If music be the food of love, the Pie & Vinyl record café is the place to be. HFC tucks in
The idea behind Pie & Vinyl is simple, a combination of “our love and passion for music with one of England’s favourite old-fashioned comfort foods”, reads the enterprise’s mission statement. So, now we’ve got your attention…
“We wanted to create an experience. It’s my idea of heaven,” explains Pie & Vinyl’s founder and co-owner Steven Courtnell as he introduces some of the team behind this Victorian-themed feast for all the senses. Two smiling Robs – Rob Litchfield, co-owner who looks after the kitchen, and Rob Addison, retail general manager – offer a warm welcome as I begin to tuck in.
You’ll find Pie & Vinyl on Castle Road in the bohemian quarter of Southsea, a short stroll from the University. The stylish café and kitchen is on one side of the shop. It’s lunchtime: a mouth-watering smell of food hovers, distracting me from the job at hand. All produce is fresh and cooked on-premises. The other side of the shop is home to new vinyl, local CDs and tapes and handcrafted merchandise. Quirky Victoriana lines the walls. Rock ‘n’ roll-themed Christmas cards have just landed and festive faces of Nick Cave and Jack White peep upwards from a window table.
“We’ve evolved to selling merch… T-shirts, totes, caps and sweatshirts… socks and pants at Christmas… and now cards.” Steven explains. “We work with a lot of local artists. We’ve even launched our own coffee brand…”
Pie & Vinyl opened in 2012, for Record Store Day. “We’ve done three now, and it’s bigger and better each year,” Steven says. “This year we had people queuing outside the shop from five o’clock the previous afternoon. There’s food and arts and crafts stalls down Castle Road, which is closed for the day in cooperation with the council.”
The Victorian theme of Pie & Vinyl – Audio-Technica’s Independent Record Store of the Year for 2013 – fits this street like a glove. “Southsea is the cultural arts area of Portsmouth. The Victorian street tapped into our branding. All the nick-nacks in the shop have a Portsmouth connection. We’re proud to live here.” Creativity runs through the area like a ley line: both Charles Dickens and Peter Sellers were born here; Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes stories here. And now Pie & Vinyl acts as a conduit for Portsmouth and Southsea’s fertile music scene. It promotes shows and started its own label a couple of years ago. “We try and expose local artists and get them distributed nationally; people we believe in and enjoy,” says Steven.
To date, the label has put out an LP from The B Of The Bang and a couple of cassettes from The Boy I Used To Be and RickyFitts. A compilation tape of Portsmouth’s hottest bands is in the pipeline, and the label is working with “gospel gothic electro” act Sasha. “We are looking to release quite a few bits next year, including T-shirts with download codes in the labels and even pie releases, with edible download codes on the pastry.”
Return of the black stuff
As the name suggests, the music side of the store is all about vinyl. “Vinyl has come back,” Steven says. Encouragingly, recently published industry stats tell us UK sales for 2014 have been the highest since 1996. It’s all new stock here, a conscious decision, Steven tells me, to “get away from the High Fidelity, second-hand aesthetic”.
“People stopped [buying vinyl] because the format wasn’t available in the nineties. They never stopped loving it, though. Eighteen to 25-year-olds haven’t had the chance to buy it before. They’re amazed there’s a side A and a side B. When I was growing up, I used to do the ‘gamble purchase’: go by the cover or a recommendation from the NME. It’s a real privilege to recommend releases to people.”
His desire to proselytise informs Pie & Vinyl’s Record Club. “For customers who want to buy new releases, it’s hard to know where to start. We recommend 6 Music. But once a quarter we send out our own recommendation. We’d like to do this once a month, ideally.”
Music’s been in Steven’s blood “since I was eight”, he tells me. He’s had a diverse career – from footballer to creative at Estée Lauder, where he met co-owner Rob and came up with the concept for the store. Setting up shop, “I was encouraged with vinyl coming back,” he says. “It is only going to get bigger, and the expansion continues apace.” The record store has already grown in size, having absorbed the shop next door, giving both the vinyl and the café space to stretch their legs. The extra room means that there’s now more scope for in-store events, such as gigs and film nights (see opposite). “We do a lot of in-stores. Plenty of touring bands come though the city. The customers love it.” It’s an intimate experience: “Naming no names,” Steven says with a smile, “some big artists who’ve played here get pretty nervous being so close up to the audience.” Popular events have included The Feeling, indie legends The Wedding Present and even Frank Turner (“The night before, he played the 02!”). You’ll find some big names as punters, as well: Phill Jupitus is a regular; Johnny Marr and Damon Albarn have both been spotted digging the crates.
Another string to Pie & Vinyl’s bow is the recently launched Pie & Hi-Fi. It’s just down the road in SHOP, a multi-company space, having outgrown the limited space in the record store. Offering reconditioned, used turntables amps and speakers – from the past to the present – the store offers a three-month warranty on all of its separates. There’s an extra incentive for new converts to both vinyl and the wonderful world of hi-fi: if you buy a complete system (turntable, amp and speakers), you’ll also get a free £20 Pie & Vinyl gift voucher to spend on glorious black wax. (As well as vintage kit, Pie & Hi-Fi now also stocks a range of new Crosley and Rega turntables.)
“A lot of people come in and buy their first record player and then their first records,” Steven says. “People like the aesthetics of the original machines, but I’d love to get some Pie & Vinyl Rega RP1s printed… a black platter with a Pie & Vinyl font.”
Pie & Hi-Fi also offers a repair service, can order replacement styli, and stocks all manner of essential accessories that can make an unsung contribution to your listening pleasure – such as record brushes, anti-static cleaning cloths, slipmats, record-cleaning fluid, speaker wire and phono leads. Your repairs are in a safe pair of hands, Steven explains. “Chris, who is now retired, used to work at Goodmans in Havant. He’s worked for loads of big hi-fi brands. He goes round car-boot sales, buys kit and fixes it up. He’s a real enthusiast and works with us exclusively. We get in separates from the fifties to the nineties, all sorts of things, cassette players, 8-Tracks…”
With its handpicked vinyl, record label, film nights, subscription service, in-store gigs, hi-fi, music promotion, merch, coffee and fine food, the Pie & Vinyl experience is a satisfyingly diverse one. It’s Portsmouth and Southsea that acts as the glue. “Local community ties everything together,” says Steve. “People from Portsmouth are very passionate. We try and fight the stigma that Portsmouth seems to have nationally. It’s an interesting mix and there’s a lot of potential for great art. There’s plenty flourishing here. We have a passion for the area and want to see it reach its potential.”
Some partnerships are just made for each other. Let no man tear asunder fish and chips, strawberries and cream, Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood, and Morecambe and Wise. And after visiting Southsea’s cosy Pie & Vinyl, you can definitely add those ingredients to that list. Delicious pies (you can take my word for it) plus excellent record shop – seriously, what’s there not to like in that equation? SB
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