Cosmopolitan Corner
August 27, 2011 2:58 AM   Subscribe

A look inside HMV's flagship store on London's Oxford Street. 1960s. 1970s. After a troubled year for the record chain, here's how the same building looks today.
posted by mippy (42 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
For those unfamiliar - the Oxford Street store was the biggest music store in London - even larger than Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. When I came to visit London from a small, HMV-less town - back when online shopping didn't really exist - it would be my first stop in the capital so I could look for Hefner CDs. I still remember the excitement of taking the huge escalator up to floors of riches.

I last went there a year ago, not long before it closed. I rarely go to retail stores now - I work a couple of tube stops away from Oxford Street, and it still blows my mind that I can hop over to Actual London at lunchtime, but the crowds drive me insane - and I was in there to pick up some DVDs to send to my mother. I couldn't believe how cheap DVDs seemed to be than in the days when I would save up money for a special trip down there. But part of me still found being in a huge store with millions of songs and films and, well, ideas, very exciting. I miss that.
posted by mippy at 3:01 AM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not really surprising - we have a huge HMV downtown, and you can smell the desperation over the shrink-wrap there. I can't say I feel much sympathy for them, but how many places can survive going from being on the front edge of popular culture to being antique stores in less than 5 years?
posted by mhoye at 3:07 AM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

There have been two big HMV stores on Oxford Street for a while. They have closed the one at 360 Oxford Street (the smaller of the two), but the huge other one at 150 Oxford Street is still there.
posted by memebake at 3:09 AM on August 27, 2011

Groovy baby!
posted by PenDevil at 3:11 AM on August 27, 2011

There's one of those cultural divides that I hadn't even noticed before, here - for me the mecca of stuff (and I thought the largest music store in town) was the Virgin Megastore at the top of Oxford Street by Centre Point. I did most of my Christmas shopping there for a very long time, and now... I suppose people must go without presents.

Oddly, yes, I find the ability to hold the CD in my hand a much more reliable indicator of whether I want it than the ability to actually listen to bits of it, but that must be because I'm old - when I was buying a lot of stuff shopping for records was mostly optimism and imagination, and trying to work out what a record might sound like. I heard a lot more cool stuff that way. These days I only seem to find more of what I've already know got.

Of course, the Megastore and Tower Records went through their Zavvi periods, which was the the same thing for music stores that having lots of tubes plugged into you and nurses standing around talking in hushed whispers is for patients: A last chance to say goodbye, but not life, as such.
posted by Grangousier at 3:12 AM on August 27, 2011

memebake - you're quite right - the one this post is about though is the one that used to be here then moved across the road and closed down to eventually become Forever 21. It was listed as the 'flagship' in all the articles about it, so I presumed it was bigger than the one near the bottom end.
posted by mippy at 3:14 AM on August 27, 2011

I don't remember Tower turning into Zavvi - I moved to London in 2005, but for a job that kept me out of the city centre, especially at weekends. It's now The Sting, a Dutch clothing company, which seems odd for such an iconic building (it used to be the grand Swan and Edgar department store).

I've never been in Forever 21 - it's American Primark, right?
posted by mippy at 3:16 AM on August 27, 2011

mhoye - the amount of profit they've been making recently is shocking. But then, it happened to Woolworths.
posted by mippy at 3:18 AM on August 27, 2011

The amusing thing for me is that I'm reading nostalgic stories of first-time "flagship store" music customers dealing with "purchasing CD's."

(I myself still have fond memories of first visiting the sprawling Tower Records on Sunset in the mid 80's, or even the multi-storey outlet in Manhattan, though CD's were a mere curiosity at the time)

Not that it's news, but attention music buyers: whatever your earliest memories of buying music are, they are now (or will be within 5 years) obsolete.
posted by ShutterBun at 3:22 AM on August 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Meanwhile The Gramophone Emporium is somehow still going strong selling those old 78s.
posted by Lanark at 3:44 AM on August 27, 2011

I'm guessing there is some kind of math and/or marketing calculation to quantify the difference between "going strong" and "somehow still in business." (though I'm completely willing to be surprised by reports that they have dozens of customers per week who average $100 in purchases, as opposed to selling a single rarity each quarter, along with a handful of "Edison by the kilo" purchases to keep the place afloat.)
posted by ShutterBun at 3:53 AM on August 27, 2011

And yet, here in Paris the large record stores (FNAC, Gibert Jeune) seem pretty much full of people buying music, and new independent bookstores are going strong. What's up with that?
posted by Omon Ra at 3:56 AM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not that it's news, but attention music buyers: whatever your earliest memories of buying music are, they are now (or will be within 5 years) obsolete.

