San Francisco’s Aquarius Records was punk-rock in the 1970s and 1980s: the Ramones, Blondie and Elvis Costello all played in-store and the Dead Kennedys met through an ad on its bulletin board. Nowadays, Aquarius attracts the musically adventurous from all over the world.
Inside this legendary space in the Mission district, where vinyl and cds are stacked floor to ceiling, Björk, Cat Power, and Spoon are considered pop. “The point of Aquarius,” says Andee Connors, who co-owns the store with Allan Horrocks, “is to turn people on to stuff. We are scouring the world for cool music. Some of our bestsellers are from kids who burn their own records in their bedrooms in Finland or Japan.”
The staff-written reviews – tagged on to every available surface in the shop – are a must-read. A newsletter is sent out to customers every two weeks. “I write, like, 40 to 50 reviews every two weeks,” says Andee. Even if you have never cared to hear Appalachian Troubadours, Night-Ocean Drones, Billy Squier, inner-city grade-school hip-hop artists, or the Vomit Orchestra – the reviews will convince you that these are essential purchases. Two of Aquarius’s all-time bestselling records are the Thai Elephant Orchestra (elephants play gamelans and harmonicas in the jungle) and The Conet Project’s hauntingly beautiful recordings of short-wave-radio spy broadcasts.
“What’s cool about the store,” Andee says, “is that someone will come in to buy the new Spoon record and leave with the Thai Elephant cd.”
1055 Valencia Street, San Francisco;
+ 1 415 (0) 647 2272, aquariusrecords.org
Ten all-time Aquarius favourites
01 The Conet Project
02 Thai Elephant Orchestra
03 Comus – First Utterance
04 Furze – Necromanzee Cogent
05 Boredoms – Super Ae
06 Burzum – Filosofem
07 Konono No. 1 – Congotronics
08 This Heat – This Heat (live)
09 Philip Jeck – Surf
10 Boris – Flood
Since this treasure trove opened in 1969 in the Spui district of Amsterdam, its stock has changed to reflect its changing clientele. “In the beginning we stocked a lot of political magazines: there was a Peru bulletin; a Nicaragua bulletin; we had squatter literature – strange magazines,” says Guus Thijssen, the manager and longest-serving staffer, with a wistful smile. Thijssen has been in residence among the newsprint of Spui Square for 31 years. He has seen the area change from an intellectual centre fed by Amsterdam University and watered by the nearby literary cafés, through student unrest and republican riots, to the well-heeled enclave of publishing houses and fashion designers that it is today. The shop’s pavement display changes daily. French Vogue, the Dutch design title Frame and the UK music mag Mojo were in evidence on Monocle’s visit. We were also treated to an eyeful of Butt, the iconic gay fanzine. While new and glossy has overtaken revolutionary, the philosophy has remained the same since 1969: “We sell the news, you decide what you think of it.”
Athenaeum Nieuwscentrum, Spui 14-16,
Amsterdam; + 31 (0) 20 624 2972
Magazine devoted to street style
Dutch bookazine in English about design
Cheeky Dutch fashion magazine for men
Case da Abitare
Italian magazine on interiors
Dutch mag, in English, about architecture
Dutch street style in all its glory
The traditional independent British book shop might be fighting off assaults from all sides (store numbers declined 6 per cent in 2006) but Barter Books thrives. Launched in 1991 by Mary Manley and her husband Stuart in the third-class waiting room of the disused Alnwick railway station, it was inspired by a summer Mary spent in an antiquarian bookshop in New York, and the sort of overdraft that often encourages entrepreneurship.
The precise location was something of a fait accompli: ever since Stuart passed a note to Mary, from Missouri, on a London-bound plane, he had wanted to show her his own corner of north-east England. The success of their business venture was not so certain, but “the only thing that I knew was books, so books it was,” says Mary.
Since starting with 75 sq m of space, 10,000 dusty romance novels and a staff of two, Barter has spent 16 years growing an extra 650 sq m and stacking 350,000 titles on its shelves, and now employs 26 staff, including artists, linguists and the mayor of Alnwick. Employees’ ages range from teenagers to an old-timer named Dot, whom the Manleys hope to persuade not to retire on her 70th birthday.
Other than Dot, no one wants to leave: three glowing fireplaces and reading rooms with endless supplies of tea and biscuits ensure a steady stream of browsers. This atmosphere, redolent of a benign, perpetual English teatime, is all part of Mary’s business plan: “The sell is there’s no hard sell – people will buy if they don’t feel they have to.”
The last time a steam engine was seen at the station was in 1968, but ever since they sold their first Agatha Christie, the Manleys have dreamt of getting the Alnmouth-Alnwick branchline line reopened: at the current rate of progress, Barter Books might just need its own fully functioning railway station after all.
Barter Books, Alnwick Station,
+ 44 (0) 1665 604 888, barterbooks.co.uk
Five books that always sell
01A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
021984 or anything else by George Orwell
03A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
04 PG Wodehouse paperbacks
05French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David