Grant Smithies is a pretty lucky guy. After more than two decades getting paid to write about music and play tracks on the radio, he made his work even more enviable by opening a small but expertly-curated vinyl shop with his wife, Josephine Cachemaille. Taking the plunge in 2017, the store has flourished as a reliable goldmine for collectors.
Perhaps more significantly, he lives in New Zealand - one of the relatively few countries in the world not living under claustrophobic lockdown restrictions in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suffice to say, then, one of my first questions is to ask how normal their new normal actually is.
“That social contact that sort of makes you feel good about the world and yourself, those sort of conversations that are really part of nourishing your own mental health, we are able to continue with that sort of thing now, and I imagine you guys are really missing that,” he tells us from his home in Nelson, on the country’s South Island. We ask about the period last year when his store, Family Jewels, was forced to close in a bid to curb coronavirus transmission.
“At the time, I felt I was sort of sending out musical Red Cross parcels. People were contacting me on Facebook and Twitter, asking about various records, and I would post stuff out to them. It was funny being down there by myself, because record stores are such beacons for people,” Smithies says, explaining the experience reaffirmed in his mind the role a record shop can play. “After we got people back in the shop it was really clear how much people had missed us as a community hub… and it was obvious that the store had become quite an important part of their emotional lives. To come in here, drink pints, and argue about music.”
The name Family Jewels is as much a reference to crate digging record culture as it is a play on words betraying the informality of Smithies himself and the shop environment, which could hardly be more understated. “It basically used to be a shed in the beer garden of a bar, which is in an old church,” he says of the set up. “The bar is called The Free House. I should know a bit about its history. It's only a tiny wee church, well, it’s an ex-church as it was decommissioned years ago.”
“People have lived in it at various times. At one stage it was operating like a flat. At another time, a woman lived in there who was making costumes and things for Lord of the Rings. So it has been through various incarnations. And then around ten years ago four local characters bought it to turn into a bar,” Smithies continues, recounting how his vinyl wound up in the boozer’s backyard. “In the front garden of the bar when those guys took over they put in a big Mongolian yurt thing, which was a sort of occasional music venue, for small gigs and so on. I started setting up record fairs in there before the shop existed.”
“Then I began thinking, rather than hauling records down there three or four times a year, what if I could find a cheap ass venue to store the records and just open a couple of days a week. A friend of mine said it's a shame I couldn’t just take a little hut and lift it into a place people already go,” he continues, explaining affordable premises were always in spots with low or non-existent footfall. “I thought 'Fuck, actually there's a hardly-used shed in the grounds of The Free House.’ So I phoned one of the guys and said: 'How about I turn it into a record store, you move your office into your house?’ He went: 'That's an excellent idea.”
Starting life as “two poky rooms and a dunny in the back,” Family Jewels has subsequently opened up. Operating Thursday through Saturday, interior walls have been removed to create a larger shop space crammed with stock. “Being this small has been a real advantage for us. Often I'll go to record stores in Wellington or bigger places in New Zealand and there's lots of dead stock just sat there.”
“That’s partly because whoever owns the store puts the most interesting second hand records online through Discogs or eBay. Or Trade Me, the New Zealand auction site,” he says, before moving on to how the collection is organised. “Our shop is so wee it's got 1000s and 1000s of records in a really small space. I've got a whole lot of crates on the ground that have Cheap Thrills written on them and everything in those is ten bucks. So teenagers and people that have bought their first turntable and folk looking for a bargain will endlessly ransack those. Then the crates higher up are just full of interesting stuff I've found.”
“I love finding things that were pressed in New Zealand because someone took a punt on them back in the day, but I just know are shit hot records and can sell at the same price or less that I sell a new record,” he says of the perfect used haul, nodding to a small trove of early Brian Eno solo records he recently picked up. “What I really love is when somebody sells you a record collection who has been a really curious listener across all sorts of genres. And you find strange electronic music in there: early punk, old Sun Ra stuff. That's the ideal collection for me. Suddenly, you end up with all these fresh and interesting things in the crates that don't have to be punishingly expensive for you or the person that comes in.”
One thing that clearly stands out when talking to Smithies is a passion for homegrown and homemade music. He keenly talks of determination to support New Zealand-based independent distributors, artists and labels, telling us repressings from the likes of seminal imprint Flying Nun are essential for a domestic section he collates with a view to giving customers an insight into “the national imagination”. When discussing Holiday Records, which opened in 2019 as the country’s first vinyl pressing plant in 30 years, the excitement is most audible in relation to its impact on accessibility and affordability.
“You get a lot of people looking for New Zealand pressed records whether it’s from a New Zealand artist or not, because often the covers are different,” he continues of the domestic industry. “If you buy a New Zealand pressed copy of something that used to be on gatefold in the UK, or in the States, it probably came out in New Zealand as this thing called a flipback, which is just one piece of cardboard that opens out and the record goes in one side, from the centre. Like a pocket. People from all over the world are often trying to find those. They were just New Zealand record producers being cheap ass and saving on printing really. But during the 1960s and 70s they were really prominent in New Zealand and not many other places”.
“One of the things that I suppose is great about running a record shop is the sort of thrill of the chase thing that you get with buying excellent records when you're just a punter. When somebody advertises some records, and you go round and have a look and you go ‘Fuck, these are great.’ Then you buy them, trying to do that and pass on the thrill of it to somebody else that comes into the shop without making the prices ridiculous,” Smithies continues, before explaining he sees this as a form of knowledge sharing, and an essential part of everything from music journalism to music sales.
“The music that you're selling is dribbling out into the local community and feeding people's emotional lives. That’s one of the most important things about record stores for me, as a punter going to them for so many years. They feel like they are sort of a shortcut to changing your mood, making you feel certain ways and in ways that no other thing I can think of does apart from books actually. Books take you to somewhere special that only really records and books can do for me. They sort of tap directly into your mind, they bypass lots of other things in your emotional life in a really special way. So it feels like it feels like useful work, you know?”