Record shops as meeting places and taste makers
Regulars outside Probe Records © Geoff Davies
Record shops that acquire a reputation for the knowledge of their staff and the service they offer to individuals often become more than mere shops. They become places where fans of a particular music can meet each other and discuss the most recent releases. In this way they can play a very important part in helping to establish and sustain a musical scene in which many fans share a common interest. They can also be places where chance meetings take place that can widen people's horizons.
In the early 1970s Probe Records arrived like a breath of fresh air in Liverpool. Probe began trading in the early 1970s in Clarence Street, catering for a mixture of Liverpool stadium rock fans and students. By the mid 1970s it had built up a clientele interested in a variety of new genres such as progressive rock, west coast rock and psychedelia, jazz-rock, and funk.
Proprietor Geoff Davies was simply ordering and selling the kinds of records that he would have purchased himself. Probe appealed to specific groups of fans with little interest in 45rpm recordings. Probe did sell singles but in their first few years their main interest was albums. The shop was similar to an American 'head' shop where other products such as copies of the underground press could be purchased. Probe added another branch in 1974 when they placed a small record department at the rear of Silly Billy's boutique in Whitechapel - only a few hundred yards from the larger record shops on that road - manned by future Eric's DJ Norman Killon. The Silly Billy's experiment was followed by the more renowned Probe store in Button Street where punk, new wave, and reggae recordings sat alongside their progressive rock catalogue and contributed to changing the profile of the shop from underground to new wave.
Probe became a meeting place for a variety of like-minded popular music fans drawn to the Mathew Street area by both the presence of the Eric's venue and the growing historical interest in all things 'Merseybeat'. On Saturdays young people would gather on the corner of Button Street and Mathew Street simply to hear the records that were being played on the turntables by those working at the shop. Records were purchased, of course, but in the late 1970s Probe became the centre of many young people's musical universe. The entire retail staff at Probe was regarded as arbiters of good taste. One fan remembered:
"One Saturday I went in to buy a country rock album - I think it was a Poco album, I'm not sure now. Pete Burns was working behind the counter... I picked up the sleeve and took it to him and he wouldn't let me have the record. He said I could pick something else but he wasn't going to soil his hands with a Poco record. That's what it was like!"
Sometimes knowledgeable and helpful staff can take their service to another level, almost without meaning to. Such was the case with Probe and with others in Liverpool, such as Robert Crease in Walton Road, Virgin Records in Bold Street, Skeleton and Rox on the Wirral and the Chester branch of Penny Lane Records. They were more than just retailers and indeed more than meeting places. They were also taste makers, acting as advice centres and agents of change, recommending people to listen to other recordings, other artists, other forms of music.
For more information about record shops see Sites and scenes.