Interview with Chris Muirhead and Tom Thrasher, the men behind Plymouth’s new independent record store, Last Shop Standing

Last Shop Standing as you come through the door
On a frosty Monday morning in December I find myself hanging around Bretonside bus station in Plymouth waiting for a man I’ve only ever talked to Facebook and I have to ask myself if I've really taken my life in the direction it should have gone. Before the thoughts get too depressing, however, a chirpy, bearded man approaches, shoulders hunched against the cold, and shakes my hand before leading me in to the latest bastion against soulless commercialism, against the lowest common denominator, against mass market drudgery – Last Shop Standing.

The store was conceived in the early part of 2012 by friends Chris Muirhead and Tom Thrasher and opened in all its glory at the start of December which, considering the unit used to be a store for greasy catering equipment, is an impressive effort on its own. Add to that the challenge of opening an independent record store in an age of digital downloads and X-factor induced musical apathy and, well, there is only one question to start with; why did you do it?! Muirhead answers, largely because Thrasher is either still in bed or on his way, “I was approached by my friend Tom. He was working in a job he hated, I’d just been made redundant and I was then working at a vinyl and CD processing place where I noticed a marked increase in bands and labels ordering their music on vinyl. When Tom first approached with the idea I did think it was madness and thought maybe a website would work but the more we looked in to it the more it became something that people wanted. People want a place to go and listen to music and do more than vaguely connect with people online but to actually sit down with other people and talk about music”. So from two mates having a great business idea (we've all been there, right?) to the wonderfully boutique record store I’m sitting in right now there must have been a few obstacles on the way, yes? Muirhead again, “This unit was absolutely disgusting. There was a lot of grease and getting it done up was a lot of hard work. The part that we thought would be a lot more fun was picking the selection of records for the shop and with sale or return being non-existent we had to be absolutely sure that whatever we bought would sell. So that was a lot of late nights in front of spreadsheets looking at thousands and thousands and thousands of releases saying ‘that one’ and then having to justify to it each other.”

Vinyl destination
At this point, Tom scurries through the door and is eager to join the discussion immediately while he makes himself a cuppa and I ask how business has been since opening up less than a month ago. “It’s not like we expected to be mobbed every day and we didn’t expect there to be nobody here but it’s certainly been encouraging. Now that we are actually open I’m more interested in turning people on to vinyl I think. We’ve had people come down who collect vinyl or are used to buying vinyl or have got back in to it recently but it’s the people who come down who are just intrigued by a new record shop that I’m interested in turning on to vinyl and the whole lifestyle that goes with it”. Now I’ve spent many an hour rummaging through record shops up and down the country and already these guys already seem like two of the most passionate and affable record shop owners I’ve ever come across but just what is it that makes them think this is still a necessary presence on the high street (or bus station in this case)? Thrasher jumps in, “Musical is a social thing I think. I mean, I’d get bored if I could never talk to anyone about what I was listening to and I was just sat at home on my own. We’ve seen that already with people coming in and discussing what they’re listening to and what they’re buying.” Muirhead takes it to a more sociological level, “Discussing something online is different because you’re hidden behind a screen and you have that 30 second delay while you think about what you’re going to say. When you’re actually sat down with someone and you’re listening to music there’s no protection and you learn so much more from each other’s reactions and reflections because you’re not sat at home listening to different music and discussing an album that hasn’t even come out yet.”

Passionate stuff for 10.30 on a Monday morning, eh? On a lighter note, there are bound to be confused customers or bored travellers waiting for the next bus out of Plymouth but have they had any particularly misinformed requests? A wry smile crosses Thrasher’s face, “We had a request for Rod Stewart and one guy came in asking for a Lady Gaga album. He wanted it on vinyl though, for his wife. He liked classical music but we don’t really know anything about that and we don’t have enough space to stock everything so we asked if he liked anything else and he came back with “Seattle music from the 90s”! It’s quite a jump but from that I found out that he hadn’t heard the Pixies so we sold him Doolittle. Whether he liked it or not, I don’t know.” To make a success of this shop, Chris and Tom will need to learn how to turn browsers in to buyers or sounds in to pounds so if I was to ask them to sell me something for £20 what would I get? The immediate, unflinching response from Muirhead is “That depends on what you like really”. Exactly the right answer. Thrasher picks up the thread, “There are certain records that people will pick up and I would be able to say “that’s one of my favourite records, I want a copy of that”, like the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor album. Then again I want most of it”. “It’s very dependent on mood as well”, Muirhead expands, “you might want something quite uplifting or you might want something more melancholic. The thing with our collection is that it’s a load of classics from the last 20 or so years and then new releases. We’re really excited about new music so we would talk to you about what you like to try to find something that fits but we certainly wouldn’t try to palm something off on you”. Thrasher explains, though, that they do get some challenging customers, “A guy I kind of know came in on the first day and just said “sell me something” so I asked what he was in to but he refused to say so I suggest the Neutral Milk Hotel record because that’s my favourite record. You’d have to be made of stone not to like that record”.

