The Gramophone Emporium was a place out of time. Its window (broken) crammed with gramophone parts. It had no website, no phone line, and, despite being in a trendy boho part of town, no passing custom.
But it did have customers: collectors of vintage wax and vinyl who knew of the shop’s existence by word of mouth. Although some jealously guarded the secret of where they got their records, collectors came from as far away as Germany and even the US.
They were virtually all male, some young but mostly older and much older. Their interests ranged from 1902 Caruso recordings (single sided discs) through Fats Waller in 1924 (the sound as live and immediate as if you were leaning on Fats’ piano) to esoteric Gaelic songs that could have been recorded in a croft somewhere in the Highlands.
The shop began its life in St Stephen Street, Edinburgh in the mid-70s. Part of the street was threatened with demolition and rents plummeted. Because the area was central, people took advantage of these low rents and low-budget businesses moved in along with a whole community of ‘hippies’. Many of the small businesses remained – I have photos of an antique shop and a shop selling only gas mantles and oil lamp parts, both further along the street from the gramophone shop.
It gained sufficient fame in the 1980s to have a whole radio feature devoted to it on Radio Scotland, the radio crew and presenter filling the shop.
After squeezing through the front door, with its tinkling brass bell, there was a front room which doubled as an assault course for the unwary. The machines on which to play the treasures of the 78 disc were everywhere: reconditioned wind-ups, stately table tops and furniture-sized models. The walls were lined with shelf upon shelf of discs, loosely (very loosely) categorised. At floor and ceiling level were collections of 33rpm vinyl, looking almost uncomfortable in such riches of an earlier recording age. Boxes full of records that had ‘just come in’ lay randomly about and, as customers plundered them, stray discs spilled out and some were crushed underfoot in the limited floor space.
There was Victorian sheet music and piles of vintage music magazines. If you have a portable wind-up gramophone (imagine a 1920s picnic with strawberries and cream by the river), there’s a cavity into which you can stuff some material to muffle the sound, the origin of the expression ‘put a sock in it’! So N. would sell you packs of gramophone needles in soft, medium or loud tone. Each needle was used only once and of course, each record requiring cranking the gramophone handle about twenty turns.
A disc-lined alley led to the ‘back room’ which doubled as an unofficial club. This was presided over by A. and B., who held court among their ordered shelves of classical 78s. You’d like an example of a Russian bass from 1920? No problem, B knew just the one. And while it’s playing, how about a cup of tea (laced with a wee dram if you’d like!) and a biscuit? A. and B. had known each other for years (neither were in their green and salad years) and there was a steady flow of banter. When I asked those gents about their backgrounds, I was told that B. was a retired art teacher and an expert on the recordings of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. A. described himself, with a customary twinkle in his eye, as ‘a man of the world’.
In the corner of this inner sanctum, there was often a customer hunkered down with a heavy pile of records on his knee: sifting and searching for that one dreamed-of treasure. A lot of the stock cost between £1 and £3, so it was an affordable hobby. There were rarer discs, but it was mostly dealers who handled those sales. The internet has invigorated the market recently, and four figure sums for one disc are now not uncommon.
The shop stock was sourced mainly from house clearances and people who came in with their deceased relatives’ boxes of records. N. (the manager) remembered one case where they participated in the clearing of a house belonging to a Scots-Italian violinist who had grown increasingly reclusive in his final years. When he died, the rooms of the house were knee deep in his collections and among his treasures were about 5,000 78rpm records. His taste was eclectic, and there was everything from opera to jazz in the collection.
How did I find this place? Well, I lived just along the street and one day the door was open. They only opened one and a half days a week, so I was lucky. I seemed to become a kind of mascot – lady collectors are rare birds indeed. N. (who, in his other life, taught the Gaelic and also the Scots moothie (mouth-organ), would put aside discs he thought I might like – he got the idea that 1920s Cuban tangos, American dancebands, jazz pianists and Italian tenors were my kind of thing.
I learned so much. Did you know, for example, that the famous His Masters Voice label (with dog) issued all their records during WWI and WWII with a white label out of respect for the war? Or that the plainer the label on an early Russian 78, the closer to the Holy Grail of 78s it is? Or that not all 78s were created equal – some were recorded at 80rpm, others at 76rpm – and for that reason, wind-up gramophones have an adjustable slide.
In short, it was the kind of place which I didn’t think existed any more. But there it was, thriving, in the heart of a busy city. A quiet delight. So twice a week back then, you’d find me propping up a wall in the Gramophone Emporium.