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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Antwerp’s finest vinyl: a guided tour

Antwerp’s finest vinyl: a guided tour

Stay out of town if you’re a vinyl addict. This city is haunted!

Interview Diederik Decroix
Photographs Various

It is said Antwerp is an El Dorado for those in search of black gold. Of course, we are not likely to take any such statements lightly. So boots were strapped on, coffee was drunk and Antwerp was peered at through a looking glass. Our conclusion? Stay out of town if you’re a vinyl addict. This city is haunted!

Jean Meeusen over at Inside Records rightly notices how Antwerp’s record stores fill each other’s gaps. Like most of his colleagues, Meeusen runs an online boutique parallel to the physical one, using Discogs. Meeusen: “The cost of setting up my own web shop largely outweighs the fees Discogs charges on every sale. Another advantage is the large, international audience. However, that can’t compare to the click I have when I actually see people at the shop. That’s what has kept me going all these years.”

A few streets over, at the family-run The Vinyl Touch, Niels Reusens also sells part of his records through Discogs. However he still focuses mainly on the shop, selling only second hand material, specialising in jazz and pop/rock classics. Running a record store is a hard-knock life. Reusens drives many a mile on his daily quest for quality vinyl. These days, more often than not, he returns empty-handed.

A shame as well as a waste of time. I often have to disappoint people

Many people with vintage collections stashed away in basements and attics have picked up on vinyl being on the upswing and are convinced of having dug up a treasure. Reusens: “You wouldn’t believe the abominable shape these collections can be in. People call me, repeating it’s all in mint condition. Then you find 300 records who have been riping for two decades in a stuffy basement, usually with some mould on them. Or you find a jewel and it turns out the owner has his name written all over the sleeve in big fat Sharpie letters. A shame as well as a waste of time. I often have to disappoint people."

A hattrick plus one

On the other side of town lies Coffee & Vinyl, a very different kind of breed. There’s a wide array of second hand material, alongside newly printed records. And there’s that other kind of black gold: coffee. Here too, there are wrapped up albums labelled ‘fragile’, ready to find their way to a Discogs user’s mailbox. Lars Cosemans uses his space for other ends as well. The upcoming exhibition features 'Singing Skies' paintings by Tindersticks’s Suzanne Osbourne, accompanied by text written by her husband and Tindersticks frontman Stuart A. Staples. And as if all of this wouldn’t convince one to spend a long afternoon in this cosy atmosphere, there are in-stores all year long.

Tracing our way back to the city centre, we run into a hattrick composed of vinyl shops. The Rocking Bull is the place for heavy machinery, including T-shirts by pretty much every existing metal band and other fan gear. Over a beer at the bar, I start talking to two fans who regularly turn up for concerts here. An Englishman, like many other tourists, are drawn to Antwerp for it’s diversity in offerings.

Backtrack, a little further along, is a small shop with some fine limited releases on the shelves. The place specialises in rarities and collector’s items, both new and second hand. You’ll spend your wages in a heartbeat for sure, but you’ll go home with the cream of the crop. Or you can just be lazy and find their dealings on Discogs.

The third in this row is Fatkat, an inevitable stop. Not just because Fatkat has been around the longest (Staf De Vos started out in 1998) but because, due to a lack of space, the shop moved in the beginning of 2016 and now has over 5000 records gracing the shelves in every imaginable genre.

Keeping it analogue

The one shop that really stands out among its peers is Technologie Factory, in the Emiel Banningstraat. You can only visit it if you have an appointment, allowing for Francis Wijngaerts to receive you with a decent glass of wine, selected vinyl albums and high-end audio apparatus, which he sells and places. Being an audiophile with a passion for vinyl, Wijgaerts only sells records that have been directly mastered from analogue sources, like Music Matters Jazz and Cohearent.

A 5 minute shampooing is advisable for second hand records as well as new ones.

