Libraries learning from retail: Interview with Oxford’s indie music mecca, Truck Store

This is the third in a loose trilogy of blog posts exploring libraries and music: previous features include a guest post by Stewart Parsons of Get It Loud in Libraries and an interview with rapper-educator Professor Elemental. Today, we’re joined by Carl Smithson, the manager at Truck Store, an amazing indie record shop in Oxford, England.

Truck Store, Oxford
Truck Store, Oxford

After attending the Foyles Futures workshop on next-generation book retail in London, I’ve become increasingly concerned with design and atmosphere in libraries. Great service and effective presentation of collections are vital for any 21st century public library.

That might mean subversive, low-cost design features like those in Tracy Dawson’s Australian high school library, or sophisticated readers’ advisory work of the kind being promoted by my Auckland Libraries colleague Paul Brown.

I also think it’s important for librarians to look outside their profession and their traditional ways of operation, to learn from places like bars and alternative bookstores. Carl runs the only independent record store in Oxford, and I was keen to understand how he’s led the shop to success in a tough economic environment. He told me:

I’ve been with the shop from day one – just over two years ago – but I’ve been working for the parent company of Truck Store for about seven years now.

We have years of experience behind us: our original store in Witney is now eight years old. We have seen the industry completely change in that time but have been able to adapt to those changes. We’ve built a solid business and worked really hard behind the scenes on getting things like stock control as tight as possible while simultaneously establishing strong connections with the local music scene.

We’ve seen technology play an increasingly major role in dictating the future of our industry but it’s not all in a negative manner. For example, almost all new release vinyl LPs come with a download code for the album. This gives the customer the perfect balance of convenience and longevity and shows a way in which old and new technology are combining to give genuine music lovers a great experience. We are also very active as an online presence and take customer orders through Facebok and Twitter.

Having three stores is an advantage to us as a company, because each shop is very different and has been tailored to its location, yet there are always ways for the shops to benefit from each other. We have different staff with different areas of interest who can help out with recommendations, as-well as being able to swap stock around between the shops and make things interesting for customers that way.

We have found that one of the key areas is recommending albums to customers: There are so many new releases and new acts emerging each week that it can be a little overwhelming. Our recommendations via a panel in-store with reviews on or the website/ mailing list are hugely important and signal the fact that in an age of over-saturation of information, people actually need a bit of guidance.

Carl’s words remind me of Readers’ Advisory, the branch of librarianship concerned with recommending new material to library users; and the collaboration between the three record stores reflects the way that a modern library service shares its citywide collection between local branches, each adapting to the needs of their specific community. Notice also that all of these things are underpinned by tight stock control and a firm grip on behind-the-scenes operations!

The rather cosy cafe at the Australian National Library in Canberra
The rather cosy cafe at the Australian National Library in Canberra

Truck Store incorporated its own cafe, Keen Bean, late last year. It’s something we see more and more in public libraries. I asked Carl if sacrificing floorspace to a coffee shop was a tough business decision. He told me no:

The coffee shop has been a pretty huge success for us. While giving up some wall display space was a shame, the benefits of having a bustling cafe in-store far outweigh that. Having a little less space to work in has made us more selective and thus more confident with the titles on display. Sometimes less is more!

Part of the reason we opened the shop on Cowley Road was to place ourselves right at the heart of the music scene, largely so we can hopefully be of some benefit to the many great bands emerging in Oxford, but also to tap into local energy and talent. So much of our struggle is the fact that while we’re at the heart of the music community, we are a little off the main shopping routes. We’re more of a destination store than somewhere people stumble upon by mistake. However, the cafe gives us the advantage of the shop always appearing busy – this certainly helps draw people in.

The Keen Bean’s growing reputation as one of the best coffee outlets in town helps: the idea of drinking an excellent coffee with some new and interesting music playing in the background is very appealing and we often have people spending hours in-store. They are thus more likely to buy a CD playing or rummage through the racks…

In 2009, the documentary Anyone Can Play Guitar showcased Oxford’s indie music scene. Carl told me that Truck Store were the only physical outlet for the film’s DVD release, and this helped them to build the good relations with local bands which are at the heart of their business:

The film was a great example of independent spirit and a celebration of what makes Oxford special. With the venues, the labels that exist locally, and the great local music magazine Nightshift, we always felt the missing piece of the puzzle in Oxford was a physical presence that could act as a hub for the local scene. This is why we installed a stage in the shop: so we could showcase everything we are celebrating, whether local bands or touring bands playing intimate shows.

Spring Offensive gig at Truck Store, Oxford - Photo by Flickr user garrettc
Spring Offensive gig at Truck Store, Oxford – Photo by Flickr user garrettc

Just recently we have seen 3 albums come out from local bands which have sold well nationally but have done exceptionally well for us, the new albums by Foals, Stornoway, and Thom Yorke’s new project Atoms For Peace. I think for fans of Oxford music there is a genuine thrill to being able to pick up the new album by your local heroes from your local record store!

As libraries move away from being repositories of the physical book and become sites of imagination and learning, places where professional librarians help people to find knowledge and explore culture, Truck Store provides a great role model for employers seeking staff who are passionate, driven, and well-informed. The job application form for Truck staff asks them to discuss their albums of the year. Carl explained:

We’re a company driven by passion. I hope that’s what makes us stand out from other outlets selling CDs and DVDs, we care about what we sell and try to convey that passion to our customers. A love of music is pretty vital, but it always come back to customer service and being able to connect with customers. When we look for staff, it’s important to find people with the right balance.

I think that an indie record store surviving in the age of digital downloads and recession is even more impressive than the survival of a public library. Every time I go to New York, I’m amazed by the dearth of record stores – and I feel that the UK music retail scene is following hot on America’s heels. Despite this, Carl’s optimistic for the future – and his optimism is couched in terms which should resonate with public libraries:

As I said before, in the eight years we’ve been operating, the industry has completely changed and will continue to change. It’s how you adapt that ensures your survival.  If you can connect with people, whether it’s over the counter or over social media, you can at least give yourself a better chance of surviving.

Check out Oxford’s Truck Store online. For more on how libraries can learn from retail, hospitality, and entertainment, read last year’s Dirty Library Trilogy at this site.

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