A Look At Life: Browsing

13th May 2011

The Real Meaning Of Browsing

Jack Watkins

Turning to the obituary page of a national newspaper a couple of weeks ago, I was saddened to read of the death of Ray Smith, long-time owner of Ray’s Jazz Shop in Shaftesbury Avenue. It caused a twinge of nostalgia, for it was to his shop in the 1990s that I’d make trips around Christmas and birthday times to buy records for my father, a jazz fan with helpfully eclectic tastes. I dimly recall seeing Ray behind the counter, but what I chiefly remember is the shop layout, with doors on both sides – so you could enter via Shaftesbury Avenue at one end, and exit for Covent Garden at the other – and the racks and racks of vinyl and CDs. If you wanted to build up your own jazz library, this was the place to come, and my knowledge of the genre, already not bad thanks to my father’s championing, steadily increased.

Ray closed the shop in 2002, bowing to the steepling West End rents that have crippled so many of the small independent retailers in central London, and which have also resulted in many booksellers on nearby Charing Cross Road closing down in the last decade. Admittedly, by the early noughties, I was no longer a patron anyway. My father died, and I stopped listening to jazz – too many memories. But the obituary got me thinking about the pleasures of record shops – and their spiritual sisters, bookshops – and their gift to the art of browsing.

It seems to me lately that, one by one, little cultural markers are being wiped away or falling into long-term decline, due to new technology – allowing us access to so many things in often quicker and more convenient ways – and the remorseless expansion of multiple retailers. I’m trying to work out whether the fact that I’m noticing this more is just me ageing, and that it is something an older person inevitably has to go through (and therefore that I must snap out of it and readjust, just like a ‘young person’ does quite naturally as they try to embrace the world with an open, enterprising mind) or whether something truly lamentable is going on.

It’s fair to say, though, that the loss of music and bookshops is generating some real concern, because it is not even limited to smaller operators. If HMV is issuing profits warnings and off-loading Waterstones, then the market really must be in trouble. Amazon has taken a lot of the sales, but while you can hardly blame buyers for wanting to source as cheaply as possible via online outlets, there’s a danger of becoming a book or CD buying automaton. Enter a book or music shop and you peruse the stacks or shelves, even if you’ve entered with a clear idea of what you have gone in to buy. Your horizons are widened, and there’s always the serendipitous chance of alighting on something new, whether that’s because it is filed in ‘your’ section or because it simply catches your eye with its attractive cover. It’s tougher to sustain this argument with online music putchasing admittedly, where sampling is much easier, but I suspect that even there most people stick to their chosen genres.

There’s something so soullessly practical about buying online, while shop browsing truly can be an experience, and if the person behind the counter is an enthusiast, too, and surrounded by walls that are plastered with posters and notices advertising some club event, gig or reading, then the place functions like a social hub.

Currently, my CD buying is confined mainly to Soul and R&B, but I shuddered when I dropped into HMV in Oxford Street recently to see that, where once its Soul collection was impressively extensive, it’s been shifted to an out the way row at the far end of the hall. To get my true music-buying fix I make occasional pilgrimages to the excellent and friendly specialist record retailer Soul Brother in Putney.

Can it survive? Who knows, but these are worrying times those of us for whom the browsing experience is more than just something you do to access information on the web.

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