The history of Antwerp's legendary Wally's Groove World

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In 1983’s American comedy film ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ a family debarks on a road trip to theme park Walley World. The blockbuster would inspire Koen Van Immerseel aka Koenie to name his record shop Wally’s Groove World, when opening doors on February 13th 1995 in the basement of the long-running USA Import on the Sint-Jacobsmarkt in Antwerp. Working as a store clerk upstairs for a few years already, he was allowed to open his own shop on one condition: second hand records only. Wally’s Groove World would never leave the neighbourhood close to the city’s central station, only to move to an old office supplies store in the adjoining Lange Nieuwstraat in 2004. The shop efficiently survived the downfall of vinyl records (including the closure of USA Import) and is now healthier than ever. Its secret? A unique mixture of musical knowledge and gut feeling.

The real starting point of the shop? A collection of second hand records Van Immerseel could put his hands on, spotted by his longtime friend and collaborator Branca (aka DJ Baby Bee), who still works regularly at the shop. A second hand shop specialised in dance music was quite a new deal and quickly lifted off. In this pre-internet era knowledge was key, with record stores being one of the only sources to discover new music. Wally’s Groove World became synonym for cutting edge electronic dance music, dug up and shipped over in high volumes by Van Immerseel and his team all around the country or during trips in Europe or the USA. Whether it was New York house music, Detroit techno or British Drum’n Bass a music fan was interested in, Wally’s would be the place to be. Van Immerseel purchased two plush reindeer somewhere on the Boomsesteenweg in Antwerp, he can’t really recall where and when, and put them at parties the shop started to organise. One of them got lost but the other still reminds visitors today of these early years, having found a comfy spot in the shop’s window.

In the meantime the DJ-career of Van Immerseel aka DJ Koenie boosted, playing intensively in Belgium and abroad. After his first performance ever, a 10 hours much appreciated set at a wild after party in the cafetaria of a football club, he quickly made a name for himself. The Antwerp fashion scene took him to play in Milan and a residency at Café d’Anvers would soon follow. Antwerp born & raised, Van Immerseel had been a devoted listener of radio stations playing the new electronic sound and a regular at USA Import. He had been dancing and studying the unique mix of disco, new wave, new beat and proto house that flooded Antwerp in the eighties. Unable to finish his high school, he avoided to become a master of none when taking a job at USA Import, what turned out to be his destiny.

By the end of the millennium he launched his own website, being one of the first in the business.

The lack of a degree didn’t hold Van Immerseel back, on the contrary. Buying and selling records was a talent he demonstrated easily and by the end of the millennium he launched his own website, being one of the first in the business. Long before the existence of online market place Discogs, Van Immerseel understood the need to serve another spectrum of customers in the niche domains of electronic music he was specializing in. He slowly upgraded his online service, started to sell new records next to pre-owned and would add a few more unique selling points to his shop. Experimental electronic and library music was one of them, offering reissues long before the recent reissue explosion was another. 

Another significant chapter in the book of Wally’s Groove World, was the record label launched under the same name in 1997. The imprint focused on the Belgian deep house scene, promoting artists such as Swirl People, Brandy or Mayaku and also initiated a series of sublabels. When in 1999 Hendrik Willemyns and John Roan sent music to Van Immerseel under their Arsenal alter ego, Van Immerseel took the jump and invested in their debut single called Release. In 2004 they collaborated again, this time for the band’s debut album ‘Oyebo Soul’ on Wally’s sublabel Wha? Roots Recordings. The lead single Mr. Doorman became a huge hit including national radio airplay and the start of a long career for the duo. Unfortunately the British distribution company Wally’s Groove World had a contract with, went bankrupt not much later. The label didn’t survive this crash and activities were put to rest. 

The biggest collection I ever bought was about 200.000 records at once. They had to close the street to deliver.

With a stock of more than 250.000 items, Wally’s Groove World will never run out of records. The black gold is stored in the basement of the shop, in a depot across the street and at the house of Van Immerseel’s mother. “There used to be a time when about every two months a shipment arrived, from all around the world. Nowadays the competition is bigger and shipping became more expensive, but we haven’t stopped. At the moment I’m waiting for another 70.000 records to arrive. The biggest collection I ever bought was about 200.000 records at once. They had to close the street to deliver. And the longer my shop runs, the bigger his network of old customers who offer me their redundant vinyl.” 

Today Wally’s Groove World sells most of his records through his website and Discogs shop, with up to 500 online orders per week. A loyal crowd of insiders and a solid amount of tourist still frequents his shop in the offline world though, attracted by the strong reputation Van Immerseel and his team have developed or the sales and record release events organised on a regular basis. Another secret to create a successful long term business for Van Immerseel is to constantly engage new generations. “I like to hire young DJs and record diggers as staff to the shop”, he describes. “Nowadays Jan and Floris Machiels, two brothers who DJ as Hill Men, help me out. And Tim Van De Meutter aka Locked Groove used to work here as a youngster, just before he had his breakthrough and moved to Berlin. He actually just released a track called Wally’s Groove World”.

Words & pictures: Koen Galle