Sometimes a shop is not really a shop. Sometimes a shop is the heart of a local scene, without which an entire subculture would be lost. Such is Banquet Records, an independent record store in Kingston, just outside London, owned by music aficionados Jon Tolley and Mike Smith.
The current incarnation of the store began in 2005 when Jon and Mike bought the failing store from the previous owner, who had in turn purchased the store from the Beggars Banquet chain when they closed in 2002.
The store’s continuing success – when others are closing down at an alarming rate – stems from their multifaceted approach to the business; they also run club nights, put on gigs and have their own record label, which started from Jon’s bedroom. The recent spate of London venue closures was a setback, but Jon and Mike solved it more imaginatively than most, putting on shows in a local church and theatre.
“When The Peel closed, we had to bite the bullet and find a solution to put bands on,” says Jon, of a much-loved local Kingston haunt. “We’ve been experimenting with gigs in All Saints Church – which is a whole different way of experiencing a band live. Although we do massively miss The Peel, it’s possibly turned out for the better. The worst thing about its closure is that it was a sixteen-plus venue, which encouraged and promoted music for college kids. Having small independent venues is crucial.”
The shop manages to attract huge names to play in Kingston, from pop-punk heroes You Me At Six to Liam Gallagher and Britpop icons Suede. “There’s a mixture of reasons why people will play a gig,” says Jon. “One would be money. The second would be that they want to do something cool for kudos or whatever. For example, when Bastille played here, they didn’t do it to get loads of money or loads of album sales, they wanted to do something cool and fun. And the third would be album sales. In a time when you don’t need too many sales to get a number one album, the difference that we can make to an album campaign might be enough to make it top twenty or not. […] A lot of bands play just because they want to have a fun time – touring American bands wanna play a sweaty punk show to 100 people, that’s awesome, and we do that a lot. It’s important.”
Banquet have dealt with their fair share of bad shows, though, whether that’s having to put bands on a podium in front of the DJ booth in a nightclub or people not turning up. The best shows over the years, Jon says, are always the stepping-stone gigs – gigs that mark a turning point in some way. “I think as a music fan and as a promoter, you’re quite keen to experience new things – there’s some crazy things that have happened and you get to appreciate events more for the service they provide rather than just as a fan when you have to work them.”
Jon’s passion and love for music is what attracts many customers to the shop. “Helping a band out that you believe in and seeing them grow and grow – you feel like a sort of proud big brother from a distance,” he says. “There’s a business side to things and a moral side. The things that we do best are the things that are good in both ways. When HMV closed, we offered customers with vouchers fifty per cent off at Banquet – it was unfair that in the run up to Christmas they knew they were going to pull the plug and they still sold vouchers that they knew wouldn’t be redeemable. There was a lot of cynicism surrounding that, people thought we were dancing on HMV’s grave, but we were just trying to give music fans an experience, and people were really appreciative of it.”
So, what’s next for the store in the age of streaming? “There’s not too much that we really need to do,” says Jon. “The important thing is just being able to adapt to your customer’s demands and wants. Whatever happens, people are going to need music in their lives… As patronising as it sounds, making mistakes is fine. It’s how you deal with them once they’ve been made. The other thing is to believe in what you do. Don’t waste your life. Whatever you do, give it 100 per cent. That ethos is really relevant here. Everyone who works here cares about this thing that we’re involved with and it’s brilliant.
“There’s a Charlatans lyric from back in the day – ‘Live it like you love it.’ Don’t do things by halves.”