VIRGIN RECORDS in Sheffield was one of the first dozen stores opened by Richard Branson, following the establishment of his original store above a shoe shop in Oxford Road in London in early 1971. A second shop followed in Notting Hill and then the name was rolled out nationwide, with a dozen new shops, though lots of music fans were already aware of the name thanks to their very popular mail-order operation which offered “5 to 15 bob off ANY album on ANY label” via full-page adverts in the music press, a discount made possible by the abolition of the RRP or recommended retail price (which had kept a level playing field for stores, and would arguably have meant we still had a thriving retail scene today if it hadn’t gone) in 1970.
I originally thought the Sheffield branch was open by the summer of 1971, in a new parade of low rise shops which had gone up on a largely derelict area still awaiting redevelopment following destruction in the war. The official address was 137 The Moor. It now looks as if it was more likely to have opened in 1973.
It was quite a basic affair but from the start the place had a cachet about it. There was certainly something a little risqué about the name, and the suggestive illustrations which sometimes decorated their window, which gave the store a grown-up feel. It was clearly a cool shop and very different to anything we’d seen before. They had joss sticks going. They had aircraft seats to lounge in, and they had big red headphones to listen to albums on while you lounged. They also had a clothing department upstairs to draw the girls in while boyfriends could trawl through the albums. Vinyl purchases were popped into smart white plastic bags, decorated with illustrator Roger Dean’s artwork (as a fan I actually hung on to some of my Virgin placcy bags and they’ve survived), which became the thing to be seen with at school – despite the fact that the black ink quickly rubbed off on your hands if you weren’t careful.
Needless to say the Virgin staff were all almost unbearably hip. One fan still cringes on recalling the looks and smirks from behind the counter when buying a record they clearly felt wasn’t fashionable, but they knew their stuff, what was just out, and what was coming in soon.
By dint of the budget nature of the operation, the store was cheaply kitted out with record browsers knocked up out of untreated chipboard to begin with.
The air was often hazy due to the joss sticks and the window used to ‘fug up’ with condensation on busy winter days. After the Virgin record label began in 1973; artists like Mike Oldfield, Henry Cow, Hatfield & The North and Faust were heavily promoted in store as they emerged, often with 49p price offers, and free poster on the reverse side of their in-store catalogues. Virgin also promoted gigs at the City Hall, and even had a free concert to promote the album by Gong – in their back yard! We sat on the rubble and were amazed by the music of Planet Gong, particularly the work of the French keyboard player who had all the latest Moog synthesisers.
I can’t remember exactly which records I bought there in the early days, though I think I got Deep Purple’s Fireball album there in 1973 as I bunked off school after lunch and was pleased on entering Virgin to see they were just undoing the delivery boxes, and they told me I was the first person to buy the album.
One very popular feature of the store was the famous notice board, where local musicians like The Mirror Cracked and NWOBHM outfit Seventh Son would advertise for soul mates to form world dominating combos (Saxon in the latter’s case).
This is the store today, which The Yorkshire Bank have taken over. The shop two doors down is empty though, maybe we could recreate it for the fortieth anniversary?
Virgin’s stayed at the bottom of The Moor for many years. I can’t recall exactly when they moved, probably in the early 1980s, first to a bigger store on High Street in a much more central area, then to the final location as a Megastore on Fargate, which became Zavvi (see separate entry – I’ll cover the other two shops later). It was never the same.
Since I first posted this page, more information has come to light. You can see some unpublished images of the original store on the next page, Virgin Part 2.
Perhaps one of Virgin’s most important legacies was Barry Everard, who worked at the original store and learned the ropes before leaving in 1978 to set up the legendary Record Collector store in Broomhill, which we will cover anon. Check this page on the site to see some more early Virgin Record store bags.