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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 July 2007, 01:51 GMT 02:51 UK
Music retailer fights CD downturn
By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

It used to be the loading bay of a brewery in London's East End. But by the time you read this, it should have been transformed into the UK's newest and bravest - or some might say, most foolhardy - record shop.

Exterior of Rough Trade East, Dray Walk, London, 17 July 2007
Giant album covers hide the building work going on inside

At a time when CD price wars and music downloads are putting entire High Street chains at risk, independent retailers Rough Trade are opening what they say is the country's biggest music-only specialist store.

If all goes according to plan, the 5,000 sq-ft Rough Trade East on Dray Walk, just off Brick Lane, will start trading on Friday, 20 July.

But just a few days before the scheduled opening, the only sight to quicken the pulse of music fans is the giant album covers that block out the shopfront, keeping prying eyes at bay.

Inside, actual records are nowhere to be seen, as construction workers run around trying to make an impression on a cavernous space that still betrays its industrial origins.

Stephen Godfroy, director of Rough Trade Retail, is unfazed by the disarray. "We'll definitely be opening on Friday," he says. "I'm not sure what time on Friday, but we'll be open."

Punk past

The new store represents a huge leap of faith for a company that forged its reputation in the white heat of the punk years.

Builder works on interior of Rough Trade East, 17 July 2007
Builders are striving to meet their Friday deadline

The first Rough Trade shop opened in Notting Hill, west London, in 1976, and soon became known as one of the best places to find new wave music and fanzines.

A record label of the same name followed, but the two businesses went their separate ways in 1982 and are now run independently of each other.

Mr Godfroy was just three years old when the Rough Trade saga began, and has nothing in common with the "hippie co-operative" image that has always plagued the firm in the music business.

Despite the company's niche reputation, he feels it can fulfil what he sees as the "enormous demand" for a shop that offers expertise and can recommend music with authority - and he doesn't think downloads are killing the CD.

"With this store, we feel there's a dormant music shopper out there who's not buying music from the High Street simply because they don't like High Street retailers, not because they've gone off physical formats," he says.

Stephen Godfroy, director of Rough Trade Retail
We look forward to kicking people out at the end of the day
Stephen Godfroy, Rough Trade Retail

"If anything, the people I talk to appreciate vinyl and CDs more than ever in this digital age. It's just that they've gone off the way it's sold.

"The High Street has, unfortunately, commoditised music. When you walk into a High Street record, or entertainment, store, it's about three-for-two and the price message is what hits you.

"And if you're interested in music, it's quite a demeaning, quite demoralising message to hit you."

'Personal retail'

Halfway across London, Rough Trade's second store, which opened 20 years ago in Covent Garden, is closing to make way for the new East End venture.

Staff are to be transferred from the old to the new premises.

They are uncertain about when the Covent Garden shop, in a cramped and dimly-lit basement beneath a skateboarders' shop, will shut down. But they seem to welcome the prospect of moving to a bigger place.

"We've always been tucked away in here," says one. "And the rents have gone up hugely. There are empty shops now in Covent Garden for the first time in five years."

Interior of Rough Trade, Covent Garden
Rough Trade's Covent Garden shop is having a closing-down sale

He leafs through a copy of that day's Independent newspaper and finds yet another article about the death of the record shop.

"It's part of wider changes in the whole music industry," he says. "We used to have hundreds of record company reps pestering us. Now there's only 20 or 30 in the whole of London."

A customer comes in and asks if Rough Trade's mail-order service will deliver to Colombia, where he now lives.

"We deliver pretty much everywhere," is the response, and an amiable chat ensues about the quality of record shops in Colombia.

Back in the East End, Mr Godfroy is impressed to hear about the exchange.

"That's an interesting thing because it's not just what you talk about, it's what you overhear, and I think that's an unreported delight in physical retail," he says. "That's what makes shopping in a store like this very special - it's personal retail."

Counter culture

Rough Trade East is 10 times the size of the store it is replacing, and Mr Godfroy knows his more purist customers will be quick to seize on any sign that the firm has lost its integrity.

But the solution, as he puts it, is about maintaining what he calls the "counter culture" in the new, larger environment.

Chimney of the old Truman brewery in Brick Lane
Rough Trade East is on part of the old Truman brewery site

"Rough Trade Retail is all about the counter, the relationship we have with customers over the counter and the way customers then relate to us," he says.

"Customers recommend to us as much as we recommend to them and it's that symbiotic relationship that we have over the counter where they're not merely paypoints.

"You actually come up and you have a chat and you actually get to know the name of your customer and they get to know the name of the staff and there's that familiarity and there's that relationship built up."

To that end, the new store will feature two long counters, across which Mr Godfroy hopes this kind of social interaction will take place.

Other features will include a state-of-the-art sound system, free wi-fi, a "snug" and a stage for bands to play live, as well as late opening hours and activities such as Saturday-morning badge-making workshops.

"We look forward to kicking people out at the end of the day," he says. "That's what it's all about. If you've got a passion for music, you want somewhere to display that and feel comfortable.

"In terms of a retail environment, it's offering the joy of browsing back to many people, where you want to go into a store and you can see yourself losing track of time, and that's a joy that has been lost on the High Street."

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