THE GRAMOPHONE EMPORIUM By Rachel Cowan
12 St Stephen St.
|The speciality at No 12 is classical, operatic and Orchestral 78 rpm records. We have a huge stock of rare and original recordings of the greatest singers from the late nineteenth and early years of the twentieth century.
The Gramophone Emporium at 21 St. Stephen Street in Edinburgh is a place out of time. Its window crammed with gramophone parts. Until now it has had no phone line, and no website and despite being in a trendy boho part of town, no passing custom.
But it does have customers: collectors of vintage wax and vinyl who know of the shop's existence by word of mouth. Although some jealously guard the secret of where they get their records, collectors come from as far apart as Germany and the United States.
The customers are virtually all male, some young but mostly older and much older. Their interests range from 1902 Caruso recordings (single sided discs) through Fats Waller in 1924 (the sound as live and immediate as if you were leaning on Fats' piano) to esoteric Gaelic songs that could have been recorded in a croft somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.
The shop began its life at 21 St Stephen Street in the mid-70s. Part of the street was threatened with demolition and rents plummeted. Because the area is very central, people took advantage of these cheap rents; low-budget businesses moved in along with a whole community of 'hippies'. Many of those small businesses remain to this day; further along the street from the gramophone shop, for example, are an antique shop and an establishment selling only gas mantles and oil lamp parts.
Nowadays, it's likely that The Gramophone Emporium is the only shop of its kind left in the whole of the U.K. It gained sufficient fame in the 1980s to have a whole radio feature devoted to it on Radio Scotland, the radio crew and presenter filling the shop.
After squeezing through the front door, with its tinkling brass bell, there's a front room which doubles as an assault course for the unwary. The machines on which to play the treasures of the 78 disc are everywhere: reconditioned wind-ups, stately table tops and furniture-sized models. The walls are lined with shelf upon shelf of discs, loosely (very loosely) categorized. At floor and ceiling level are collections of 33rpm vinyl, looking almost uncomfortable in such riches of an earlier recording age. Boxes full of records that have 'just come in' lie randomly about and, as customers plunder them, stray discs spill out and some are crushed underfoot in the limited floor space.
There's Victorian sheet music and piles of vintage music magazines. If you have a portable wind-up gramophone (imagine a 1920s picnic with strawberries and cream by the river), there's a cavity into which you can stuff some material to muffle the sound, the origin of the expression 'put a sock in it'! Otherwise, you can purchase packs of gramophone needles in soft, medium or loud tone. Each needle is used only once and of course, each record requires cranking the gramophone handle about twenty turns.
A disc-lined alley leads to the 'back room' which doubles as an unofficial club. This was presided over by Alec and Bob, who held court among their ordered shelves of classical 78s. You'd like an example of a Russian bass from 1920? No problem, Bob knew just the one. And while it was playing, how about a cup of tea (laced with a wee dram if you'd like!) and a biscuit? Alec and Bob had known each other for years (neither were in their green and salad years) and there was always a steady flow of banter between them. When I asked these gents about their background, I was told that Bob was a retired art teacher and an expert on the recordings of the Irish tenor, John McCormack. Alec described himself, with the customary twinkle in his eye, as 'a man of the world'.
In the corner of this inner sanctum, there's often a customer hunkered down with a heavy pile of records on his knee: sifting and searching for that one dreamt-of treasure. A lot of the stock costs between £1 and £3, so it's an affordable hobby. There are rarer discs, but it's mostly dealers who handle those sales. The internet has invigorated the market, and four figure sums for one disc are not uncommon.
The shop stock is sourced mainly from house clearances and also people who come in with their deceased relatives' boxes of records. N. (the manager) remembers one case where they participated in the clearing of a house belonging to a Scots-Italian violinist who had grown increasingly reclusive in his final years. When he died, the rooms of the house were knee deep in his collections and among those were about 5,000 78s. His taste was eclectic, and there was everything from opera to jazz.
How did I find this place? Well, I live just along the street and one day the door was open.…
They only open two and a half days a week, so I was lucky. I seem to have become a kind of mascot; lady collectors are rare birds indeed. N. (who, in his other life, teaches the Gaelic and also the mouth-organ…or in Scots 'the moothie'), puts aside discs he thinks I might like. He's getting the idea that 1920s Cuban tangos, American dancebands, jazz pianists and Italian tenors are my kind of thing.
I'm learning so much. Did you know, for example, that the famous His Masters Voice label (with dog) issued all their records during WWI and WWII with a white label out of respect for the war? Or that the plainer the label on an early Russian 78, the closer it is to the Holy Grail of 78s? Or that not all 78s are equal - some were actually recorded at 80rpm, others at 76rpm, and for that reason wind-up gramophones have an adjustable slide.
In short, it's the kind of place which I didn't think existed any more, anywhere. But here it is, thriving, in the heart of a busy city. A quiet delight. So twice a week, you'll find me propping up a wall in the Gramophone Emporium.
(In late 2009, Bill Breslin the owner decided it was time to expand and give more prominence to the classical and operatic side of the business. As a result, all the stock from the back room was loaded into boxes and moved directly across the street to its new home at number 12. The new premises also meant that thousands more classical and operatic vocal records; including a large collection of russian records could now be put on display),.
Editorial note: Inquiries about recordings should be sent through the website or by mail to either of the following address:
The Gramophone Emporium
12 or 21 St Stephen Street