Spillers Records, The Oldest Record Shop in the World

After years of navigating by record shops, I stumbled upon the oldest one in the world, only to leave with neither a slab of vinyl nor a CD or a magazine - but a coffee mug.
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After years of navigating by record shops, I stumbled upon the oldest one in the world, only to leave with neither a slab of vinyl nor a CD or a magazine - but a coffee mug.

The first time I travelled to London, I didn't see Big Ben, never went near Piccadilly Circus and couldn't be bothered to visit the Tower. Actually, I'm pretty sure I didn't even catch a glimpse of the River Thames. However, I checked out Rough Trade on Talbot Road and Plastic Passion at 2, Blenheim Crescent. Or this specialist stall in the basement of the Kensington Market, whose owner took one look at my kohl eyeliner and my frilled shirt and wordlessly handed me an invitation to a Dogs D'Amour gig. I also went to Vinyl Solution on Hereford Road, where I asked the guy behind the counter for "Girl In The Sweater", the new single from the Australian band the Hard Ones. Since record-store clerks are genetically incapable of smiling, his face was a stony mask when he replied: "I think you mean the Hard-Ons. There is a bit of a difference, you know."

That's how I used to map out new cities: by tracking down their other sights - record stores. It's not that I was oblivious of my surroundings or wouldn't win a sense of the place, quite the contrary. It's just that by walking or using public transport to move from store to store, I usually got to see parts of a city a regular tourist would not.

In 1983, three years before that first London sojourn, we went on a five-day school trip to Vienna. Everyone in my class was given a list of sights we should check out, but my friend Holger and I were only interested in the nearest post office - because it would have the local Yellow Pages with the addresses of record stores. Holger was looking for the Australia-only AC/DC album "T.N.T.", while I - still a few months away from discovering a radio show on the British Forces Broadcasting Service called John Peel's Music - hoped to locate a copy of "Moontan" by Golden Earring. We went to seven or eight stores in those five days. (And, amazingly, both eventually found what we had come for in the same dimly-lit used-records joint.) During that trek, I got to explore a Vienna that had little in common with the city of museums and theatres my classmates, judging from their accounts, had seen.

Gradually I stopped going on such expeditions. One factor was the ever-rising dominance of the CD, an overpriced and soulless medium I distrust.

I maintained this habit for the next one and a half decades or so. A good example is 1997, when my football club reached the Champions League final in Munich, a city I had, strangely enough, never been to before. As soon as I had secured a ticket, I bought that year's edition of "Schwarze Seiten". (Literally: Black Pages, an annual paperback that listed record stores in many smaller and most larger German cities.) I looked up the ones in Munich and then planned a route that would allow me to see as many of them as possible in the five hours of spare time I would have on the day of the final. I still associate that game not only with my team's biggest-ever victory but also with the vinyl I picked up in a large and unusally bright store near the Ostbahnhof.

But gradually I stopped going on such expeditions. One factor was the ever-rising dominance of the CD, an overpriced and soulless medium I distrust. Another was that I no longer knew my way around all those mushrooming genres and styles. In the late 1980s, I'd sometimes leave a store with an album by a band I'd never heard of, precisely because it was one of the few records in the whole room I couldn't place. Ten years later, the vast majority of names in rack upon rack just refused to ring a bell. And thirdly, the number of stores dwindled. Three years ago, even my local haunt shut up shop for good, Last Chance in Dortmund. It was where I used to peddle our English-language fanzine, "hartbeat!", and where, until he overdosed, the singer from the neo-psych band The Multicoloured Shades manned the counter and would menacingly glower at you if you bought a record he considered unhip.

So it came to pass that I didn't make any inquiries with regard to record stores before I visited Cardiff for the first time, in March of last year. I'd been alerted to a famous shop in Wales, but that was way up north, in Porthmadog (Cob Records). Also, our flight back home was with easyJet, and their notorious baggage allowances meant we couldn't afford to be lured into going on shopping sprees anyway.

We spent two days in the city and saw many sights, but I'll always associate Cardiff with a small, dark shop in which unsmiling men sell sounds.

Which is why I was completely unsuspecting as we strolled down a pedestrianised street known as The Hayes. Even when I glimpsed what appeared to be a narrow record store ahead of us, I was unaffected. "Do you want to go in?," asked my wife, noticing the sort of furtive glance she knows well, but I replied: "No need, let's move on." And then I passed the shop, saw the sign and stopped dead in my tracks. The sign told me two things. First that this establishment was called "Spillers Records". And second that it was: "The Oldest Record Shop in the World".

With all due respect, I would've never expected the oldest store to be in Cardiff, but Spillers' claim is valid. The shop opened in 1894, even before Emile Berliner produced the first disc grammophone records. (Initially, Spillers sold phonograph cylinders.) In all those years, the store moved only twice - from the Queen’s Arcade to The Hayes more than sixty years ago and from The Hayes to the Morgan Arcade three months after I walked into the shop for the first and probably last time.

Because walk in I did. Of course. Not stepping into these historic premises would have felt blasphemous, a renunciation of an important part of my life. But for the first time, I didn't quite know what to do in a record shop. I looked around sheepishly, knew they wouldn't have the Folk Devils record I hope to find one day, perfunctorily went through a few stacks of CDs I had no intention of buying and then went to the counter to look at the merchandise on sale. Not band merchandise, mind you, but store merchandise.

And so Spillers is not only the oldest record shop in the world, it's also the only one I ever left clutching a bag that contained neither a slab of vinyl nor a CD or a magazine - but a coffee mug. It may be a sad sign of the times, and one reason why Spillers had to move a few weeks later, that I didn't buy a record in such a legendary record store but what amounts to a souvenir. Then again, it was almost like it used to be: We spent two days in the city and saw many sights, but I'll always associate Cardiff with a small, dark shop in which unsmiling men sell sounds.

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