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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Lars Cosemans

I try to get people to come to the shop, instead of making house calls. As soon as I see them lugging those heavy crates through the door, I know the deal is halfway done. The odds that they are willing to drag all of those records back home again are usually pretty slim.

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

For Lars Cosemans, a great espresso and latte are most definitely not the only ingredients of a good coffee shop. The owner of Coffee & Vinyl also likes to offer a broad variety of vinyl – new and second-hand, across all genres imaginable. It is the simple unique selling proposition of his Antwerp hangout. Lars didn’t find the inspiration for it in some hip metropolitan halfway across the globe: he just really likes both coffee and vinyl.

Having said that, Lars could have an attached third keyword to the name of his shop: Art. The immense colorful paintings that adorn the walls above the chairs in the bar area can be seen from the outside. So yes, he also uses the space as a full-blown art gallery. At the moment, it features a number of works by Antwerp painter Bruneau. “To me, he is the pop art painter of the city. I have been a fan of this man since the ‘80s, so I just went up to him and asked if he wanted to be part of Coffee & Vinyl – and he agreed. I’m very much proactive when it comes to decorating my place. Even those vinyl covers above the bar are a part of my ongoing efforts. That reggae record up there, it’s not worth a lot of money. It’s strictly hanging there because of the pretty lady on the front cover.”

I like art and great album covers. That reggae record up there, it’s not worth a lot of money. It’s strictly hanging there because of the pretty lady on the front cover.

Tourists from all over the world travel to Antwerp, and a sizable amount of them seems to have no problems finding their way into Coffee & Vinyl: Russians, Americans, Japanese, Norwegians, Swedes, British, ... They all pass by. Strangely enough, his shop is not mentioned in a lot of tourist guides, says Lars. Talk of Coffee & Vinyl mainly spreads online, and of course through word of mouth – more notably the mouths of Pete Doherty, Belgian pop act Daan or Dutch poet and vintage music lover Jules Deelder. But in the end, it’s all about those records on the shelves that are waiting for their new owners. And thanks to his father, Lars has had almost twenty years of experience finding those owners.

“My dad had his own record store in Antwerp. It was simply dubbed Vinyl. He taught me that there will always be a market for vinyl, how some albums are very much sought after, and that if you know the right value, you stand to make quite a lot of money. He was the one who helped me acquire a taste for Flemish singers-songwriters, French chansons and of course blues and jazz.” Lars was to gain a lot more knowledge though from his father who passed away ten years ago. “I’m an entrepreneur – just like my father. It is in my blood. I went on to study economics while at the same time helping him out at the shop. After a while I joined the business and in the end I took over from him completely. Three years ago I closed the old shop to start Coffee & Vinyl.”

Lars is tracking down and buying up collections on a daily basis. Occasionally, people will spontaneously offer him the contents of their attic but he’s also actively networking and putting out wanted ads in his quest for new finds. His inner Sherlock Holmes speaks: “Most of the time, the very first contact is the most important one. Usually, I can pretty quickly deduce if something is worth my time or not. I do not leave the house for fifty records; only for collections of significant size. I also try to get people to come to the shop, instead of making house calls. As soon as I see them lugging those heavy crates through the door, I know the deal is halfway done. The odds that they are willing to drag all of those records back home again are usually pretty slim.” Lars maintains an entire ecosystem of vinyl that is spread out in boxes and cabinets throughout his store, his home and a storage facility. “I have about 40,000 copies lined up to sell – apart from the 10,000 that are already in the store. Lately, I’ve been selling a lot of blues so I’m about to pick up some fresh stuff in the storage unit. If all of a sudden Frank Sinatra starts selling like hot cakes, all I have to do is shoot over to the warehouse and I’m good to go.”

That generation of vinyl collectors from the ‘70s and ‘80s is a long way from going extinct, and more often than not, it are those untimely deaths that end up yielding the wildest collections.

Lars doesn’t really feel a competitive pressure, except when it comes to buying up stock. The usual convivial atmosphere among diggers can get a bit vicious at those times – something he used to feel bad about. “But I’ve learned to put things in perspective. In the end, there are plenty more fish in the sea. No, really, there are a lot of records still hidden in attics and basements, just waiting to be discovered. That generation of vinyl collectors from the ‘70s and ‘80s is a long way from going extinct, and more often than not, it are those untimely deaths that end up yielding the wildest collections.” One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity.

Lars only sporadically buys vinyl for his private collection. He spends most of his day in the store, which doesn’t leave a lot of time to listen to music at home. He buys in order to sell – it is his life and his source of revenue. He is a passionate salesman first, even if he is also a music freak, with a love for coffee, art and beautiful objects – like the futuristic-looking record player in his store. “John Michell, owner of the eponymous brand of turntables, designed a lot of sets for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and this turntable pops up in another one of the director’s magna opera: A Clockwork Orange. You should also pay attention to those scenes at the Korova Milk Bar in the movie. That vibe is exactly the kind of atmosphere I want to capture in my store.”