“Life is one long improvisation, really isn’t it? Conversation. We never stop for long enough to realise that we’re winging it all the time. Some people might find that thought a bit scary. But I like that.”
David Sternberg is sitting in the cafe four doors from The Little Record Shop, which opened for business just 18 months ago. Between glugs of mineral water, it occurs to him that there are certain unavoidable parallels between his old job and the current one. In the early 80s, he followed in the footsteps of Alison Steadman, Phil Cornwell and Stephen Daldry when he secured a place at the prestigious E15 Acting School, an apprenticeship which helped bag him parts in British films such as Notting Hill and The Ballad Of Kid Divine. “Improv was really the thing I loved at E15 — it was fantastic for that — and that’s why the jobs I did best at had that element of improv to them. But with scripts, I’m a bit, like, ‘Did I get that right? What was the intent?’”
You don’t need to spend too long with David to see that he thrives on a certain amount of nervous energy. The thrill of the chase — often for a record you didn’t know you were after — is what frequently makes record collectors swap daylight for afternoons scouring the racks of shops such as his one. In this regard, the people who run second-hand record shops are no different to those who frequent them.
This morning is a case in point. He’s a little late for our rendezvous because he had to wait in for a caller who had some records to sell. David reaches into a carrier bag to show me the result of that encounter: a live White Stripes album which tends to go for anything between £100 and £250, a record on RCA’s sought-after prog/folk Neon imprint called Shape of the Rain by Riley, Riley, Wood and Waggett, which usually sells for around £120 and, finally, the less sought-after 1973 British blues album by John Dummer’s Oobleedooblee Band, Oobleedooblee Jamboree.
He’ll definitely sell the latter two, but the White Stripes album leaves him conflicted. “I do collect The White Stripes, so that might go back home with me.”
That David’s been quick to establish a regular clientele has a lot to do with the way he runs his shop. Born and raised in Golders Green (the long-gone Tape Revolution was his local record outlet), he’s had a lot of time to think about what sort of shop he would like to run, and it shows. The “closed” sign on the door, is the sleeve of Joy Division’s Closer, but with the ‘r’ replaced for a ‘d’. Like the shops run by his friends Alan in East Finchley and Derek in Palmers Green, he won’t sell records on eBay or Discogs, because “that’s not fair on the customers who make the effort to come here in person, hoping to find something they’ve been after for years.” He’s big on the ‘Cheers’ factor – a place where everyone knows your name – so if you’re opening his door for the first time, you can expect to be asked your name and introduced to other customers within minutes. Common interests are teased out. Tips exchanged.
On my first visit to The Little Record Shop, at the beginning of 2015, I got talking to Ryan, a young history teacher who had come straight from the nearby secondary girls school where he teaches. Ryan had a particularly stressful week. There was a cluster of girls who had made it their mission to get under his skin and undermine his attempts to teach the rest of the class. “They have problems at home. We have to manage the effects of that – and on top of that, we have to try and get them through their exams.” Ryan explained that no punch is too low when it comes to discombobulating a young secondary school teacher. “They say, ‘Sir, how do you feel about losing your hair?’; one went to the headteacher and accused me of flirting with her. As if. *As if.* She took it back, but my God, you think, ‘What did I sign up for?’ On the day I saw Ryan, he had taken one of the ringleaders out into the corridor after she launched into a tirade against his style of teaching. “She expected me to send her to the headteacher, but I just said, ‘Why are you so angry all the time?’ It caught her totally off guard. I think it might have been the first time anyone had even asked her that question.”
As Ryan spoke, his fingers kept rifling through the racks, occasionally stopping to pull out something with a view to giving it a spin. He would also pull out obscure gems he already owned and show them to me, because like almost every collector I know, it wasn’t enough that he had these records; he wanted to ensure loving homes for all the other copies. That afternoon, Ryan played me two songs I had never heard before: the electrifying yearning funk of Chairmen of the Board’s Hanging On to a Memory and the Quicksilver Messenger Company’s environmental crie de coeur What About Me — a sizzling, syncopated gem from a band who I had totally dismissed prior to this point.
To the exasperation of some customers, The Little Record Shop’s browsers have resisted alphabetisation and genre categorisation. For the eclectic music fan, open to serendipity, that’s not so much of a problem. You just get stuck in and hold out for what fortune yields. On another visit, about a year ago, I alighted upon Sinful Skinful, the crazily rare 1973 album by Fickle Pickle – a London based 10cc-style agglomeration of producers and session men, The Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 2 and Incense – a magnificently atmospheric early Jimmy Miller production by The Anglos, released here on Chris Blackwell’s Brit imprint. I settled up for these, but had a bit of time left, so I carried on sifting through the racks.
Lately I’ve been getting disproportionately excited if I see a record from the mid-90s-to-mid-noughties — the period when vinyl appeared to be in its death throes. Sometimes the novelty of having something from this era outweighs the quality of the music on it, but I proceed pretty much on a case-by-case basis. On this occasion, I found a box that had quite a lot of 90s and early 00s vinyl, including U2's ham-fisted but occasionally great Pop album, the first Kaiser Chiefs album (which I love all the way through) and the first Maroon 5 album, which — don't judge me — features one song I like (This Love). Short of adding The Wombats, The Pigeon Detectives and Lostprophets records to the pile, I couldn’t have selected a less cool bunch of records.
