Following the news earlier this week that Tim Derbyshire had put his record shop On The Beat up for sale (vinyl and all) on eBay for £300,000, we dropped by to find out a little more about the unassuming Soho institution that has survived a catastrophic fire, financial crisis and a visit from Paul McCartney to become the city’s oldest independent record shop.
“It’s a passion, it’s not a business or a career,” explains Tim Derbyshire patiently down the phone. It’s the first of two calls from journalists to interrupt our short interview with the proprietor of On The Beat, a warm if a little pokey record shop in the traditional vein, nestled between Oxford Street and the Tottenham Court Road. Like us, they’re keen to understand a little more about why the shop’s owner of 34 years has this week put the premises, complete with its 50,000+ vinyl records, up for auction on eBay.
“I started the shop in 1979. I had two partners and we had a stall in Soho market back when there was an open air market at the end of Gerard Street and it was coming up to winter and we didn’t want to be standing out in the market in the cold weather,” remembers Tim. “One partner left after the first year and then the other one left. I didn’t know whether it was my smell or anything like that – there must have been something they didn’t like about me.” He laughs softly, giving the impression of a man whose aspirations and regrets never seem too far apart.
As many long-suffering record shop owners will tell you, Tim planned to run the store for a few years at most. “You never plan things out for this long otherwise I would have been committed.” Over the years, he has left much of himself within those four walls and the stock he has amassed proudly covers a broad range of music (“if I just sold music that I liked I would have gone under a long time ago”) with the exceptions of classical and “the modern dance stuff”. Vintage NMEs and Melody Makers line the walls in shabby plastic covers that age them considerably, surrounding piles of old record players and whole wardrobes of retro hats, dresses and shoes that have hung forlornly since they were last in fashion.
As a shop, On The Beat does better at creating an atmosphere than it does at selling records. “I’ve never done it for money you see”, explains Tim, whose quiet, unassuming tone gives little away. His only tell is a slight mumble, which becomes more pronounced as his thoughts turn to more personal matters. “If I’d had had any children I would have had to get a proper job probably to support them, but seeing that I didn’t have any wife or children to support, I just had myself… and I had meagre tastes.”
Tim’s attitude to profit is refreshingly disinterested. When asked what the shop has meant to him, he replies simply: “I can sit here and play records and make some dinner money or bus fare home after a hard days work.” While it’s hard to imagine that the next owner of On The Beat will have quite such a passive attitude to its success as a business, he is understandably desperate for it to fall into the right hands.
With close to thirty bids pending on eBay for the £300,000 item at time of writing, Tim reveals that Google, situated in a plush office around the corner, have enquired about buying the stock out right for a vanity project in Fitzrovia. “I don’t want to sell to them really because money is not everything”.
There’s something particularly depressing about the thought of the Google-opoly swooping on one of the city’s last remaining traditional record stores, especially considering that Tim has never owned a computer (his girlfriend administers the eBay page). Keeping all 50,000 records archived in his memory, he suggests charmingly that “somebody could make it a success if they did computers”.
Despite its whole-hearted indifference to mainstream glamour, On The Beat has accumulated its far share of celebrity punters over the last 34 years. Of those that Tim recognized (an educated guess suggests there have probably been many more) Paul McCartney, David Bowie and Jimmy Page have all dropped a few bob into the till, while Martin Sheen used to come by on his way to the film company down the street. Equidistant from Carnaby and Denmark Street in London’s West End, there is a palpable sense of history in the worn down edges of the wooden record boxes, the dog-eared sleeves and the musty air that has draped itself across every surface.
Asked if he had experienced any lowlights at the shop, Tim is uncharacteristically decisive. “There’s definitely been no lowlights,” he asserts, before pausing to reassess. “Oh, although there probably was one lowlight. The shop got burnt down… I lost all the stock and I wasn’t insured… Sometimes you can still smell the fire”. Was this not a rather significant event? “I don’t really worry about things that much”.
While the level of interest in the shop has surprised him, quite what it all means seems not to have registered yet. The decision has undoubtedly been a hard one to make, the long pause before he answers saying more than he ever would, admitting finally that “probably yes, it has been difficult”. What’s more he’s been enjoying the work more than ever. “It’s best I let someone take over now rather than leave it until I can’t walk no more. It’s good to leave when you feel good rather than when you feel bad”.
While he refuses to be drawn on sentiment – Would he take anything with him from the shop as a memento? “Just the paper work really” – the pathos of the situation is palpable, and what can appear dour when transcribed on paper is nothing short of heart-breaking in person. Just before I leave, Tim leans over the counter of 7″s and sighs. “Working in a shop… That’s what my career officer said: “All you’re good for is working in a shop”. And he was right.”
On The Beat is a record shop that time forgot, a labour of love for a shopkeeper like no other. It’s now up to the winning bidder to make sure it stays that way.
On The Beat is up for sale on eBay until 25th November priced at £300,000. Click here for more info. Strictly no prospectors.
Check out some more photos from this wonderful store below and make sure you swing by in person at 22 Hanway St, London W1T 1UQ. There isn’t a website.