Starting with a copy of Let’s Twist Again by Chubby Checker in 1967, Rob Smith has been buying and selling records in Nottingham for four decades. His chaotic institution Rob's Record Mart is still going strong on Hurt’s Yard, remaining pleasingly resilient to today’s internet-driven music era. Rob also manages a parallel career as a well-known DJ on the Northern Soul scene, putting even the hardiest of ravers to shame with a hectic travel schedule that takes in all-nighter venues nationwide. After welcoming me with his habitually good-humoured “Oh, my dear sir!” greeting, Rob closed up for the day and kindly agreed to reveal some local vinyl-retail history to us…
What initially drove you to buy vinyl and soul music in particular?
I started collecting chart singles from the early sixties, going to second hand record shops and junk shops around Nottingham. I had a paper round at the time. My first craze was rock’n’roll. I started to hang out at Beeston Youth Centre, where I’m DJing this Friday by a strange coincidence! Although these rockers were congregating down there, the music playing was ‘60s club soul. Around the same time, I started working in the Co-Op across the road (Upper Parliament Street) on the record bar in the basement. It’s closed now and about to be knocked down, but my first job was running the record bar in the late sixties and early seventies. The soul thing was quite trendy, so I had a lot of it in the Co-Op, that combined with the Beeston Youth Centre and one or two other local clubs, got me into the soul thing.
From the Co-Op, you then went to Selectadisc?
Yes. I was at the Co-Op until 1975. Then they offered me a job at Selectadisc. I’d been offered work there three or four years before, but didn’t take it then. Who knows what might have happened if I had done? It might be a whole different outlook. But I took a job in the singles department, when it was on Bridlesmith Gate.
You were later made redundant during lean times and decided to take a break from records. How did you get back into the industry?
A friend of mine (Northern Soul DJ and entrepreneur Kev Roberts) opened an office on Regent Street, supplying, wholesaling and retailing Northern Soul imports. He approached me in December 1977 and asked if I’d run the place for him. A year after that, he and a guy called Les McCutcheon pooled resources and decided to open a shop. It was the shop we’re in now. Kev pulled his staff in, myself and Jonathan Woodliff (later of Arcade Records and a renowned local DJ and collector in his own right), a secretary and two or three staff Les already had down south. One Saturday afternoon in July 1979, we all sat around a great big long table in this room, having egg and chips from the legendary Granary Café on the corner and had a meeting. The idea was that the upstairs would be a large wholesale department and office and downstairs would be the retail shop. It opened in September 1979. It was a great theory, but unfortunately at that time the Northern Soul wholesale thing had dropped off somewhat. Downstairs was a bit sparse. They were selling jazz-funk and Northern Soul and it was nicely laid-out, but there wasn’t much stock.
You then worked for Arcade Records’ short-lived second hand department, before returning to Hurt’s Yard.
Kev and Les asked me if I wanted to come in and sell records on a commission basis and it was fairly successful. The main brainchild was to start selling pop oldies.
They later offered you the lease. What year was that?
1980. I was lucky, because I got a chance to test the water for a bit, which is quite unique. They had these video game machines in at the time, which pulled in a fair bit of money and paid towards the rent. Now we’re in our 26th year.
What was the stock like in the beginning?
It was very modest in those days. I had about four crates of Northern Soul and probably five or six crates of pop oldies. Then we got a few albums in and that grew. Eventually we filled the place up with LPs!
A lot of people think records are harder to come by nowadays. Do you see the seventies or eighties as golden eras for finding stuff?
I don’t think things have changed too much. Prices have gone up somewhat, but they’ve probably stayed on the same level when you take inflation into account. Obviously some records were flavour of the month in the eighties and don’t go for much now and vice-versa.
Has the shop always been chaotic like it is now? Or maybe it isn’t really chaos? Is there a system only you know about?
Well. It’s difficult…we’ve over-stocked, really. But if someone brings stuff in, you’ve got to buy it. They don’t usually want to split them up.
Are you one of those people who finds it impossible to throw anything away?
I am. It’s a bit of a mistake really, it can get you into trouble.
Would you say that you still love the job?
Oh yes. It’s a business, but I love it.
Do you own a computer?
So do you feel you’re missing out with eBay and so on?
I’m not computer-minded and as long as I still keep taking some money, I don’t mind. The internet can’t do us any favours in the long run. But people still like to come to shops and look around, which is the good side. Some days there’s nobody about and you think “how long can we go on like this?” but usually a day or two later it’s rocking again!