WESTMINSTER PEOPLE: Sounds of the Universe record shop founder Stuart Baker
Led Zeppelin and Prince are past customers of famous Soho record store
04 December, 2016 — By Alina Polianskaya
Stuart Baker: ‘When I first started the shop we didn’t have a telephone, we got a fax machine after about six months’
THE founder of Soho record store Sounds of the Universe, Stuart Baker discovered his calling at an early age.
“Ever since I was a teenager I used to come to record shops in Soho to buy records, and I never really grew up,” he says.
Keen to follow his musical passion, he took a trip to America, bought some soul and jazz records, and the rest is history.
He started the business around 25 years ago, selling records from a stall in Camden Town market, above live music venue Dingwalls. But while “buzzy” Camden held some appeal, he always knew that it was Soho where he really wanted to be. He moved to a store in Ingestre Place before relocating to Broadwick Street.
“Soho is the only place where I feel at home,” he says. “I like the fact that everyone can be different and be accepted for who they are. It is a multinational world.”
Stuart lives above the store with his partner Angela and two children. “People get surprised when you say you have children” growing up in the area, he says, but “it gives them a good outlook on life.”
He believes Soho teaches them to “not take anything for granted, like ideas of community and who you are… there is a constant questioning and accepting”.
While he grew up in Bromley, south London, which was a very “homogenous area” and a bit of a “cultural void”, he explains, “I wanted my children to grow up in the opposite environment.”
The building they’re in holds a special place in history. Today (Friday) a new Rolling Stones album launch takes place at the store, and Stuart says: “In the 1960s, the Rolling Stones used to rehearse here in [what is now] our living room. This used to be a pub called the Bricklayers’ Arms and was one of the first places they used to rehearse. I think it was where Brian Jones was first auditioned.” Visiting tourist groups stop by “every hour or so”, as a result.
Stuart’s love for the business is evident. “I can follow my passions, communicate with people and introduce them to different music… it is 100 per cent intellectually and emotionally stimulating. It is a bit of a privilege to do what I’m doing really.”
They also run a record label, Soul Jazz Records, from the same building, which was launched in 1992 and has since released a few hundred records, mainly compilations.
With some record stores struggling to survive, and many closing down for good, Sounds of the Universe has stood strong through a changing landscape. Stuart believes that a central location and hard work has helped but, most importantly, it is the “passion” and “integrity”, that has seen it through.
“Anyone who works here is a music lover” he says. He rattles off a long list of his own personal tastes: “Jazz, punk, Brazilian, acid house, country, southern rock, disco, reggae, Latin, classical, Miami bass… our identity is anything that’s non-mainstream, and that’s my taste as well, so it is a good marriage.” But he admits: “I do listen to pop as well because of my children.”
As Soho changes he sees it from two viewpoints: “From a business point of view, there are definitely more people than there used to be. From living here, 24-hour tubes means there are people outside later when I want to go to sleep.”
Their central location also means “you get a lot of famous people coming in,” he says.
Led Zeppelin and Prince were just two examples of past visitors. Meeting stars in an everyday environment means “you can kind of speak to them normally,” he says. But while he didn’t personally meet the late Purple Rain star, his friend who served him said he was “very friendly”.
Over the years they have been over about “five different humps” on the musical and digital landscape. “When I first started the shop we didn’t have a telephone, we got a fax machine after about six months. There were no computers, no mobile phones. Then CDs came along… digital downloads came along. We just sold records all the way through.”