Sydney Record Stores of the Past
On Record Store Day I went record shopping in the city. This is something I have done for around twenty years, since the early 1990s when I was a teenager. Music was a magic door into another world for me in my early teenage years and my first explorations of the city on my own terms were through record stores. I still navigate by them, even though they have all either moved or disappeared from their 1990s locations. The city for me today is a patchwork of what used to be, a mental map where past overlays present. This is a common feeling for anyone who has known a city for any length in time: cities are by nature dynamic, and what is carries the shadow of what was.
Here is the invisible map of the record stores that I remember from the 1990s. There may be more, and others who are older than me could probably make a different map, so do comment and add your stories.
Red Eye Records
The city record store I remember most fondly was Red Eye records when it was in the Tank Stream arcade, a dim, subterranean arcade which has now been replaced by a Coles Express supermarket. I came here for the first time when I was 13, excited to make contact with the physical objects which matched the music I heard on the radio. I could examine a My Bloody Valentine CD, or the Smudge 7″ of “I Don’t Want to be Grant McLennan”, even if the meagre funds allocated to me by my mother for whatever anodyne activity I said I was up to weren’t enough to buy them.
This is the place where I first discovered zines, and they thrilled me with their slapdash weirdness. It was the strangeness of the store – with its big bloodshot eye logo and the posters for bands I’d never heard of – that I came to absorb, even if I didn’t buy anything.
Red Eye existed in a number of locations in the Tank Stream arcade. It moved around the corner from the shop I first visited, and split into a shop for new music and a smaller secondhand shop across the arcade. Next to the secondhand shop was a tiled step at the edge of a bedraggled garden bed. If I was waiting for someone I’d sit here and watch people go in and out of the stores. I imagined these to be the most interesting people in the city.
Red Eye is still operating, and popular: it was full of people for Record Store Day. After the Tank Stream Arcade was demolished it moved to another location on King St, and now has moved to York St. There is a secondhand Red Eye on Pitt st, but that store is closing soon. Their album prices still end in their signature .98, so if I find a price sticker on one of my old CDs or records that ends in .98, I know where it came from.
I knew of Waterfront’s existence from their ads in the Drum Media. The ads ran alongside the gig guide and were densely handwritten with information about new releases as well as strange stories from the Weekly World News. I found the store just off George St, on Barlow St. I liked this for its resonance with Lou Barlow of Sebadoh and because it was an unassuming laneway slipped in beside a 70s high rise: the McKell Building which I had never seen anyone enter or leave.
On Saturdays in 1990/1991 I had the job of escorting my sister to choir practise in Surry Hills, with strict instructions not to leave the building as it was a dangerous area. As soon as she went in to practice I took off, walking as fast as I could across to Waterfront. That it was forbidden for me to be there made it even more exciting. I saved up to buy band t-shirts from the display on the back wall – terrifying to me because it involved me talking to the people who worked in the store. I felt like a tiny mouse and imagined their cool, inner city lives with feelings of great inadequacy.
Waterfront moved to a much larger store on York st, and this store had a vast zine section where I sold many of my zines in the late 90s. Some of my records from this store still have the handwritten post-it note descriptions that were stuck to the covers, ephemera which then I barely noticed but now regard very fondly.
After some time digging in my cupboard, I found this Waterfront bag, from the days of it at 770 George St. The bloodshot eye on Red Eye’s bags was always a bit of a shock for me, I preferred the Waterfront cityscape. When I first started record shopping, seeing others walking around with bags from record stores made me feel like I was part of a secret club.
Waterfront closed in 2000. This, combined with the atmosphere of renovation in preparation for the Olympics, felt like the end of the Sydney I had grown to know. In the early 90s the city streets had many holes, deep excavated pits that were the result of developments that stalled in the 80s after the share market crash. As these began being filled in with developments, holes of a different kind started to appear, as record stores and bookstores began to be priced out of the city.
Waterfront still operates as an online store, with the same black and yellow cityscape as their banner.