You're not gonna take my wax cylinders away from me, you whippersnapper! They told me 78s were the future, but I swear by the ol' waxies, as I call 'em! You just couldn't get sound like that out of a piece of shellac! And these "downlobes" the kids are doin' these days? Harrumph and pshaw, I say! Someday they'll go back to wax, mark my words!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:07 AM on August 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ah, the 1970s - when you could go out to watch a movie and choose on the night from ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and BARRY LYNDON.

Oh, and CLOCKWORK NYMPHO, obviously.
posted by Prince Lazy I at 4:11 AM on August 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mippy, if it's Hefner records you want (or indeed anything vaguely independent) you should be heading down to Sister Ray records (formerly Selectadisc) on Berwick st for all your indie music needs. They need, and deserve, your custom more then HMV.
posted by ciderwoman at 4:16 AM on August 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I used to go to HMV and the independent stores on Berwick Street loads about 15 years ago, and it was fun flipping through the racks looking for things. But before I get too nostalgic, its worth reminding myself that a lot of the albums I bought in that era turned out to be rubbish. The old "hear one song on the radio then buy the album for £12 without hearing any of it" model just encouraged lazy albums with two singles and a bunch of filler tracks.

Whereas now I can get crowdsourced ratings and reviews, preview individual tracks, and then buy the thing without leaving the place I'm sitting. The problem for me nowdays is not buying albums that turn out to be rubbish, its downloading albums and then forgetting to ever go back and listen to them.

Business (we are often told) is all about adapting to new opportunities and taking risks and all that stuff. The old music retail business failed to do that and basically let Amazon and Apple take over. It was obvious for years and years that large-store-large-inventory wasn't going to be able to compete. They wont get any sad goodbyes from me. I still try and go to Selectadisc now and then though.
posted by memebake at 4:26 AM on August 27, 2011

ciderwoman - at sixteen I was frightened of Soho. I thought it was all sex shops and people stalking the streets for recruits into gangs of teenage flaneurs.
posted by mippy at 4:33 AM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Mippy - it was. That's what was great about it.
posted by ciderwoman at 4:35 AM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


I can never see the name of this store without saying "Oh, Primark!" in a Tommy Wiseau voice.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:36 AM on August 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

What's a CD?
posted by Fizz at 4:38 AM on August 27, 2011

And these "downlobes" the kids are doin' these days?

That's how Ferengi get their music.

Thank you, I'll be here all geek.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:56 AM on August 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I, too, remember the good ol' days.
Going to the whale blubber shoppe up the road, filling my dodo skin satchel full of rendered whale fat. Going home and filling up all the lamps. Oh! That warm glow they emanated. These new electric lights just aren't the same. Not the same at all.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 5:17 AM on August 27, 2011

Brick and mortar music is going the way of brick and mortar books.
posted by Renoroc at 7:39 AM on August 27, 2011

As a 16 & 17 year-old from Dorset, HMV on Oxford Street was a treasure trove and I would spend hours in there buying whatever records and t-shirts I could afford. As I got older I would still pop in but spent more time in places like Selectadisc (famously visible on the left of the cover of Oasis' second album) and its ilk. Now, I haven't bought a CD in 5 years.

Truth be told Oxford Street is (and for the last 25 years always has been) a horrible place.
posted by jontyjago at 7:55 AM on August 27, 2011

The thing that strikes me about the 60s photo is how much of the shop seems to be taken up with record players and, essentially, furniture. I was surprised by how much of HMV here in Dublin is now devoted to iPods and games consoles and t-shirts (and, massively, DVDs), because it seemed like some desperate last gasp, but it's interesting to see there was plenty of emphasis on non-record stuff even when the format was thriving.

As a 16 & 17 year-old from Dorset, HMV on Oxford Street was a treasure trove and I would spend hours in there buying whatever records and t-shirts I could afford. As I got older I would still pop in but spent more time in places like Selectadisc (famously visible on the left of the cover of Oasis' second album) and its ilk. Now, I haven't bought a CD in 5 years.

