office sending a replacement would most likely be a disaster. We were free, could play what we wanted when we wanted and could run the shop OUR way. Or at least you would think that’s what we did. We’d somehow become so indoctrinated into the controlled, sanitisied environment of working in a chain store that we continued to religiously adhere to company doctrine. We only played things we actually wanted to listen to between the hours of 8.30am and 9.30am and 4-5pm and for the rest of the day played the latest Madonna release on a loop, endlessly.
This responsibility we had inadvertently been handed brought us very close together as a team. We worked very well together and regularly went for post-work pints and such. Unfortunately this bubble of cohesion and harmony was beginning to burst as it became increasingly clear that Wendy had romantic designs on myself, and this was the source of much frustration for Dean who had long expressed his feelings for Wendy to me in private. I wasn’t in the least interested in her and made this very clear, but in an attempt to change my mind on this she handed me a CD-Rom one day as we were locking up and asked me to watch it that evening.
Despite my sense of foreboding over what the CD-Rom might contain, I slipped it into my computer as soon as I got home. Whatever I had imagined it may have contained, from some kind of awkward poetry to a self made grainy nudie movie, it couldn’t have prepared me for the reality of opening a folder full to bursting of films themed around the love between a woman and a horse. Occasionally a dog also made an appearance and, on one occasion, a cow. This wasn’t a gentle and innocent love like you’d find in My Little Pony, it was physical.
I was in a state of shock which left me with little sleep that night wondering how to respond. My only saving grace would have been that the next day was Saturday and Wendy would not be in work. Somehow over the course of a weekend I could figure out how to best handle the situation and all would be fine. This all fell apart as I was unlocking the doors to the shop the next morning and an all too familiar voice enquired from behind what I had made of my “gift”.
In a panic I replied with the first thing that came to mind, that I had lost the CD-Rom when I had got home and would look for it that evening. Unable to make eye contact, I bottled my chance to express my outright horror and to put the issue to bed (or out to pasture as I imagine would make more sense to her). For weeks I continued this line, with her repeatedly offering to make me a new copy and my protestations to this becoming louder. I was finding it increasingly hard to work alongside this person and my happy working environment was crashing around me. I still can’t look at a picture of Liv Tyler. Something had to be done to get this closet open and I decided to be straight with her. Tomorrow.
I arrived at work the next day and was preparing for the kind of conversation no-one should ever have to have when I noticed a 30-something year old woman heading in the direction of the store room at the rear of the shop. Assuming thievery I followed the woman down the corridor and into the manager's office to confront her. It took me a full 15 minutes of talking to her under the assumption it was a new manager sent from head office to realise that it was Stewart, who had been in Middlesbrough for the last 5 months undergoing gender reassignment surgery.
Stewart was now Christine and had come back to collect some personal effects from the office. She was stunned to find that we had not informed head office of the then his absence and that she was still the manager of the store, a job to which she then returned (much to the confusion of Head office when she finally returned their call).
The return of Christine (nee Stewart) changed the dynamic of the place, and thankfully in a way that wasn’t to Wendy’s liking. I suspect that she rumbled my dislike for the horse porn she had given me as a token of her love, though I never did pluck up the courage to tell her this directly. She left after a month or two and things settled down, but the writing was on the wall for our shop and we limped towards closure 3 months later. I ended up finding a job in a music venue and never saw my former co-workers again after the closure (which in some ways was probably for the best)
Despite the reality of working in a high street chain record store being (particularly in my case) quite different from what most people would imagine it to be like, it was a great experience for me and one which I will probably never forget, no matter how much mind-bleach I try to scrub it away with. Whilst I have little sympathy for the HMV empire crumbling after the damage it has knowingly done to the independent music industry throughout the years, and little love for that style of retail, I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about the workers losing their jobs through no fault of their own. I feel sad that fewer and fewer people may ever have that experience of working in a record shop, living the dream, and in some cases discovering that it is the kind of dream you shouldn’t admit having to your mates.
To all the former HMV staff who will soon be looking for new work, from someone who has been there before, I wish you all the best.