Wednesday, 13 January 2010

A Wreath for Cheapo

"Wandering around Soho, it's quite possible you may stumble into the aptly named Cheapo Cheapo Records. A belter of a tiny shop found located on Rupert St that has cheesy vinyl and oddball stuff hidden amongst its dusty shelves. An assortment of second hand vinyl, Cheapo Cheapo might resemble a jumble sale inside but you can lose yourself for hours." (Londonnet / pic: Laura Appleyard)

I was really sorry to learn of the demise of Soho's Cheapo Cheapo Records last year. If you don't live in London, it probably won't mean anything to you, and maybe other people's favourite record shops are intrinsically uninteresting to the rest of the world - a bit like other people's babies - but I felt a sense of loss that I'm going to try to explore.

And just as people with children are interested, sort of, in other people's children - if only to make withering comparisons - record collectors may find something to interest them in the following.

First off, and ridiculous as it sounds, I feel I have gone through a kind of mini-grief process. There was certainly that casebook sense of initial disbelief, partly because I'd been to the shop a few days before when a sign on the door had simply indicated closed for stocktaking. Then a week or two later a new sign simply said CLOSED. No, lose the block caps, I'm not ready: Closed. That's better.

I'm not sure whether, at that point, the stock was still enticingly present - enticing, that is, if like me you enjoy the incidental journey through a certain amount of old tat - nor am I sure whether I altogether believed - or quite understood or even wanted to understand - that new sign at first glance. Closed as in "closed-closed", as Whoopi Goldberg might have put it? Not a shop which had been around, endlessly generating new (in the sense of newly acquired) stock at least since I first came to London in 1985.

I dreamt about it, about being inside once again, a few nights later. The pain, really, is in not having one final chance - not to plunder, a la the ill-fated Apple boutique, but to pay my last respects, and maybe finally buy some of those fairly pointless and inessential jazz/nostalgia CDs which hovered on the margins of possibility on each visit. And to do that not so much for the music as to perform a kind of final, altruistic - I might as well saying loving - act: to show that someone finally cared even for those unlovely parts of the shop.

I had developed severe lumbar pain towards the end of 2006 which kept me off work for several months and ever afterwards had been much more cautious about the amount I would carry from Cheapo in one go; even the necessary actions of standing still in one place or bending slightly as I went through the racks would lead to the onset of warning pains, so although I didn't stay away from Cheapo once staggering (in the time allocation sense) back to work, my body no longer allowed for the absolute immersion over extended periods which had once been the hallmark of those visits. And after all, I must have told myself, it didn't really matter if I didn't take absolutely everything my heart had desired and my eyes devoured on any one visit: this small and cluttered record shop would always be there, with its infinitely extendable stock ...

Stock such as a rarely explored (given that they remained there for years) supply of the many World Records (an EMI nostalgia offshoot) LPs, most of whose contents are probably on CD in one form or another, but I don't feel happy in now being obliged trust to luck. The vinyl remastering of those ancient (20s/30s) recordings was excellent, as I know from an LP I had of Vivian Ellis's Bless the Bride.

Downstairs I once saw the budget label Marble Arch reissue of Donovan's LP Fairytale, the very first record I ever bought, and it seemed that everything I had ever listened to and discarded could be found in some part of the shop. There was even the That'll Be The Day soundtrack double album which I had never actually owned, despite its importance in my musical history. I didn't buy either but always assumed they'd be there waiting for me. Or another copy later.

I did buy a CD of Fairytale there later, in an approximation of its original, full-price, cover, but that was hardly the same thing; the psychedelicised image of Donovan - in effect passing off Try For the Sun as Sunshine Superman to attract pocket money purchasers, if you know your Mr Leitch - on the front cover of the Marble Arch album was my memory. And it was substantial, heavy vinyl. Even if they knocked a couple of tracks off the original issue.

In its sheer range of items, Cheapo suited me very well. In addition to the growing love for rock'n'roll and especially doo wop noted elsewhere in this blog, my musical tastes had been partly shaped by what was available in my local library. No pop to speak of; lots of classical music, which didn't interest me, but a fair amount of folk and jazz - especially early jazz. By good chance I stumbled across individuals whose work I still love: Luis Russell, the orchestra leader who later became part of the Louis Armstrong backdrop but whose band around 1929/30 formed a link between the freedom of early jazz and the riff-based attack of swing.

Clarence Williams, on an album later described when I bought it at another shop in London (a jazz specialist, closed down long before) as being "rare as hen's teeth," featuring my (and the world's) first unwitting exposure to Louis Jordan's singing ...I liked some of the folk-related stuff, such as Davy Graham, but jazz: Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Clarence Williams - essentially everything up to Charlie Christian - was my main enthusiasm, running alongside the love of pop shared with my brothers. I seem to remember doing a lot of borrowing on Thursday evenings then walking the three minutes home to catch TOTP.

