July 17th 1975

“Didn’t go to college – returned LPs to Virgin & got 6.89 credit” / “Disco – Got off with Lorna. Dedicated make me smile to Lorna + got virginia plain dedicated to me”

Virgin Records was the new major dealer in Southampton to satisfy my vinyl needs.

I wrote briefly before about how Richard Branson’s retail chain got its leg up to the High Streets of Britain (and later, the world), but its founding deserves further reportage.

Virgin Records & Tapes’ first opened in London’s Notting Hill Gate, run by Branson and his first business partner Nik Powell. Their first official store however was at the Tottenham Court Road end of London’s busy Oxford Street, initially above (I believe) a shoe shop. A while later they took over the ground floor. Here, and unlike most other record stores in 1971, the vibe was decidedly ‘laid back’, customers often crashing on the floor listening to albums and smoking substances both legal and illegal.

The first Virgin Records store in Notting Hill Gate

Branson decided to grow the chain after Post Office strikes threatened to take away his (primary) livelihood gained via the mail order business. He opened other stores in and handful towns and cities across the country. Few of them were in prime locations, Branson preferring to drive traffic to the stores rather than enjoy natural public footfall.

The response from the record buying public was pretty instant, the stores offering a breath of fresh air to people who had grown tired of the more staid HMV shops, places like Woolworths and the lack of choice in many independents. Virgin also specialised in imports, both cut-price (known as ‘cut-outs’) from America and titles which were not officially available in the UK.

Branson was also quick to take advantage of the removal of government-controlled ‘retail price maintenance’ which had kept the price of records and tapes artificially high since the sixties, discounting popular titles to create turnover whilst making most of his money from the stores’ depth of catalogue titles. It would be a record business model which many others – chains and independents alike – would emulate in succesive decades.

The Southampton Virgin store opened in what was a very much “off the beaten track” location at 16 Bargate Street, at one end of the town’s pedestrian precinct and hidden round an almost blind corner from that precinct. To make matters ‘worse’, it was situated across two floors linked by a very inhospitable and closed-in staircase.  The ground floor was given over exclusively to albums, whilst the much smaller upstairs was the singles/tapes/posters/accessories department. It was very narrow, the space between the racks little more than 7 or 8 feet. Indeed, the two floors combined probably totalled no more than maybe 1000 sq feet, a far cry from Branson’s later retail ventures.

I fell in love with its choice of albums almost immediately, attracted too by the fact that my old friend/adversary Neville (remember him?) had nabbed a part-time cashier’s job there and was able to pass on his generous staff discount of 20%. It was like red rag to a bull and I quickly went on a vinyl buying frenzy.

This store would eventually form an integral part of my post-college career – more on that later – and once again Neville would be involved in a way that was positive for me but unfortunate for him.

Today in 1975 it seems as if I had returned some unwanted – maybe faulty? – albums and received a credit note. (Virgin was once notorious for not wanting to give cash refunds to anyone, Branson’s policy was that once the money was in the business, it should somehow stay there)

I thought I would have a good picture or two of how the Southampton Virgin store looked in 1975, but research of my photo albums drew a blank… well, other than one of me stood outside it a few years later which I’d prefer to save for a future post.

Thanks to the ever-reliable Google “street view” application I can present a current-day pic of where the Virgin store was located. It looks very salbrious these days, despite being mere yards from two of Southampton’s main tourist attractions – the old walls and the West Quay shopping centre. The presence of all those steel shutters – the shop windows hidden behind them – certainly make the locale seem less than appealing.

In other news, it seems I got “lucky” at tonight’s disco, getting off with Lorna, with whom I subsequently enjoyed a short term fling. We were sorely mismatched and split up after just a few weeks. Her parents owned a fish & chip shop but I swear that wasn’t the main attraction.

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