Set the records straight
Passionate, knowledgeable, moral and thoroughly articulate to boot. Surely this is too good to be true. Is having music geeks running an independent record store not akin to alcoholics running a pub though? Doomed to failure, surely? “Maybe”, muses Muirhead, “Firstly you have to remember that it’s a business. That analogy works but the difference is an alcoholic running a pub would die, our passion won’t kill us”. Thrasher agrees, “You wouldn’t want someone who knows nothing about beer running a pub and that’s the same for us. I’ve heard of people going in to HMV to ask if they have any Tom Waits and they just get told that he doesn’t work there! It’s poor customer service but HMV are going to die soon anyway.”

For those of you that don’t know, Bretonside Bus Station also houses one of Plymouth’s finest venues, the White Rabbit, so surely the proximity means there will be some hook ups between the two independent ventures? Muirhead, an ex-White Rabbit employee, is enthusiastic again, “They put on a lot of gigs there which is great and Dan [James, White Rabbit Head Honcho] has been a huge help from giving us advice to giving us the bar stools that we’re sat on! And when they put on bands that want to get involved they can come in to the store to do a signing or an acoustic session as well. We’re going to be fairly strongly linked because we want this whole area to be more vibrant and less depressing really. There’s an old record store next door, Really Good Records, which is amazing for 2nd hand stuff and now there’s a live music venue and us. So if there was a cool vintage clothing store or art shop that would be amazing.” There are lofty ambitions afoot though as Thrasher explains, “We want to be able to say that Plymouth has the coolest bus station! It’s way better than Bristol.”

With vinyl surrounding us and a decent smattering of CDs available I wonder what the proprietors think of the recent resurgence of the cassette tape on the new music scene. Scepticism is rife, “I don’t know how popular it will get. There’s maybe a Hip-Hop element that may push it along but I think it will be around for a couple of years and then fizzle out”, reckons Muirhead. Thrasher, though, gets straight to the point, “It’s not like vinyl where the sound is just better. It’s almost just a way of selling your music or something to print a download code on to. It might as well be on Betamax, you could replace the tape with anything. Our friend was joking that he might bring out an ale and just print the download code on the glass so you get a song with a pint”. Uncharacteristically, Muirhead warms to the format, “We’re stocking one tape at the moment from local band Whoanows [reviewed on this very blog] and I’ve got a tape player in my van that I normally just plug my i-Phone in to but I gave it a go and it does have some redeeming features. The quality isn’t good but it is distinctive. I mean the Clash works amazingly well but Public Image Ltd sounded awful. It’s almost as though you should have to listen to the Clash on tape! A bit like watching old horror movies on VHS I guess”.

So what for the future, where can Last Shop Standing go? Muirhead gets animated, “There’s still a lot to do with the store and we’re aware that you can’t just get away with being a record store anymore. We’re going to be branching out in to selling limited edition screen prints, concert posters, magazines, books and indie cinema DVDs. Not a huge amount but the sort of stuff that we would recommend. We’re also hooking up with One C Records (Plymouth based vinyl and tape label) and the Il Pleut T-shirt and screen printing company to try to incorporate different things and innovate. There will also be in-store performances from local and national acts and poetry nights. Other than that it’s just promoting the shop and buying lots and lots of records”! At this point I can hide my jealousy no longer and only my damned lack of cojones prevents me from ringing my day job boss and quitting so that I can run off with these likely lads to join the musical circus. Thrasher sounds a word of warning though, “When you start stocking a shop you realise that you know absolutely nothing. We’ve gone through stock lists for labels and never heard of any of the artists. I mean, we just got a compilation album in called Sexual Lives of the Savages (Soul Jazz Records) which is Brazilian post-punk and it’s brilliant but I do not know one band on this compilation”.

Last Shop Standing is what it says on the tin. It’s the last place you can go to get any kind of real interest in your musical tastes and advice based on more than what the last tune you listened to on Spotify was. There is only one thing that I don’t like about this shop and that is the fact that I’m not running it. Ah well, maybe there’s room for a spin-off store in Cornwall. Penultimate Shop Standing, anyone?

More information