The library must have softened its policy at some point, as I can recall borrowing, at the same time the recently issued double album of Kingsize Taylor's Beatles Hamburg tapes and an EMI Louis Armstrong memorial album which featured the performance of St Louis Blues backed by the Russell orchestra which Philip Larkin once called "The hottest record ever made" (though he may have recanted as I couldn't find the review reproduced in the paperback edition of his collection of reviews entitled All What Jazz).

But - just as I might have done when in Cheapo, and settled in for an hour or two - I digress. The warning signs about the shop's possible demise were certainly there, and had been for some time. As one assistant there put it, when someone comes in with no conception of overheads, quotes the Amazon price for an album and expects you to match it, the writing is on the wall. Maybe the wonder is it had endured so long. I overheard another worker (possibly the boss; I don't know) evidently at the end of his wick one Saturday night, complaining about the number of tourists who came in demanding directions, alternating with junkies. (Both went, literally, with the territory.)

My relationship with Cheapo changed when I began buying CDs and DVDs for work. They never gave out receipts so I was obliged to explain that my employers needed some evidence of legitimate purchase so could some form of ... after that, they would give me a business card with the amount handwritten on the back. As this explanation needed to be reiterated to different assistants, and as it became pretty obvious I was buying quite a lot on each visit, I began to chat regularly to one of the assistants when I came in and learnt in more detail of the shop's difficulties. He bemoaned charity shops who would mark up poor condition albums because a certain price was mentioned in the Record Collector guide and said the shop was only surviving on its weekend business.

At times I was given the rare privilege of a look-see at new aquisitions on bakery-type wooden trays including, on one memorable occasion, a whole lot of Ace CDs which I bought for around £4 apiece. Whether or not my place of work was in dire need of a comprehensive collection of the recordings of Rosie and the Originals was not, I have to confess, uppermost in my mind at that moment of shy, manly pride at thus being ushered to the inner sanctum. (But in my defence I have always gone for the bargainy side of things - and besides, the shade of the late John Lennon, he say an unquestioning yes.)

There was something slightly odd in this change of relations, however. I'd been patronising the shop for over fifteen years before becoming a professional punter, as it were, and during that time there had been no need for greetings or pleasantries. This wasn't about rudeness (although elsewhere on the net you can find reference to the dourness of one worker there) but a recognition of what we, shopkeeper and customer, were there for: it wasn't HMV or Tower Records; the surroundings were far from spacious, and when it was crowded at weekends there'd be a fair amount of squeezing past people, but the point was this: the stock was the thing, and the stock spoke for itself.

I once took a female friend to this almost exclusively male domain; buying an LP, she felt obliged to say to the assistant, by way of explanation: "Reliving my lost youth." I ought to be ashamed of my glee as I pounced ("Wrong!") on this solecism as soon as we left the shop; sadly I'm not. It was my world and she had made a dreadful - if, let us be fair, understandable, what with being a woman and all - error. We were all there for our lost youth. It didn't need pointing out.

Over time, the available areas of Cheapo shrank a little (yes, you're right, I'm softening you up for the death, but let me tell it anyway; I, for one, need to hear it at the appropriate pace). An upstairs area was no longer in use, although I don't know whether that means that large chunks of stock had been successfully sold off or not. I think some of the upstairs vinyl was the nostalgia-based stuff which then found a home on the ground floor at the back. There was a basement which concentrated on soul and jazz; many cassettes in those long-lost cassette-playing days were bought there, including those of Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson, a Grenadan cabaret singer whose music was the soundtrack for an important relationship; I commemorate both the singer and the other listener with the image below:

Once the darling of Mayfair (and Edwina Mountbatten in particular; see the biography by Charlotte Breese), Hutch was buried in Highgate Cemetery at a poorly attended funeral, although messages still appear in The Stage on the anniversary of his death.

