Grammar School Records is one of those rare independent High Street treasures, sought out by collectors and music enthusiasts. It acts as a surprise for new customers who venture through the old oak door into an Aladdin’s Cave piled high with vintage vinyls, CDs, and DVDs. Background music ranges from smooth jazz, blues and soul, to rock, classical or folk depending on who is sitting behind the counter. Every shop has a story and I was interested to find out how Geoff Boudreau started his music business, as well as hear more about his voluntary work encouraging creative activities in Rye.
Those of us of a certain age loved the sleeve artwork of vinyl records and that nostalgia lures us to places like Grammar School Records. Many music shops have struggled to survive the growth of digital formats and downloads but the UK’s renewed love affair with vinyl is gathering pace. According to John Lewis, sales of record players have risen 240 per cent in the first few months of this year compared to same period in 2014 and sales for vinyl albums are up 69 per cent. This is no surprise for Geoff and his staff for whom vinyl never went out of fashion.
Geoff is one of those lucky people who have combined a business with a hobby. His interest in music began early under the influence of two older sisters who were fans of Elvis Presley and Cliff Richard and in the early sixties he discovered Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others. “The idea of setting up a music shop grew out of a chance meeting with an American girl in London, who invited me back to Washington, DC where her father ran a record and book store. I worked there for a year and learnt the ropes”.
In 1991, Geoff visited Rye in search of a house to buy and saw Grammar School Records, empty with the lease for sale. Located in a building that was once a free school founded in 1636 by Sir Thomas Peacock “for the better of education and breeding of youth in good literature”, the record shop had gone bust and had everything he needed other than stock. He went to the banks who turned him down for a loan (nothing new there!), so he found private venture capital and began to build a cornucopia of 70’s rock including Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and The Jam, along with an extensive selection of blues, folk, classical, jazz and musicals. CDs were introduced in the late 80s but his stock remains predominantly vinyl. Alongside the shop Geoff continued to run Backtrack, a mail order company founded in 1980, which he proudly claims offers the most extensive soundtrack stock in the UK on LP and CD.
Open seven days a week (only closed Christmas Day and Boxing Day) with manager Matt Prince and three part-time staff, Geoff has built a strong client base and rarely needs to advertise.
“Clients always come to you via word of mouth, passing trade, repeats. People return five years later and say how glad they are that we are still here. We’ve had many famous musicians visit over the years including such luminaries as Paul McCartney, Robert Plant and Paul Weller. When McCartney visited the shop, I mentioned to him that the Crickets (who I knew he had been involved with) were performing at the Rhythm Riot rock ‘n’ roll weekend in Camber and he said he couldn’t make the gig but asked me to say “Hi” to them on his behalf. That was a great line – “Paul McCartney says Hi”.
Volunteering for Festivals, Films and Fairs
For 19 years, Geoff has been running contemporary music events with Mike Prince for the annual Rye Arts Festival and only retired from the Festival committee this year. Together, they have booked many big name acts over the years, artists such as Chris Barber, Courtney Pine, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the inimitable Humphrey Lyttelton, as well as many supporting local musicians. This year, their input into the Festival continues with the likes of Altan, one of the very finest traditional Irish folk bands.
As a member of the founding group of the Rye Film Club, which runs monthly in the Community Centre, I questioned Geoff about its future now that the new Kino cinema is up the road. He remains optimistic and although the audience has fallen by some 25% there are still plenty of regulars who enjoy the good community atmosphere – and the cheaper price. “People sit together and talk before the film starts and I sometimes think they are disappointed when it comes on. It is a different experience.” Whatever event you might attend at the Community Centre, Geoff and his team always seems to be there working quietly in the background, helping to organise and facilitate Weight Watchers, craft fairs, Zumba or the WI Country Market.
And what next?
Asked what challenges lay ahead, Geoff replied that he doesn’t think too much of the services he receives for the high business rates. “Basically, I get a lamp post outside my shop! There are no police, as the police station is barely open a couple of hours a day, no bins emptied without extra costs and much more could be done to encourage visitors out of season”.
Before being involved in the music world, Geoff worked in the 60’s as an Operator in the London Overseas Telegraph Offices and is in the process of writing a book on their fascinating history. Yes, surprising how many hidden talents and interests an interview can uncover.
Back to music – Geoff is always interested in buying collections on vinyl or CDs. An LP of Spriguns of Tolgus (AKA Spriguns) an electric folk group formed in 1972, recently sold to a dealer for over £1000, so perhaps you should stop now and take a look in your loft to see what gems you may have hidden away and pop along to Grammar School Records.
Photo: Dee Alsey