Doctor Vinyl: a history of non-anthems & outsiders

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It’s a cold and rainy afternoon on this early day of April spring, but the doors of Doctor Vinyl are standing wide open as usual. A few customers quietly dig their way through the thousands of records stacked in the small space while owner Geert Sermon is playing a record by Belgian duo The Revolving Eyes. About 20 seconds into the A3 he all of the sudden spins back the record to the start of the track and changes the tempo of the turntable from 33 to 45 RPM, while pitching down the speed to -8. The slow heavy sounding beats transform into a fast EBM track, putting a smile on Sermon’s face. “This track was really made for this place”, he proclaims. “I already sold about 60 copies, while other shops probably only sell a few copies. All of my regulars got one.”

Doctor Vinyl truly is a world of its own. Sermon calls it a counterweight, a place for outsiders or a collection of unloved records. Opened on May 23rd 1997, the store took its peripheral position from the early days on. After travelling extensively in the UK and USA and visiting the many record shops these countries had to offer, Sermon got attracted to shops such as Black Market and Swag in London, where dj’s were constantly dumping their unwanted promo records. He started to ship those non-anthems to Brussels and sell them in his own shop Doctor Vinyl, a business he took over from the previous owner Steven De Cort. The birth of the now famous brand hails back to the Flemish Brabant city of Halle, located on the Brussels Charleroi canal. Sermon got himself a job at local record shop Doctor Vinyl, after being a regular at it for years. When De Cort decides to make the move to Brussels, he takes Sermon along as salesman for all things house music. But De Cort leaves the business after a short time and Sermon promptly takes the risk of becoming a record shop owner.

Halle is where Sermon was born and bred. The city famous for its Hallerbos, a prolific bluebell carpet which covers the forest floor for a few weeks each spring attracting visitors from all around the world, and a vivid scene of record shops back in the seventies and eighties. One of the key stores in town is Eddy’s Records (read our feature about the iconic shop here), where Sermon used to hang around from his teenage years on. Three more sources would inspire the young Sermon with a unique selection of music. “My father wasn’t a fan of records, they were expensive and waste of space and time in his eyes. He loved pirate radio though, it didn’t matter much for the music they were playing, as long as the station’s philosophy would be about playing music that was unheard on the bigger radios. Then there were my fathers friends who were making me personalised tapes. His friend nicknamed Steve Beton would compile me ‘I Like To Do It In Fast Cars’ by Z-Factor next to ‘Ace Of Spades’ by Motörhead, ‘Ghost Rider’ by Suicide and ‘Mon Coeur Qui Craque’ by Nathalie. Last but not least I had an uncle who was a dj. He used to travel to the United States and get back with dozens of disco maxi records.”

Located at Groot Eiland 1 right next to the beautiful Halles St-Gery, Doctor Vinyl never moved away from where it set up camp in 1997. The interior of the shop is a small museum full of artefacts left behind by customers, dj’s, record labels, … While the interior of the shop didn’t change much during the years, the neighbourhood got a complete facelift. “Back in the nineties, this area used to be the Chicago of Brussels”, as Geert recalls. “The Halles St-Gery were empty and the building where supermarket Lidl now is located, used to look like the reminder of a bombed building. You wouldn’t come here unless by accident. But not much after I started the shop, Zebra Bar opened on the other side of the square. I believe this is when the gentrification started, one of the first waves in Brussels. The Dansaert and St-Catherine area flourished, designer shops and restaurants arrived, students would hang around, etcetera.” In the meantime a few dj’s pivotal for the city’s scene would start to visit Doctor Vinyl. Geoffroy, St. Dic, Pierre, Deg, ... were among the regulars at the shop and even started working as store clerks. The shop attracted an international network of dj’s who were all amazed by the unique offer at the shop. “We didn’t sell what other shops in Belgium were selling. Our selection was very close to the sound of the Motion Room in Fuse, which used to be the more house oriented second floor of the club. Many of the dj’s who played at Fuse would pass by here such as Derrick May, Dj Sneak and Kevin Saunderson and be amazed by our mix of house and tech house, when the latter wasn’t yet an ugly word. We became famous for our hybrid version of dance music, cronky weird records. In the early 2000’s the whole Dirty Dancing scene who organised parties in Mirano also found a home here. I’m very grateful for these dj’s, since we had the records but they were the ones playing them in the clubs and making them big.

Nowadays Semon’s shop still holds an important position in the country’s electronic music scene, but the record shop business has drastically changed. With the digital music revolution, online shopping and the closure of many record stores, Doctor Vinyl was able to stay relevant by actually not changing much. The shop somehow still is this weird and fun home for outsider dance music and has only become stronger building on know-how and expertise the older it gets. “Of course dj’s don’t come here anymore every Thursday or Friday to preserve their copy of a brand new record, what used to be standard in our early years”, Sermon explains. “With the internet, this urge to get the newest copy before anyone else runs aways with it, is all gone now. We still sell new music, but I don’t follow the weekly headlines anymore. I rather focus on local new music and often sell distributors dead stock, since my customers have a taste for the unwanted. And I own a giant stock of ten thousands of records stored in quite a few garages, basements and attics. You could say that I’m my own supplier, I just serve myself from it based on what’s hot and happening. For years nobody cared about old UK progressive house from the nineties for example, now I’m selling these like hot cakes.”

Much more than any other record shop, it really makes a difference to ask Doctor Vinyl’s store owner for guidance when digging through the chaotic piles of records all over the shop. Sermon’s history as a dj at the end of the eighties and in the nineties (and still active, available for bookings and rocking the scene by the way) also defines his expertise, being one of the most quoted sources in articles and archival works about Belgian New Beat. He had a strong hand in the making of the excellent documentary movie and soundtrack ‘The Sound Of Belgium’ explaining the birth and history of Belgian electronic music. The dvd, soundtrack vinyl and t-shirts are still for sale at Doctor Vinyl and because this history always has been about wayward musicians and pig-headed dj’s, Doctor Vinyl really is the best place to really indulge yourself in the true sound of Belgium. Rock To The Beat!

Words & pictures: Koen Galle