Reckless Records RIP - Part 4: Computer World

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 16 August 2007

(or "Everything I know about second-hand record retail I learnt by being rude to customers at Reckless Records" by someone a bit like that bloke in 'High Fidelity')

This week I've been writing about the experience I had in the 1990s working for the secondhand record shop Reckless Records in London, which sadly has recently closed after 24 years of trading. Yesterday I was looking at how the Islington branch was the inspiration for Nick Hornby's 'High Fidelity', and recalling a couple of the characters who used to be regular customers - 'Wig wearing wanker' and 'Wee-Wee Reggae Man'.

It was whilst I was at Reckless that my childhood aptitude for computers re-surfaced, after a lull where, although it seems unbelievable now, I didn't have anything to do with them. In fact, since my early BBC Micro and ZX Spectrum programming days in the 80s, I had gradually drifted away from my binary friends.

ZX Spectrum

However, when I joined Reckless in 1994, the shop's stock was organised using a UNIX network, which was something that no other major second-hand vinyl shop in London had at the time.

The software it ran was BYRON by the Wallace Haines company in the U.S., which had been customised from software to sell books into doing record retail for the benefit of the American Reckless stores in Chicago and San Francisco.

I soon discovered that being able to retain even a small amount of knowledge about how to recover the system from a crash or lock-up, or how to swap in and out keyboards, terminal screens, and other peripherals marked me out as a useful member of staff.

And when my managers realised I understood how to initialise hand-held barcode readers and configure them to work with the Wallace Haines system, and do it under pressure when hardware had failed on a busy Saturday afternoon, then boy, was I an asset to the company.

It wasn't just the UNIX system that I looked after, it was the PCs as well.

I maintained an Access database of regular customers, which I used to back-up each night across a span of eight or nine floppy disks.

In a move which I would now consider bordered on insanity, I remember rushing out to buy Windows 95 on the day it was released, so that I could get all the PCs in the shop updated to the new OS on the day it was available to the public. Basically, not because we needed to, but because my boss wanted to show his boss how 'with it' and up-to-date we were with technology.

Windows 95 packaging

The internet and email was still an alien concept to many of the shop's best mail order customers, which included some record shops in Japan where we did a roaring wholesale trade. Fax was the order of the day here, either for sending out updates to the mail shot, or for receiving orders.

I used to have a very close relationship by fax with a shop called Get Happy in Japan, who would pretty much buy any alternative twelve inch single from the late seventies or early eighties if it was in good condition. They were very sad when I left Reckless in Islington for the branch in Soho.

Fax from Get Happy records

My boss frequently pooh-poohed my buying decisions in this area of music, but I regularly shipped to Japan 12" singles by, well, Japan for a start, and A Flock Of Seagulls, Echo And The Bunnymen, The Cure, Elvis Costello, Talk Talk, and anything else a bit 80s and cult-ish.

In the UK these were reasonably easy to find, and didn't sell for much more than £0.99

Mail order though, I could sell them via fax to a retail shop in Japan for three or four times the price we could get for them on the racks in the UK. So who knows, pre-internet and global eBay, how much they were selling for in Japan to make it worth their while importing them at that level of cost.

A couple of people from the Get Happy store came over for a trip to London once, and made a visit to the shop in Berwick Street, where I was then working, to introduce themselves. They bought me some beautiful Japanese coasters as a present, which I still have even after moving to Chania.

Japanese coasters

It is in an interesting contrast with the kind of business that I am involved in now.

If a lucrative client from Japan came to visit any of the businesses I have worked for since leaving Reckless, I would have been sure to take them out for at least drinks and possibly dinner. In a busy secondhand record shop however, it was a case of saying a quick Japanese hello over the counter, accepting the gift, and saying:

"I hope you enjoy your visit to London...

...I'm really too busy to talk to you, sorry"

It was a real shame, as they had also patiently taught me, again over fax, how to write my name and say 'best wishes' in Japanese characters, so that I could sign the letters and faxes Reckless was sending over to that side of the world.

In the next part of this series I'll be looking at how computers led me to move from the Islington branch to the Soho one, and some of the idiosyncrasies of the system we were using.

Keep up to date on my new blog