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A cultural institution in Wales adapts to the internet age.
CARDIFF, UK — Housed in an Edwardian-era storefront in this picturesque port city on the southern tip of Wales, Spillers Records exudes the kind of easy cool a thousand focus groups couldn't help devise.
Clerks and customers on a first-name basis banter over stacks of album covers while a well-curated indie mix plays on the sound system.
A wall near the staircase leading to the vinyl section is covered in pinned-up notices written in the global language of record-store bulletin boards: Drum lessons available. Second-hand Ibanez electric guitar for sale. Bassist wanted: Must be available for weekly jams + gigs. Please bring funk + filth. NO TIME WASTERS!!
Before iPods, before CDs — even before many Britons had electricity — there was Spillers.
Founded in 1894 as a purveyor of gramophones and wax cylinders, Spillers has been selling music for nearly 120 years. It’s the world’s oldest record store, a feat of longevity listed in the Guinness Book of World Records and celebrated by no small number of devoted customers who have come here to thumb the racks.
“Without Spillers, there’s no Cardiff,” says Peter Sullivan, 54, an insurance worker who’s been buying his music at Spillers since he was 14.
Staying open is a growing challenge, however, even for this cultural institution.
The number of independent record stores in the UK has halved in just the last six years. Spillers is one of only 293 such shops left in the country, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association.
“It’s a tough time on the high street,” co-owner and manager Ashli Todd says, using the British term for main street. “It is — excuse my French — bloody difficult.”
She has worked here since the age of 13, and running around the shop long before that. Her father, Nick Todd, ran the store starting in the 1970s, the “golden era” before anyone had heard of Napster or mp3s. Todd and her sister Grace bought the shop from him in 2010.
They’re committed to keeping it open. Saturday will be the sixth-annual Record Store Day, an international event conceived to promote independent music sellers. Spillers will be among stores around the world to sell limited-edition albums in an effort to revive an industry decimated by online sales.
Clerks started noticing the decline in the early 2000s. “We’d say, ‘Oh, the new so-and-so album is out,’ and they’d say they’d already downloaded it, or bought it on Amazon,” Todd recalls.
To survive, Spillers has become funkier.
Nick Todd stocked Madonna and other Top 40 artists along with more highbrow fare. Now that everyone from chain retailers to grocery stores sell the big pop acts — and cheaply — his daughters have restricted their stock to independent and harder-to-find albums, although if you absolutely must have that Carly Rae Jensen album, they will happily order it for you.
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Spiller’s has rolled with the evolution of its city as well as the music industry.
When the store opened, Cardiff was one of the busiest ports in the world, shipping coal extracted from the surrounding valleys around the globe. Exports peaked in 1913, after which the city and its docks declined.
Over the past two decades, however, the authorities have embarked on an ambitious redevelopment plan to rebuild the waterfront and pedestrian-friendly shopping districts around the city’s Victorian-era arcades.
But after reconstruction on Spillers’s block, rent on the space it had occupied since the 1940s became unaffordable.
Following a “Save Spillers” campaign led by the Welsh alternative band Manic Street Preachers, the store moved in 2010 to its current location in Cardiff’s Morgan Arcade. (The original 1894 store, long since demolished, is now the site of a shopping center.)
Todd says she takes comfort in the ability to adapt. “There’s been an awful lot of change in nearly 120 years,” she says. “But we’re still here.”