Written by Elizabeth Strasser-Nicol
As a teenager in the 90s, I frequently took the bus from Harlesden, to visit Camden’s record shops and nameless stalls, searching for escape through the sounds I’d never heard before. Overwhelmed by the crowded exteriors, the scent of spliff and incense and the sticky, beer-soaked streets, I would retreat to the safety of a record shop, bury my head in the bootlegs and disappear into a daydream.
Due to a tonne of music venues that have existed since the Old Bedford Hall, music in Camden is something you typically go out to experience. Spending a Saturday in a Camden record store is just another way to do that. A day-long social event. A place to meet people and make connections.
Market Hall, Camden Lock Place NW1 8AF
This tiny gem is easy to miss. Nonetheless, it’s a fantastic place for second-hand vinyl. Locals and tourists alike, excitedly flip through the bright orange header boards, looking for what they didn’t know they wanted. There’s mostly Rock and Pop as well as Rap, Hip Hop, New Jack Swing and a huge collection of Dance records from Deep House to Jungle and UK Garage. A record stall always reveals the love of its owner.
Founder Danny Haywood, a DJ himself, is constantly busy, standing on stalls, reaching for albums handed to him by his staff, to replace the ones just bought. He tells me it’s the Stables Record Fair today and there’s a real frantic buzz about the place. Someone looking to buy a slice of the 90s asks for Oasis then, ambitiously, a Beatles record. One of the albums cost £70. The buyer thinks twice. Danny directs him to another Camden record shop – Massive International, in the Middle Yard; a direction I am glad to have overheard, as I did about two laps of the market, prior and I still couldn’t find it.
33, Middle Yard NW1 8AF
The size of a record shop determines how much time you’re likely to spend there. Massive International is probably the biggest record shop in Camden. I was there about an hour and left before the person who came before me. Every corner is adorned with something eye-catching, whether it’s pictures of Bob Marley and Haile Selassie or the racks of Ska, Reggae and Dancehall. Then there’s the most amount of turntables I’ve ever seen in one shop, where you can listen to the LPs attached to the bamboo curtain on the walls.
It is a reggae palace. They sell everything other than music too – t-shirts, posters, ointments and rasta hats. There’s also an old-school television set showing Reggae Unplugged TV.
Out on the Floor Records
10, Inverness Street NW1 7HJ
A man rushes past me, leaving his patient wife outside holding his rucksack, like an abandoned mother. No ‘see you in a bit’ from him. It’s urgent. Inside, you can see why.
The bright turquoise walls are adorned with shelves of vinyl, preciously wrapped in shimmering plastic sleeve covers. The pockets with hand-painted band and record label logos, re-branded to look like retro fresh-produce adverts, are a colourful addition. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were at a Cuban food stall.
Buying and selling 12” and 7” records, the shop displays a broad range of music, from Fairport Convention to James Brown. Decorative pocket dividers direct you to band and genre, from 60s & 70s Rock to Soul/Funk, Hip Hop and House & Techno. They even sell their own dub collections – like the Out on the Floor special for £12.99 – due to owner Jake’s love of Reggae. There’s even a turntable – something I never used to see in this type of shop. Now, in every Camden record shop, you’ll find someone hogging the headphones.
Rock n’ Roll Soldiers
Unit D34, Horse Tunnel, Stables Market NW1 8HA
From colour to absolute blackness, the Rock n’ Roll Soldiers stall has no sign outside the cage-like entrance. It doesn’t need to. The theatrically positioned speakers, hanging from the ceiling, are an instant calling-card.
Selling LPs of mainly rock and metal, the owner had a change of passion from when he first started: ‘I stopped buying t-shirts and I started buying records. I brought half of my record collection to the stall.’ His stall has been moved around Camden Market 45 times. ‘Now I’m okay. The last one, I was in a basement and I was really struggling, so I asked to be moved.’
Why did he choose Camden for his record stall? ‘At the time there was lots of music stuff happening in Camden – Punk, Heavy Metal …’ As with Rock On Records, he accepts that he has to integrate his customer: ‘It’s not my thing but I know I have to have Abba [in the stall].’ Probably not buying Abba was Dave Grohl, who once stopped by for a browse and a chat!
No pictures allowed but one was taken a while ago, of the owner, which lies at the entrance. Where is he? ‘He died of Coronavirus,’ the woman currently manning the stall tells me. She’s in the photo too. They were friends. She is not the only person here who is experiencing loss.
Outside, in the Wild Horses record shop, I ask for the owner. His daughter, who is currently looking after the shop, tells me that he isn’t there and that she isn’t sure when he will return: ‘This is going to sound strange but… since Charlie Watts died, he hasn’t been back.’
Let It Roll
Let It Roll is clean, streamlined, cool but not too conventional, or gimmicky, with their own coffee brand picked for sale (Pepita Coffee) they’ve got an outside terrace and in-house DJ sets. In the downstairs room, where you can drink a rich coffee, there’s also a decent art exhibit of hand-picked artists.
In terms of records they’ve got plenty of Amy Winehouse tracks, so if you’re a fan, this is the place to go. More mainstream albums, as well as some rare finds. Prince, Fleetwood Mac, Mac Miller… if you can think of the band, you can probably buy it here. Kieran, the owner, knows what he’s talking about, so if you’re looking for a gem, you won’t have to go through hoards of records, he’ll be ready to sell it to you!
Rock and Roll Rescue
Rough, ready and ready to rock… The walls of Rock and Roll records are plastered with posters and cool f*cking electric guitars and handmade punk t-shirts. The money you spend on these beautys goes towards the local food bank, MIND mental health charity, people at the bottom of the welfare system, Crossroads Women’s refuge, and a load of other admirable causes. So you feel good about spending more on records than you planned to.
Like a record shop from ‘back in the day’, every surface is covered. It’s a small space but that doesn’t stop if being filled to the brim with potential gold dust, with lots of gems hidden within the stacks of records.
If you want cheap CD players or are a retro head, then you can find some bargains here. They also sell some decent kit, so you can search for a second hand amp if you’re in the market for one.
It’s right next to the Dublin Castle and is run by the same people, so you know you’re getting a friendly welcome.
Rock On Records
Rock on Records is now an online affair, but was once a Camden record shop. Selling everything from Country to Soul, it first opened its doors to Camden’s record hunters in 1975.
Rock on Records founder Ted Carroll and label co-owner Roger Armstrong:
Roger: It was amazing. I would go over there late morning on a Saturday with no plans, and you’d end up somewhere in the early hours of the next morning.
Ted: It drew interesting people. Our regular customers included virtually all the punk bands, Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan came in one day, Lenny K – all sorts. It was a real meeting place.
Camden’s record shop owners are clearly very passionate about what they do. That dedication hasn’t changed, nor has the dedication of their customers. A day out at Camden’s record shops is still an exciting experience. Make sure you pop along. You never know which rare gem you might find!