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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

First class second hand

First class second hand

The only way to stay above the fashions and tastes of the moment is to offer a wide selection that’s resistant to time.

Interview Sam De Brabander
Photographs Various

We had expected to wind down quietly, but we’re still here.

Today, just about any record is but a click away. Online market places such as Discogs have made sure that no matter what you’re looking for is always on hand — if you’re willing to pay up, that is. That does not make things easy on the used record shops. The offer and demand system demands lightning-fast response, which is not the strong suit of any physical shop. So how come the second hand shops in this fine country of ours have been keeping their heads above water for all these years? How do they compete with the internet? And which Belgian music is awarded a second life by them? We talked shop with some shops.

Chelsea Records, Antwerp

“We had expected to wind down quietly, but we’re still here.” As usual, Pascal from Chelsea Records is busy polishing records behind his counter. Standing in his shop, one is surrounded with records and CDs worn with age. ‘It’s insane how many golden shop stickers are on these used records. Every self respecting city in Flanders had it’s own record shop and these stickers are a relic of that time,’ he says. It’s a strange experience, this feeling of having to catch up on all this history. Chelsea is about the largest used records shop in the country. “Last year, we expanded the shop and took over the neighbouring house at number eight. A big job, but it did bring some order in the chaos.”

It’s true. While a visit to Chelsea used to be killer for your kneecaps, these days everything is neatly ordered and labelled in crates. There’s jazz on the ground floor, a large assortment of Dutch spoken music in a separate room, a new basement full of disco and electronics and all sorts of exotic artists like Tim Maia upstairs. “We often travel to Brazil and take along suitcases full of old clothes. We leave the clothes behind and fill everything with a new stash of shiny Brazilian records”, Pascal laughs.

Chelsea doesn’t offer new releases though, as Pascal finds the profit margin is wearing too thin. Instead, he offers used records at very reasonable prices. “I prefer a customer who pays too little and comes back over selling someone a record for too high a price.” Chelsea doesn’t do trends and had cast aside any attempts to reinvent itself. Customers keep coming because of the fair pricing and the vast array of genres. It sounds plausible that the vinyl revival has enabled this shop’s survival, but do they really see more people in here than they did before? “Our sales have gone up and we see a younger audience, these days. Recently I had a thirteen-year-old in here asking for Led Zeppelin on vinyl. All kinds of people are going back to buying old music on vinyl, but they usually have very little time to scour the crates.” The thought of selling online makes Pascal shiver, though.

Dany’s shop feels a bit worn and gray, but that won’t deter kids who organise parties in town.

Carnaby Records, Liège

Even though Pascal likes to keep things the old fashioned way, online sales have been a blessing to some others, like Dany from Carnaby Records. While he saw just about every shop around Liège close up, he was able to stay put on the banks of the Meuse. Until recently, he would do overtime at fairs and flea markets (which by the way explains why his records have letters instead of prices), but in the end, it became too much to handle. Since opening his store in 1988, Dany has been going to fairs to hunt for collections, which he then sells in his shop and online. “I need both to survive. By offering material online, I also lure people to come to the shop”, he explains while lighting yet another cigarette.

On eBay, he is known as dany_the_avenger. He sells 70s and 80s rock, French pop, psychedelic music and new wave. “Most people in the shop go for the classics, though, like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. I recently bought a full Rolling Stones collection at someone’s house. Others call me to sell off their goods or to gauge the worth of their collection.” Since people keep on coming and judging on the size of his backstock, where approximately more than 3000 records fit in, Dany will be selling vinyl for the rest of his life.

Dany’s shop feels a bit worn and gray, but that won’t deter kids who organise parties in town. “That Superfly guy was just here, looking for soul and funk. I get a lot of collectors from Ghent too, looking for Belgian music, but Belpop isn’t such a big thing on this side of the language barrier. André Brasseur’s records are very popular again since his revival and you’ll definitely find stuff front Front 242 or The Neon Judgement here, even though the shop doesn’t have a Belgian corner. I don’t have much local French music either, that’s a different audience.”

