Record Store Day 2017: ‘I sold my house to keep my store open’ says owner of Flashback in Essex Road
PUBLISHED: 12:36 20 April 2017 | UPDATED: 14:54 20 April 2017
Flashback Records is one of the top record shop companies in the UK. But like all indie stores, it had to endure some tough times before the vinyl revolution came along. Owner Mark Burgess tells the Gazette about his change in fortunes.
"He never forgave us for opening in the same street. People would ask him about us and he would tell them we just sold porn"
Mark Burgess was branded a “lunatic” when he sold his house a decade ago to keep Flashback Records in Essex Road open. And then he ploughed some of the money into a new branch in Crouch Hill – despite the fact no one was buying vinyl.
Of course, thanks to the resurgence in the once forgotten format, he now gets branded a genius. “How did you know people would come back to buying records?” he gets asked. The foresight sounds impressive. But was it as fine a display of business nous as it sounds?
“No,” Mark tells the Gazette. “I just couldn’t think about doing anything else!”
He needn’t have worried. Little did he know that while friends were rightly questioning the bold decision to risk his life for his love of music, a small celebration of independent record stores was being dreamt up in the United States.
Fast forward 10 years and Mark is preparing for hundreds of people to line the streets outside his three branches of Flashback for the very same annual celebration – Record Store Day, which is on Saturday.
They will turn up from the crack of dawn, desperate to get their hands on their favourite artist’s limited release. And it’s a love Mark knows only too well.
It started years ago when he came down to the capital from Yorkshire and did what any aspiring musician did – got a job in a record store. Music and Video Exchange in Notting Hill to be exact.
From there he moved to Upper Street’s Reckless Records (now the Euphorium Bakery), where he says he hit a “glass ceiling” after eight years and decided to start his own.
So, in 1997 he opened the first branch of Flashback Records in Essex Road. The idea was to change the experience from an “intimidating run-in with surly cooler-than-thou members of staff into an enjoyable way to spend some time”.
There was vintage clothing in the basement and music on the ground floor. Then the clothing moved to another shop over the road and was replaced by CDs, books and videos (which soon became DVDs).
But by 2005 the business model wasn’t viable. Mark continues: “It was two or three years of losing money. It was just about whether you could stick it out, and I wanted to. And I managed to survive.
“I had to sell my house to do it, and at the time everyone told me I was a complete lunatic. But I’m still here. Then we took over the Crouch End shop and people thought I was nuts. Several years later they said I had incredible business sense.”
Mark Burgess has put an end to the myth that Archway’s Harum Records was the inspiration for Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity.
Rumour had it that Hornby worked there before writing the best-seller set in Crouch End. But Mark said the official line at the time the book came out was that the inspiration was in fact DOC Records, which was in Cardwell Terrace off Holloway Road. “Hornby didn’t work in a record shop as far as I know,” he said. “I think the book is just based on his experiences. DOC was the official line. It had been there for years, tucked away behind the prison. I was never sure whether it was open. It closed about eight years ago because the owner died.”
Mark is referring to the “vinyl revolution” of the last few years. Sales last year topped three million, a 25-year high, and most new records get a 12-inch release.
“It’s all phases,” he continues. “CDs got phased out for digital downloads, but there’s a collecting gene in people and you can’t collect mp3s. CDs are rubbish. Records are desirable, they fit the bill.
“Record companies also need a premium product to sell. Spotify, iTunes and downloads don’t make them a vast amount of money and now records are being called the saviour of the record industry. I think it’s great.
“It won’t get back to where it was but it will continue as a niche for audiophiles, record collectors and as antiques. People like to have a library to look at rather than a bunch of files on an iPad.”
Mark is enjoying the revival as much as anyone, but lots of other Islington record stores didn’t make it through the barren years, including his neighbours in Essex Road.
“There was Haggle Records which closed three years ago,” he adds. “That was run by a right old character who used to insult people left, right and centre. Lynn Alexander his name was. He never forgave us for opening in the same street. People would ask him about us when they went into his shop and he would tell them we just sold porn.”
Flashback will open at 9am on Record Store Day at all three branches – Essex Road, Crouch Hill and Bethnal Green Road.