Phantom, while not being a punk record store, seemed more punk to me, things were a bit looser there than they were at Red Eye or Waterfront. The store was on Pitt st, under the tracks of the monorail and up a short flight of stairs. Their slogan was “the big beat in the heart of the vinyl jungle”. I liked the sound of it, but it didn’t fit with how I envisaged Phantom, which was a jungle of boys with scruffy hair and scratchy guitars. I remember buying a copy of Crow’s first record “Sunburnt Throats and Happy Thunderclouds” there, from a pile of them being sold off cheaply. Phantom released this record and records by other great bands like Even as we Speak and The Hummingbirds, and multiple copies of these Phantom releases could often been found on the shelves. (A note here: Red Eye and Waterfront were also record labels as well as stores.)
My favourite memory of Phantom was seeing Lawnsmell play an instore in 1997. Lawnsmell were a Sydney punk band who I saw quite a number of times, they used to play a screamy punk cover of “Birthday” by the Sugarcubes which thrilled me.
Phantom also published handwritten ads in the Drum Media, and would have periodic music auctions, where you would put in a silent bid on items listed in the catalogue. I made bids many times but only ever won one item, a Crime and City Solution 7″.
Phantom Records closed in 1998 and there is little trace of it now, apart from the occasional secondhand record discovery, where the label lives on:
An extensive history of Phantom records can be found here.
Pitt Street Record Zone
This is the name I’m giving to the two blocks south of Liverpool Street, which was once the secondhand record shopping strip. There is a second hand Red Eye Records there, but that was a later addition to the strip and is soon to close leaving only…
Lawson’s has been there for decades and pretty much as it always was, with the stale tobacco smell and the layers of posters on the walls, including this old State Rail cautionary sign:
Lawsons was always my least favourite of the Pitt St stores, although now it is precious to me as a final link to a past age of record shopping.
Ashwoods, which moved to York St before closing down a few years ago, first started trading in 1932. Its Pitt St store, which closed in the early 2000s, was full of records all jumbled up with only rudimentary order, so to shop at Ashwoods was to search deeply through the history of recorded music. The records all had the trademark round edged square price stickers and the price scrawled in pencil on the record itself, perhaps to stop any pricetag switching. The store had a spiral staircase leading up to an less-used upper level, most of the action happened downstairs among the men (and it was usually men) flipping through records.
Ashwoods was an adventure, and as well as the records I found the sometimes irascible owner a great character. One time when I was browsing in the York St store, I listened to him hold forth on the topic of “why don’t we eat zoo animals” for quite some time.
On the corner of Goulburn St and Pitt St, across from what was once the Mandarin Club, was Martin’s, another secondhand record store which I liked most for the great importance given to cassettes on their awning:
In the above photo you can see some of the window of Enthusiasms, which previously was a store called Silver Rocket, although there wasn’t any link between the two stores as far as I know. Silver Rocket was more punk whereas Enthusiasms was more indie pop, and the first store to mark up 80s Australian records by bands such as the Laughing Clowns. This is when I noticed that these records, which I’d seen around my whole record shopping life, were suddenly becoming valuable. Another example of this happened recently, when I was looking for records released on Flying Nun for a zine I was writing about Dunedin. I remember secondhand Flying Nun records in abundance. There were many of them at shops like Enthusiasms, but then when I went to look for them in the remaining Sydney record stores, there were few to be found. Like my mental map of the city, I had failed to keep pace with the present.
Other Sydney record stores past:
Metropolis: This store was in the Mid City Centre, a shopping centre above a vast basement HMV. I only went there a few times before it closed down in the early 90s.
Virgin Records: was also in Pitt St mall, a basement store where I saw an instore by Red Kross, having gone by myself in a daring early-teenage solo mission, and signed a petition for “We Want Moz in Oz”. This campaign also had bumper stickers, I stuck mine on my school folder.
Brashs: on Pitt St near the Greater Union cinemas, all completely disappeared now and a building site for a big tower. Brashs occasionally turns up in jokes made about the 90s or redundant retailers, for some reason.
On Record Store day this year I visited both Red Eyes, Mojo, and Lawsons. Then me and my record shopping friend paused on the corner of World Square, on the steps where two Coles employees were having a smoke break. We looked across the street at the CB hotel, a run down backpackers in a bedraggled 30s building, with a new white building shooting high up behind it, like a giant white spear. I realised we’d come to the end of the city record stores (we’re not into metal, so didn’t visit Utopia Records), although the ghosts of record stores past pulled at me. As if I looked for them they might be there. I wished they were.