As I handed the Maroon 5, U2 and Kaiser Chiefs records to David, he commenced the job of pricing them. At that point, the bell rang — the one the sounds when someone enters the shop. It was Alexis Taylor from Hot Chip. He nodded at me in his customary curt approximation of friendliness (I had interviewed him a couple of times previously), we exchanged pleasantries and he started browsing. I realised at that point that David was still in the process of working out what he was going to charge me for the U2, Kaiser Chiefs & Maroon 5 albums. I was hoping he might do this without drawing any attention to what they were, but he drew a sharp intake of breath and said, “THE U2 ONE. YOU DON'T SEE THIS ONE TOO MUCH.” I casually said, “Yeah well... I've got Zooropa and Achtung Baby, so I thought there might be something in that vein on that one too.” To my relief, Alexis didn’t seem to register that exchange. Then David continued: “SO! KAISER CHIEFS. £30 FOR THAT ONE?”; “Yes,” I said quickly, trying to curtail any further discussion.
Finally, David picked out the remaining record: Maroon 5. “I'VE ALREADY CHECKED TO SEE WHAT THIS GOES FOR. APPARENTLY, THE LAST ONE OF THESE SOLD FOR ABOUT £130.” At this, Alexis looked up with a start, presumably thinking that I'd unearthed some Arthur Russell curio or a Mellow Candle seven-inch. The ensuing expression on the face of the man from Hot Chip was one I had only seen once before — over three decades previously. You know, in the episode of The Young Ones where Rik Mayall gets a tampon from someone's bag and, not realising what it was, pretends it's a little mouse? Well, do you remember the look that the bloke in the white jacket gives Rik, when his eyeballs slightly pop out of his skull? That's the look that Alexis, in spite of himself, gave the Maroon 5 record. A few minutes later, he had to leave to pick up his daughter from school. I considered chasing after him with my other bag, and showing him the cooler records I’d bought earlier that afternoon, “Alexis! Look! Fickle Pickle!” But I realised this would only lead me to think I was a slightly different sort of cretin to the cretin he had already decided I was.
“Haha! I had no idea I had been complicit in your moment of trauma,” laughs David, when I relay the Alexisgate to him. “He’s something of a regular now. Recently, he came in to the shop to have some pictures taken for his upcoming solo album. Nice guy. But then, most of my customers are.” The ambience on this particular afternoon bears out his assertion. A middle-aged man has alighted upon a Sun Ra record that he seems especially happy about, even if to these ears, it sounds like insurrection in a cutlery draw. There’s a back room where considerable floor space is taken up with two large shelving units of albums. A few minutes rifling through these yields a lovely original copy of Bill Withers’ Still Bill and Glen Brown & King Tubby’s Termination Dub – the latest in a string of Blood & Fire records I’ve happened upon in David’s shop.
Did David leave acting or did acting leave David? A bit of both, apparently. As he edged towards his late 30s, the work started to dry up a little. Like half the actors in north London, he had a brief run in The Bill and regular advert work kept his profile high. There was some theatrical work too, most notably 2000 Years with Mike Leigh and “a musical-ish thing” with Rufus Norris, who is now the artistic director of the National. “I found I wasn’t getting the jobs any more, and the jobs I was getting… well, I wasn’t enjoying them.”
As the chutzpah of youth eroded away, David informed his agent that he was “sick of going for these things, where they pencil you in for the role and it’s between you and a couple of others. It felt more shameful as I got older.” The negative fallout was something David had already started tried to manage with recreational drugs. He’d actually mentioned this to me a few months previously, and not wanting to pry, I assumed his addiction didn’t extend beyond coke. In fact, he says it took over pretty much ever aspect of his life. “But the main thing is that I’m 20 years clean this year, and y’know… quite proud of that.” Furthermore, he’s happy to report that the shop has also gained the approval of his 95 year-old dad. “My dad was a businessman his whole life. He was never that happy about me going into acting. But this is business, so he understands this.” David credits the birth of his son Freddy for giving him the incentive to go through rehab. Together with this wife psychotherapist wife Anna, they have two children – the other being 17 year-old Nell, who “sometimes comes into the shop with her friends, and generally seems into the fact that this is what I do now.”
Now 55, he says he’s not naive enough to think that there isn’t a connection between his previous addiction and the excitement of going to look at someone’s collection. “It’s a conflation of the things I liked about acting and the things I liked about scoring drugs. Knocking on someone’s door! Not quite knowing what you’re going to find! And then, it goes back to that improv thing I was talking about earlier. The door opens and you’re in a dialogue with someone, who’s waiting for you to look through their records. If there’s a beautiful lush pink or white carpet, you know that’s usually a good sign. The records are going to be clean. And in every record collection, there’s a story. It might be someone whose husband has just died and they were obsessed with jazz, or it could be someone who looks super-straight and you look through the records they want to sell and a whole other past life opens up. And you’d never guess it by looking at them.”
It doesn’t take long for the shop to fill up. Within 30 minutes of opening, there are five or six people in here. Any more would start to feel uncomfortable. Does he have any plans to alphabeticise this lot any time soon? “Maybe,” he says. “There are certain titles you do need to have on hand because people are always asking for them. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours – that’s the biggest seller, and mostly with young kids. And obviously, you always need to know where your Bowies are. Beyond that, you’re best off getting stuck in. Going to a record shop and leaving with what you were after – that’s great obviously. But going to a record shop and discovering something even better, and you want to tell all your mates about it. That’s the best, isn’t it?”
The Little Record Shop, 43 Tottenham Lane, N8 9BD
Opening hours: Tues, Fri-Sun: 1pm-6.30pm