Last week my good friend in London, Bill Allerton (left), emailed to tell me that me that sometime next April he and Bill Forsyth would be closing their legendary side-by-side London record shops, Stand Out and Minus Zero.
In a follow up phone call, Bill told me the toll of “running a counter service shop” for 25 years had been “quite enough,” and he was very happy about the prospect of having some more time on his hands. For many years, record collectors have been doing more and more of their buying online, fewer people have been traveling to London to look for records, and of course Bill Forsyth had been talking about closing for some years. And so they finally decided the time had come. Bill told me he was “frankly thrilled” at the prospect of taking some time off, traveling, and shifting his record dealing to the web.
I can’t help feeling that what is good news for Bill & Bill, as they’re often referred to, is terrible news for their friends, disciples and customers. Their twin stores are an essential stop on any record collector’s pilgrimage to London.
I met Bill Allerton in 1975 on my first trip to London; I’d been corresponding with him and his best friend Colin Baker for some months (I found them through their ads in “The Rock Marketplace”; Alan Betrock’s primordial record collector magazine). When I wrote them I was coming to London, they arranged to meet me, and we’ve all been close ever since.
At the time, Bill was working in accounting for Virgin Records, but his true love was record collecting, particularly the Velvet Underground and Arthur Lee & Love. He lived in a one room flat in Clapham, filled with records, floor to ceiling piles of 60’s music newspapers, some pinball machines, and “fruit machines” (slot machines.) If you were careful, you could work your way around the room without hitting anything.
He sold rare records through the mail and on Saturdays in London’s famed Portobello Road market with Colin, under the “flyover.” His regular clientele made their way to him each weekend, looking for hard to find singles and albums, and hoping to absorb some of his and Colin’s tremendous knowledge. They knew more than anybody about 60’s records, and I felt lucky to have been adopted by them (over the years, I’ve probably made 25 or so trips to London, often staying with Colin, and chauffeured by Bill.)
Early on, I met Bill’s friend, Bill Forsyth, another collector/dealer who’s obsession was Bob Dylan, and in 1984 “the Bills” teamed up to open a record store, Plastic Passion, at 2 Blenheim Crescent in London (just around the corner from Portobello Road.) Plastic Passion was a vinyl wonderland, a long, very narrow space with heavy wooden doors at the front, a cramped office in the back, and walls covered with records even the most sophisticated collector had rarely if ever seen before. Immediately it became the prime hang-out for local collectors, and a must-visit location for anyone traveling to London. In those pre-internet days, most serious collectors visited London periodically, and they all turned up to see “the Bills.”
I spent countless hours there talking music with Bill & Bill and whoever happened to show up; one day many years ago an odd looking man with a top hat and leopard skin coat showed up and Bill A. introduced me to his regular customer, Screaming Lord Sutch (the legendary horror-rocker and early employer of Jimmy Page and Richie Blackmore.) Robert Plant was a regular customer too, as were many other “names.”
In 1990, Bill and Bill decided that while they enjoyed having a record store, working together just wasn’t working, and in a brilliant move, instead of closing Plastic Passion, they just split the long narrow space down the middle and opened two (very narrow !) record shops—Bill Allerton’s Stand Out Records on the right side (named after an Arthur Lee & Love song) and Bill Forsyth’s Minus Zero records on the left side (after a Dylan song, of course.) And so it has been ever since; two great record stores, each curated (I think that is the right word) by a very knowledgeable collector-dealer, filled with rare vinyl and for many years now, huge selections of obscure CD reissues that one could find nowhere else.
Their odd—probably unique—setup has been profiled in Mojo, The Wall Street Journal, Time Out London, The Guardian. But Adam Duritz, the dreadlocked singer of Counting Crows and another frequent customer, perhaps described best what makes the Stand Out/Plastic Passion setup so special, in an article in “Down The Rabbit Hole” magazine:
“Once upon a time, Immy and I were sitting in our favorite bi-polar record store in the world, London’s wonderfully schizophrenic two-stores-in-one Stand Out Records/Minus Zero Records, talking to the respective owners, the Bills (Stand Out’s Bill Allerton and Minus Zero’s Bill Forsyth), during one of our usual 2-4 hr visits to the tiny store(s). You see the way it works is that we go there with one or two ideas of things we think we want (and that’s all well and good) and then we end up spending the next two, three, or four hours endlessly listening to music as Bill and Bill compete across the two foot aisle that separates one store from the other to play us different music they’re sure we’ve never heard before (they’re often right) that they’re certain we’ll love (they’re pretty much ALWAYS right) and therefore purchase (they get us there too). We nearly always spend every penny we have and leave with several huge bags of CD’s each. Half the great music I’ve discovered over the past decade was played for me by the Bill’s in their tiny wonderland on Blenheim Crescent just off Portobello Road. It might seem strange to those of you who aren’t utterly obsessed with music, but they’ve been as big an influence in my life as any of my musical idols.”
The internet has been a mixed blessing for record collectors—sure it’s been great to find many of those records I’ve searched for fruitlessly, for so many years. But it’s hastened the demise of many a great record store—Rhino in LA (where I worked when I first met Bill Allerton), Beano’s in Croydon/London, even the Tower chain. And now Stand Out and Minus Zero.
I’m writing this as a requiem for two of the world’s great collector’s stores, but also to urge you, if you are in London or happen to be traveling there, to visit Bill & Bill before it’s too late. I’ll be there in November, and though Bill Allerton can’t wait for the end to come, I know it’s gonna be a sad sad day for a lot of record collectors around the world. Thanks guys, for so very very much.
Until they close, Stand Out and Minus Zero are discounting everything in their stores 25%.
Stand Out Records/ 020 7727 8406 /firstname.lastname@example.org
Minus Zero Records/ 020 7229 5424 /email@example.com /www.minuszerorecords.com
both at 2 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 1NN
Open Wed/Th/Fri/Sat 11-6