I could go on with lists of records and artists but I think it should be clear by now that the main point about Cheapo is that it is bound up with so many of my memories. There is probably even, on some level, an association with the annual visits to Glasgow in December when very young, my little legs aching with the vast distances covered, to see Santa in one or other of the posher old-style shops - Copeland's, Pettigrews and some others - later to be swept away by cheaper alternatives. It was in one of those, or possibly in the Dalziel Cooperative in Motherwell, who also put a lot of effort into their Father Christmases, that one year there was a kind of tunnel you had to go through to reach Santa; years later, when I walked through a basement room of the art school's Blytheswood Square building, all of whose surfaces had been entirely covered in newspaper (by a fellow art student, Sheila Calder), I had a tantalising, elusive sensation of deja vu which I knew was associated with those Christmas visits without being able to summon up a precise image. And even though Cheapo was about interests developed in adolescence, the cramped and cluttered areas, the tiny staircase, now seem interwoven with both of those memories: more burrow or lair than cavernous emporium of the sort found just down the road at Picadilly Circus, it was the kind of record shop that Kenneth Grahame's Badger might have felt at home in. It was a place where you could lose yourself, or rather find once again that truer self, that non-coporeal identity, a thing of undefined hopes and dreams: a record collector, exactly as you were at sixteen. So I have to admit my cruelly maligned friend's "Reliving my lost youth" was precisely right, although I still say the utterance of that intention was wrong or, at best, superfluous - rather like, if you have the appropriate faith, saying to a priest mid-Mass "You do realise that this ceremony is quite important on a spiritual level?" Babe: they already understand. That is why they are record shop assistants. Or so I'd like to think.

I wish the former workers and owner well in whatever they undertake. They were, as I think Andrew Loog Oldham said of Immediate Records, part of the industry of human happiness. The last conversation I had with the Cheapo assistant whom I'd come to know a bit was, I fear, slightly cut short by me, as I had other stuff to buy, and it was getting late; I wish now that I had stayed longer. Ah well.

I don't want to make this piece just a list of records but I do want to mention one more which can stand for so many others. The area around the entrance had been largely taken over by DVDs but towards the back of the ground level area of the shop there was still a lot of vinyl which compelled you (or me, anyway) to linger.

The image found on the net, above, is not quite right, but at least you can glimpse beyond the DVDs to the very back where (trust me) waist height shelves were stocked with jazz and nostalgia CDs. Vinyl was just to the left. So many albums I'd seen on record shop shelves in Glasgow in the seventies, there they were again, and I'm not just talking about artists of the day: most of those budget rock'n'roll reissues of the seventies which I've talked about in other entries were there too.
And I suppose it's partly that which makes the loss of the shop so poignant: here was a magical second chance to acquire or reacquire those albums and I didn't take it.

One which I particularly regret was a double Jerry Lee album in a gatefold sleeve with a tinted archetypal picture of the young, blonde-locked Killer. I'd totally forgotten about this album, issued on Phonogram before the advent of Charly, which had been played at an art school dance, possibly on Halloween 1975, and I have a vague but pleasing memory of connecting with the older student whose record it presumably was, so that it has come to represent a token of that promise-laden time:

Like pilgrim's withered wreath of flowers
Pluck'd in a far off land.


  1. Phil Cording the owner of Cheapo's die on the 29/01/2009, I closed the shop (29/03/2009)

  2. great page, thanks! i used to shop there 2000 onwards. mainly in the basement. cds and vinyl. bought a lot of jetstar vinyl, white labels, surplus/ slightly damaged stock, all sorts of stuff. thanks again, ewan m

  3. Excellent page!
    Up until mid 2000's I used to travel the 30 miles or so into London one a month to spend the excess of my monthy wages. Got off the Tube at Leicester Square and straight to Steve's Sounds, then up to Cheapo's (if it was market day you got the bonus of the stall outside). Then up to Berwick Street to Sister Ray, Mr CD, Reckless and Selectadisc.
    Finally into Oxford Street to end with HMV and Virgin.
    Last time I did this was back in 2008, recently visited again and was sad to see most of those shops gone.
    All I'm left with is one proper record shop in the town next to me, David's Music in Letchworth, that and the various charity shops dotted around, but even trying to find and worthwhile vinyl in there is becoming harder and harder.
    I guess I'm part of the problem due to my first stop for music is Piratebay nowadays.

  4. Many thanks for your comments. Yes, I remember Mr CD and Steve's Sounds - there was also a shop not too far from Selectadisc, on the same side of the street, which had a basement with a lot of 60s CDs and other stuff. I still buy actual CDs, but mostly online. I was disappointed that Cheapo didn't feature in the book Last Record Shop standing, but I think the author was restricting himself to one shop per area. I'd like to think that Cheapo would have soldiered on if Phil hadn't died.

  5. Great shop, I was happy to lose many wonderful hours in there.

  6. ahhh - what memories. Me and my mate used to do all that circuit for years - Steves, Cheapos, Mr CD, selecta et al - but Cheapos was the one we 'feared' the most. Phil (the owner) was not to be messed with - you just kept your head down. We overheard someone commenting that the only time he had seen Phil laugh was when a customer fell down the stairs. The other regular assistand we got to 'know' there was a skinny tall chap who always dressed in black - we named him 'Gothic Mick' - I recall he had a penchant for industrial music and I think was a fan of Nine Inch Nails..... We still giggle about occurrences in Cheapos from over 2 decades ago - my mate actualy has a picture of Phil taken in the shop - a treasured snap!! Cheapo was unique!

