It has been well documented that vinyl is well and truly back as the format of choice for discerning music lovers: according to the Vinyl Factory, Revenue from UK vinyl sales is expected to exceed CD sales this year for the first time in 30 years.
But even though we’re in the midst of this vinyl revival, there’s a relic of 20th-century record-buying culture that seems more archaic: record store bags. Like the pink and white striped pick ‘n’ mix bags of yore, paper and plastic record store bags can instantly conjure up particular smells and places in a way that store brand bags of today just can’t.
A new book by Jonny Trunk titled AZ Record Shop Bags brings together stunning images of British record shop bags from the 1940s to the 1990s, from London, Manchester and other major cities, as well as Northampton, Scarborough, Chesterfield, Tunbridge Wells, Leicester, Loughborough and more. By taking over 500 examples, the book offers insight into an area of graphic design that was previously almost totally overlooked.
These square spaces proved the ideal site for graphics ranging from practical typography to striking letterforms, cute mascots and illustrations making the most of the fact that these spaces could be printed with one or two colors – three at most. maximum.
While record covers, flyers, posters and zines have long been celebrated as artifacts that tell stories around the confluence of music and design, record store bags like these have fallen under the radar – probably due to their perishability, on the one hand, making many of these bags incredibly rare, and the fact that it was the disk inside that was of interest, rather than its flimsy receptacle.
“These pieces of paper and plastic, mostly square in shape, are artifacts of a lost era: a musical economy based on physical objects that could only be purchased, in person, at physical outlets” , writes Jon Savage in the foreword to the book. “These brightly colored objects are pure ephemera, designed only to transport the record inside the store to the home, from the ticket machine to the turntable. They weren’t made to last. »
Perhaps another reason we haven’t seen them before is that while some shop bags carry the counter-cultural kudos of independent or specialist shops, many of the book’s bags come from UK chain stores which instead have connotations pedestrians. In this way, the book also offers a history of the British high street: it was news to me that Boots “the chemist” was selling records (his record bags boasted “Record & Tape value” with typography in the classic Boots blue), as did electronics rental shop and retailer Rumbelows.
Naturally, good old Woolworths is represented here and epitomizes an interesting shift in high street record sales: many lamented the death of small independent stores when the chains moved in; now, we fondly look back to the good old days when we could drop by Woolies for the day of the release of a single and a little bag of sweet prawns.
Countless names in the book are sure to be very familiar to those with even a passing interest in music: there are obviously the big guns like HMV and Virgin, but also the famous London institutions like Honest Jon’s and Soho Records, and this Mecca for anyone with a penchant for bargains and floor-to-ceiling inventory, the Record and Tape Exchange.
Elsewhere the book showcases some star-studded artifacts: there’s Squires, the record store in Ealing where Dusty Springfield worked; and NEMS, the Liverpool store where the Beatles first met Brian Epstein, which sports brilliantly blocky typography that looks as good today as ever.
Superb is a recurring theme throughout the book: since these bags served as both advertisements and media, the store names had to stand out and often serve as both branding and decoration. Looking at lettering today, it’s striking that the type is largely unknown – before the days of system fonts and extensive digital foundries, the designs seem much more varied and frequently feature charming little slightly offbeat touches than modern irons. with uniformity.