I think Jacques Brel is the most requested artist here.

Arlequin, Brussels

Arlequin in Brussels doesn’t have a dedicated Belgian section either, but if you have a look at the very neatly labelled stacks of records, you’re bound to bump into some pop and rock. The façade is adorned with drawings of legendary musicians, while the back of the shop offers a lot of French chanson alongside comics. “Besides an incontournable like Toots Thielemans, I think Jacques Brel is the most requested artist here”, Dominique says. He runs the Arlequin branch that’s closest to Manneken Pis, meaning the regular buyers are mixed up with tourists hunting for records from their younger years. ‘People do come dig for more obscure stuff as well. While prices are beyond imagination right now, a lot Brussels Punk 45T from labels such as Romantik Records passed the counter at very reasonable prices.’

Arlequin took some steps toward an online existence: their website features lists curated by shop employees, even though these are not always up to date. “It’s not easy to align both our shops with the online offer and the stock we keep”, Dominique admits. Even though the rumours on the comeback of vinyl have been gaining weight over the last few years, he doesn’t immediately cheer. With a tradition of flea markets and many other shops around, it’s hard to stand out in Brussels.

That hasn’t keep Dominique from doing what he loves for over thirty years: working between his records and offering a wide range of alternative styles without feeling the pressure to order the latest rage. “You can’t just aim for the niches. The only way to stay above the fashions and tastes of the moment is to offer a wide selection that’s resistant to time. And every once in a while, you still run into very rare records. I once sold a Waterloo record on Discogs for 1600 euro”, he smiles.

Vinylkitchen, Gent

Up north, second hand shops are mostly asked about cult bands like Waterloo, Placebo and Irish Coffee, making these increasingly rare finds. It’s striking how every shop has their local favourites. While Chelsea talks of Antwerp phenomena like Ferre Grignard or The Kids, Vinylkitchen in Ghent mentions Wim Decraene and 2 Belgen. This shop, located just outside the bustling city centre, is being run by Karl for eighteen years. While he’s busying himself behind the counter, customers are invited to have a seat in one of the black leather sofas and make good use of the three available pick-ups. Other shops don’t usually encourage prelistening — not profitable, it seems — but this is really a plus for those wanting to discover unknown second hand material.

The very popular stuff doesn’t usually make the cut here, but Karel is surprised at how much someone like Urbanus is still in demand.

There’s lots of space and order in the yellow coloured Vinylkitchen, which houses a vast selection of rock, jazz, folk, blues, metal, disco and reggae. Unlike other shops, this one has a whole Belgian section in back, where we even came across with this 7 inch of the 90’ies hit single ‘Morregen’ by Belgian Asociality. “There were already plenty of shops in Ghent who offered new vinyl and did a great job. I wanted to make my mark by going for used records”, Karl says. The very popular stuff doesn’t usually make the cut here, but Karl is surprised at how much someone like Urbanus is still in demand. “I think I must have sold at least 1000 records from him. Guido Belcanto is very popular as well. He was mostly successful in the 90s, when CDs had started to take over. Both CDs and vinyl still sell remarkably well, even though the latter has less available copies”, Karl says.

Second hand shops often have a very open-minded selection, yet sometimes those shops’ blind spots offer the most beautiful finds, like the Model 500 album from Detroit, a true techno classic, that once ended up in one of the crates here. No doubt it has something to do with Karl travelling to the US every year, looking for collections to buy. “Last year we went to North and South Carolina, both states that have a very distinct culture where music is concerned.” Thanks to these trips, the influx of records is constant, which is why Karl’s wife sometimes pitches in.

The Vinylkitchen window display keeps is a work in progress. Every Monday, the newest releases are being put up and photographed to be published on the Facebook page. “An online shop just isn’t my cup of tea. For me, this is the easiest way to keep in touch with customers and let them know what’s come in. It also attracts foreign customers. They know the window changes every week and keep it in mind when planning a trip to town.” It makes the world go round...