Placement student Fran Sharp explores Leeds’ impressive history of record shops, after making some discoveries in the archive at Abbey House Museum ahead of next year’s music exhibition.
One of the main tasks that I undertook whilst on placement with Abbey House Museum was to catalogue some of the collection of gramophone records, in preparation for the museum’s music themed exhibition for 2020.
The majority of these records were stored in cardboard sleeves, and in the course of my cataloguing I noticed that there were a surprisingly large number of establishments selling gramophone players and records in Leeds in the early part of the 20th century.
Many of these shops appeared to have started their lives as musical instrument dealers who added gramophone records to their stock as the gramophone player increased in popularity. However, there were also some more unusual combinations such as G. Booth on Beeston Road and R. Broughton & Sons on Waterloo Road, who both combined their gramophone business with the sale of bicycles. A little research into this combination showed that the pairing of bicycle and gramophone shops was not uncommon in England in the early 1900s. Although I was unable to find a definitive explanation for why this was the case, I did find a suggestion from record researcher Frank Andrews, who wrote that records and bicycles “made excellent partners, for both trades were very seasonable. Those who could afford to do so, purchased bicycles in the summer, and phonographs, gramophones and records in the winter months.”
An article in the Leeds Mercury from December 1903, ‘Round the Leeds Shops,’ notes that a gramophone could be purchased very cheaply in comparison to a pianoforte, and that the gramophone ‘provides a ready means by which the Christmas party can be entertained’. This helps to demonstrate the ways that the growing popularity of the gramophone player made music more accessible to people who could not afford to buy musical instruments, and had therefore previously been unable to listen to music in their homes.
The earliest mention that I found of a dedicated gramophone shop was in 1900, and the trader was J. W. Sykes Ltd, who had shops on Albion Street and Bond Street. Another trader that was selling records very early on was Hartley’s, a book and record store that started life as a market stall on Kirkgate Market in around 1912, and eventually expanded to include stores in Ilkley and Scarborough in addition to their shop on Vicar Lane, Leeds. The Abbey House archive also holds sheet music sold by J. W. Sykes and Hartley’s, so these shops are good examples of the ways that music shops adapted over time in order to keep up with the latest advances in musical technology. Whilst many other record shops in the city were short-lived, both J. W. Sykes and Hartley’s continued to trade right through to the early 1950s.
As gramophone shops appeared all over Leeds it would have been important for traders to find ways to attract potential customers and set themselves out from the crowd. For example, an advert in the Leeds Musical Festival programme from 1913 shows that Loyds, who had a shop on Boar Lane from 1913-1920 before relocating to Albion Place from 1920 onwards, held daily music recitals from 3-5pm at their Boar Lane showroom. The advert says that these recitals were attended by ‘the best-known people in Leeds,’ who were ‘anxious to hear all that is newest and most up-to-date,’ suggesting that Loyds was the place for the most fashionable people of Leeds to buy their gramophone records.
I also discovered that there are a number of helpful resources online which provide information on the records themselves. Some early record labels, such as Broadcast (1927-1934), were only active within a relatively small time frame, so this information was very useful when it came to dating the records. Others, such as the Gramophone Company’s ‘His Master’s Voice’ (HMV) brand, were around for much longer, so I was not able to use company trading dates to determine when these records were produced.
Fortunately, I found a very informative online guide which showed me how the colour and design on the label on these records could help to establish when they were released. The material used to make the record also provided some guidance, as many of the records in the social history collection are made from heavy shellac, which suggests that they were produced prior to the 1940s, when the lighter polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl, became the most common material for record production.
As smaller record labels were frequently bought out by dominant labels like HMV and Columbia, the number of independent record shops in Leeds also seemed to dwindle in the latter part of the twentieth century, replaced by larger chain stores such as Virgin Records. However, the record shop has never completely disappeared from Leeds. Shops like Jumbo Records, established in 1971, have survived the move from vinyl records, to tapes, to CDs, to digital downloads, and just this year they hosted Mary Anne Hobbs from BBC 6Music in store on Record Store Day.
The continuing popularity of record shops like Jumbo and Crash shows that, over a hundred years after Gramophone traders like Loyds first opened their doors, there is undoubtedly still a place for record shops in Leeds.
By Fran Sharp, placement student.
Find out more about the social history collection here.