Huh, I spent hours on Berwick Street when I was a teenager visiting London and never copped that that was where the photo was (famously!) taken.
posted by carbide at 8:38 AM on August 27, 2011

Yeah, those 60s photos really take me back. I am just old enough to remember that era, when my local record store had listening booths. There was another store just upstairs where they sold sheet music. I still remember buying my first record, and having to decide whether to spend extra for stereo. I cheaped out and bought the mono version, I didn't have a stereo. Today, the record store is long gone, but the sheet music store is still there.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:45 AM on August 27, 2011

People are waiting in line for Forever 21?
posted by bongo_x at 10:20 AM on August 27, 2011

Omon Ra, I can't speak to the music buyers, but the reason bookshops in France do better than bookshops in some other countries - like the UK and USA - is because there is a fixed book price law, which means that in France, online suppliers like Amazon can't undercut bricks and mortar stores.
posted by featherboa at 10:22 AM on August 27, 2011

The HMV store on Yonge St. in Toronto used to be a similar landmark. Here's a good oral history.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:50 AM on August 27, 2011

bongo_x : People are waiting in line for Forever 21?

There's been a pretty huge advertising campaign around it, featuring the fascinatingly airheaded Bip Ling.
posted by Drexen at 10:52 AM on August 27, 2011

Weird. I don’t know what a Bip Ling is, but I thought Forever 21 was just one of those generic mall stores that struggles to get people in, not something people line up for. Then again, I’m a middle aged man, not the target audience, and only make it to a mall once a year or so.
posted by bongo_x at 11:12 AM on August 27, 2011

Thanks for posting that oral history of 333, Card Cheat! That store was a mecca in its day, and I've been sad to see half the space taken over by a low market clothing store.
posted by yellowbinder at 11:28 AM on August 27, 2011

Sam the Record Man in Toronto was more of a landmark, no?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 11:33 AM on August 27, 2011

West end record shopping was my escape at the end of the century. Sister Ray, Selectadisc and Rough Trade were the heavy hitters of the indie record shops round there. Spent far too much money in them. Ambient Soho, Atlas, and Sounds of the Universe, were my favourites though. Cultivated, friendly,vibrant, essential. The don was Fat Cat, an awesome place to hang out and absorb electronic culture, but they had landlord troubles, and are now an awesome label instead. There were many others I did not know as well. I have no idea if they survive, I fear to look.

HMV and Virgin I will not miss.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 12:16 PM on August 27, 2011

Yeah Sam the Record Man seemed like more of a landmark. I get a little homesick anytime I rewatch Half Baked and the big spinning records are visible in the background when he kills the police horse.
posted by mannequito at 12:24 PM on August 27, 2011

With the signs and all Sam's was definitely a bit more of a landmark, but that HMV had different vibe. Don't get me wrong, any trip to that corner would necessitate stopping in both stores (and sometimes the Sunrise across the street, which is still somehow holding on while giants crumble), but as a teen in the late 90s I preferred that HMV.
posted by yellowbinder at 12:34 PM on August 27, 2011

The cool kids like me always used to go to Selectadisc and Sister Ray in Berwick Street. HMV? Virgin? Tower? What - didn't they have your Pearl Jam CD in Woolworths? *Sneer*.

posted by Decani at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2011

Oh. I see Selectadisc and Sister Ray have been mentioned a few times. Oh God, I'm so behind the curve.
posted by Decani at 5:27 PM on August 27, 2011

In terms of size, the Virgin by Tottenham Court Road station was the biggest record store following the refit when they took over the space used by the Sportsman casino, having earlier also taken over the area used by the Cannon cinema in the basement. Earlier in its history the building was a Lyons tea house and a music hall. I still remember my first visits there, when Virgin occupied only the ground floor of the main building and you had to leave your bags at the security desk at the front entrance before you were allowed to go in.

Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus I used to go to mainly for the magazines as they'd ship in often quite small circulation titles from the USA that you would never see anywhere else in London. I think the place was bigger than the Bond St HMV though not the later 150 Oxford St branch. The latter was built as a theatre, before becoming a strange themed shopping mall called Oxford Walk done up in faux Victoriana.
posted by kerplunk at 4:45 AM on August 28, 2011

Forever 21 was really heavily hyped before the first London store opened. I don't have a teenager's figure, budget or fashion taste so I've never been in, but it seems to have been an 'event'.

What is the Virgin now? I remember the magazines at Tower too.
posted by mippy at 2:05 AM on August 29, 2011

The site of the Virgin Megastore is part of a massive new property development covering 14-30 Oxford St and 2-3 Tottenham Court Road with only the original frontage of some of the buildings remaining. Apparently Primark will be the new tenants.

Also it turns out that HMV's 150 Oxford St store isn't in the shell of the old Princess Theatre. That was demolished to make way for a Woolworths before becoming the tourist mall and then HMV.
posted by kerplunk at 2:42 AM on August 29, 2011

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