© National Museums Liverpool
Most record shops contain recordings from a variety of musical genres, from easy listening and jazz to different styles of contemporary pop. But shop owners, especially independent ones, have also often spotted an opportunity to specialise. Specialisation usually takes the form of building a customer base for a particular genre or group of genres and offering an in-depth service that includes a good deal of knowledge of the subject. A shop may for example specialise in music from the Caribbean or Africa (an example of the latter is Stern's in London). Sometimes these retailers have preferred to operate as mail-order companies, as did blues specialists Red Lick Records in Portmadog until its recent closure.
Specialisation can take other forms. Liverpool has some good examples of stores that specialised in finding old and new records for its customers: the Musical Box in West Derby Road (and also later in Old Swan) is still a family run business and Liverpool's longest running independent record shop. It was established shortly after the war by the Caine family and gradually became a beacon for all record collectors in Liverpool. Indeed one might argue that without this important conduit the history of Liverpool popular music would have been very different.
Mr and Mrs Caine were not always obliging to record purchasers, but daughter Diane became and remains legendary in her willingness to find an obscure track or to order hard-to-find recordings. Indeed, because of this enthusiastic attitude, Diane was able to order large quantities of records, knowing full well that they would sell. It would not be uncommon, during the peak of singles sales in the mid-late 1960s, for the Musical Box to order as many copies of a new single as the major Liverpool city centre record shops. This meant that Diane's margins were greater; consequently, sale-or-return recordings were not sent back to the wholesale distributors. This later made the Musical Box a landfall for the growing legions of serious record collectors in the late 1970s and 1980s. One record collector stated:
"The Musical Box towered above the major city stores in my opinion. Nothing was too much trouble. Sometimes you had to wait for Diane to be in the shop though! But when she was there it was brilliant. Diane opened a branch near Greenberg's in Old Swan, so I followed her there. When I walked in with my long hair and trogg-like clothes she probably knew I was after something a bit more unusual but by and large she had it and if not she'd always order it."
Another Liverpool example is NEMS in Great Charlotte Street (and also later of Whitechapel). NEMS was to develop an internationally known brand name from its association with the Beatles, but initially it fulfilled a similar function to that offered by The Musical Box. The North End Music Stores was originally the name of an annexe to the Epstein furniture store. When Brian Epstein's father decided to expand his business into the centre of Liverpool he opened a branch in Great Charlotte Street. Brian and his brother Clive were placed in charge of this new outlet. Brian handled the ground floor record section, while Clive ran the white goods and furniture-based electrical goods department on the first floor.
Like Diane Caine, Brian Epstein was fascinated by the record retailing industry and soon became an expert at tracing hard-to-find recordings. NEMS was renowned for being the first in the city to stock OST (original soundtracks) and West End and Broadway cast albums. He was known to be obliging and helpful. Rock and skiffle fan Mick O'Toole remembers purchasing records from Epstein on Saturday evenings after hours. Mick recalls working at St Johns Market until well after six o'clock and spotting Brian behind the counter of the (by that time closed) NEMS store. Mick would knock on the shop door and Epstein would let him into the shop informing him to "always give a knock on the door - if I am there doing the books, I will open up".
"Mr Epstein, as everyone knew him, would always be helpful - it wasn't like other shops where the record racks might be just an add-on to a TV shop and you were considered to be a bit of a nuisance. He genuinely cared about music and would not hesitate to order something for you."