  7. Cheapo, ah, Cheapo.

    I recall having to enter the shop sideways to get around all the boxes of stock on the floor. The whole shop was something of an obstacle course and at times an endurance test. Odd steps and stairways were always there to trap the inattentive browser, but always the boxes, the boxes.

    The further into the dark recesses of the shop you ventured, the more strange the things that could confront you. I recall the corner that was once a staircase to an upper floor, which then became a truncated display corridor, later, at times dusty while oddly, being extremely damp!

    That corner was the domain of the Irish, leather-clad Industrial Metal enthusiast we eventually dubbed “Goth Mick”. He always swore loudly upon our appearance in his corner of the shop, but was a nice guy.
    He swore audibly under his breath when any customers asked him questions –great theatre for us, his watching audience. He was always ready with tall tales about other, better shops around the corner, or the demise of our favourite watering holes – upon investigation, completely false every time. He certainly saw us coming! We never knew his proper name, we did ask, but we were told more fibs.
    So, “Goth Mick” he remains, his anonymity assured.

    I recall the owner of Cheapo, Phil had what I considered to be a rather sly and contrary sense of humour.
    Once, on a buying spree, my chum bought a few items, during which he asked to check their condition . . . mistake! Phil gruffly handed the items over and finished the transaction somewhat terse manner.
    My turn to pay came next, now he cheerfully asked if I wanted to check the condition of my purchases as if nothing had happened, much to my chums chagrin, Phil was all smiles!

    There are many other Cheapo tales to relate, but so little space.

    Great days, a shop I thought would be there for ever, has gone for ever instead.

  8. A really terrific read - takes me back reading this and the responses...

    Never knew who Phil the owner was, but assume from the comments above that he was the misery who generally wore a blue anorak (in all weathers) and had a greyish beard - he would look at anyone entering the emporium with a certain amount of distain. There was a very friendly chap upstairs called Alex, if memory serves me correctly. I must be borderline OCD, because the only thing that really annoyed me about Cheapos was the fact that they put unremovable stickers on all the LPs...

    Happy Days...

  9. Fascinating posts. For some reason I was thinking about Cheapo's today, I live in Ireland now but the dusty old place was a constant for me from my early days in London, 1983 or so when it was part of my regular route around Soho after a trip to Steve's Sounds right up until it's demise. In the early days there was another big shop right opposite which had a huge 7" section downstairs. how I would love to go back and browse now! I used to curse the immoveable stickers they put on LP's at Cheapo's but now that it's gone am strangely proud of their presence in my collection, like old war wounds which prove I was there. I once saw 'gothic mick' in my local Sainsbury and am sure he recognised me too. He didn't greet me as such but muttered under his breath in that reassuring Cheapo's way of welcome. RIP Cheapo's, there will never be another like it

    1. I do remember a shop more or less opposite with a basement ful of strange LPs like Dirk Bogarde Sings. When I first moved to London in 1985 there seemed to be so many record shops clustered around Cheapo.

    2. There did but I think that must be the one. It was much bigger than most with a very large basement, it's a bar now

  10. I loved frequenting this treasure trove of musical formats. I must've bought at least fifty cassettes here throughout my visits, and remember "miserable Phil" well. He was an enigma, ushering and disappearing between the floors and counters beyond the mountains of yet-to-be priced-up boxes of stock. I'd often quake with fear to ask 'that man' to open the locked cassette cases (I'd often take interest in one or two cassettes per case, which I knew greatly irritated him when asking for his 'assistance' to continually open them to remove the cassettes - only for me to put them back after inspection! Not a good move. On one occasion, I did have the recourse to get Phil to re-open a case I'd already asked him to do earlier. He stood next to me and said "now are you gonna buy a f**king tape this time or not?". Nice. Customer care was not the man's strong point. That said, I admired his indomitable spirit; having to endure hour upon hour bypassing the catacombs on a daily basis without natural light would make anyone cranky. I was always polite and made my entrance a happy one, and kind of believe he missed me each time I left. After all, I was spending serious money in there sometimes. I did buy some truly rare gems in there, including rare 'trunk-sold' LA hip hop tapes, as wellas promo CD's I've not seen since. Rarities that'd make Discogs experts shudder in envy. Great days, sadly missed. Phil, Rest in Peace, you grumpy old sod.