It’s no surprise Wijgaerts is convinced you’re better off spending money on ten great records than a hundred mediocre ones, where sound quality is concerned. He even goes as far as offering a washing service. A 5 minute shampooing is advisable for second hand records as well as new ones, as the latter are scattered with dust and other nastiness during the production process. After a decent bath, your record will sound more holographic. Then it’s up to you to stash them away in anti-static sleeves to protect them from dust.

To Discogs or not to Discogs

Second hand shop Chelsea Records recently parted with some walls to make room for more vinyl in the next-door building, which was a necessity to regain some order in the sprawling collection. While a visit to Chelsea used to be killer for your kneecaps, these days everything is neatly ordered and labelled in crates. Twice the size in offer today, yet none of it on Discogs. The thought of selling online makes Pascal De Bruyn shiver.

Tune up Records does do Discogs, however a real-life visit is an offer one shouldn’t pass up on. Carlo, a flamboyant importee from the province of Limburg, is someone you just have to meet. His shop is a meeting spot for music lovers and musicians, hosting in-stores, performances and exhibitions (check out collector Chris Leuris’s sleeves until the end of the month) and an ever-changing supply of records. Next to second hand, there’s ample space for new material and a lot of Belgian releases.

Me and my monkey is a coffee bar run by Noah Melis, Bed Rugs’s drummer. Everything you hear on the stereo is on sale, which is a hand-picked selection of Belgian and international artists. Whenever Melis is on tour, his dad takes over the shop.

Last stop!

Our last stop on the tour is Wally’s Groove World. Koen van Immerseel aka DJ Koenie, has been in the business for years. Way back when, he used to work at USA Import. First in the shop, later in the basement, selling second hand records only. In those days, he travelled around the world to buy up big stocks of techno, deep house and dance. And that's still the focus of his shop. “You won’t find Het Zesde Metaal here. But I’m more than happy to send customers over to Fatkat. We balance each other out that way.” Being a big supporter of the local scene, Koenie has put up a big wall full of Sondervan records after hosting a concert of his. With visitors from all over the world, it’s no wonder Wally’s Groove World landed the 8th place in The World’s Best Record Shops as listed by The Vinyl Factory.

And just when you thought you’d seen them all, a deus ex machina descends from the heavens.

And just when you thought you’d seen them all, a deus ex machina descends from the heavens. A very attentive Vinyl Frontier fan was kind enough to point us in the direction of Morbus Gravis, which from now on we’ll refer to as Antwerp’s Best Kept Secret. Please forgive our oversight in our listing of all of Antwerp’s record stores. Even frontiers are sometimes mistaken.

Morbus Gravis – Music Space will celebrate its first birthday after summer, yet regularly closes up shop for a couple of weeks or even months. Fré De Vos, the shop owner, doesn’t want to become a slave to his shop. “Vacations are to be taken when you need them. And so I do. More so than the average person, it appears”, De Vos laughs.

“The shop is located in the Diamond neighbourhood, a ways off from busy tourist areas and high rents, which allows me to set my own independent, atypical course. I don’t mean to come across as presumptuous, but I know all the music I sell. I don’t care for people trying to push their records through me. And so I buy directly from labels and artists, avoiding distributors. Morbus Gravis offers a solid collection of truly obscure and often radical and unfashionable music on all possible formats and at fair prices.”

The true eye catcher in this shop, though, is the glass floor allowing you to look down on the musician playing in the basement, right below your feet. Apart from gigs, De Vos organises listening sessions with a bunch of people listening to one entire album, silently weighing track after track. Getting curious, are you? We highly recommend making an appointment if you don’t want your enthusiastic door-knocking to go unanswered. 

Now go and spread the love!

Every music lover will agree that a large assortment of record stores is important in any city. First, it serves as a cultural meeting place, second, it is a big perk not having to hop over to London to get your kicks. As far as we’re concerned, a Bongo voucher for a Vinyl Shopping Weekend in Antwerp is bound to make its appearance. Now go and spread the love!