Small Wonder Records

When is a record shop not a record shop? Any ideas at the back, don’t be shy now, no, then I’ll tell you. A record shop is not a record shop when it’s an exhibition, a record shop is not a record shop when it has been built by a set designer from New York, and a record shop is definitely not a record shop when it doesn’t sell records. Taking all this in to account, it’s fair to say that Small Wonder Records on Hoe Street is not actually a record shop, but it is a triumph. I ventured out in to the rainy afternoon on Saturday to pay it a visit, and I was a little taken aback by what I found. I discovered that back in the 70’s and 80’s, Small Wonder was way more than just a record shop. I discovered a part of Walthamstow’s past that I didn’t really know about. And happily, I was reminded of the sheer joy of flipping through vinyl, reminded of the excitement of buying music in a shop.

The new Small Wonder Records in Central Parade on Hoe Street, is an exhibition about the old Small Wonder Records which was, when open, based at 162 Hoe Street. The original shop, which was also home to an independent record label of the same name, played a not insignificant part in the British Music Scene. It was part of a network of independent record shops which also included the likes of Rough Trade and Probe Records in Liverpool. This network gave people access to non main stream music, and gave new bands an outlet to get their music heard and sold. Through the use of mail order, Small Wonder made this music accessible all over the UK. Fill in a form, stick a postal order in the envelope, and soon after a brand spanking new record would drop through your door.

Of course, Pete and Mari, the owners of Small Wonder, didn’t just sell records, they made them. Artists such as Bauhaus, The Cravats and The Cure, all released tracks on the Small Wonder Label. I sort of new about Small Wonder before I visited the exhibition, but standing in the shop yesterday, reading about the bands they released and looking through the Small Wonder discography, it made me think, bloody hell, this is pretty amazing. That’s not just me right? this is pretty amazing stuff isn’t it? There’s a fair bit of music history linked to Walthamstow, the Beatles played at what is now Mirth, Marvel & Maud, Ian Dury studied at the Walthamstow College of Arts, and oh yes, The Cure were signed to a record label on Hoe Street.

Honestly, I could go on about this all day, but I should probably get back to the exhibition. The shop on central parade is packed full of memorabilia and posters. The walls are lined with everything you need to know about Walthamstow’s contribution to punk music. There’s even a recreation of the Small Wonder Shop, which was put together by Damage Studios who are based in New York. If like me you spent much of your youth hanging around in record shops, you will no doubt feel right at home here. So this isn’t a record shop, but it’s the history of a record shop, a pretty important shop at that. I said at the beginning of this post that this exhibition is a triumph, and it really is, the team behind it have done a great job. Small Wonder runs until 24th September, if you do nothing else this month, do this. Click here for more information, or visit the Small Wonder facebook page.

3 comments

  1. Bill, nice piece and yes it is sort of amazing that a small shop on Hoe Street played a central role. Significaht too that this didn’t happen in Ealing, Lambeth, Hammersmith or Barnet. No, it was Walthamstow and the exhibition organisers were very keen that this wasn’t overlooked as London celebrates 40 years of Punk.

    Credit for the exhibition should also be given to Dolores Rocket and Neil Meads who slaved and argued to ensure Small Wonder was represented as best as they could. This IS a museum quality exhibition and these things are only possible through people with years and years of experience.

    We’ve pondered how to make this relevant to young people for whom 1976 probably feels as distant as 1876. Music soundtracks all the important events in our lives and a sixteen year old with a hankering to create their own music will meet obstacles of indifference and the challenge of presenting their vision to the world. Small Wonder Records is a reminder that those obstacles and challenges can be overcome.

    Thanks again for coming along, so glad you enjoyed it.

    1. Thanks Mark! But Neil and I argued very little in fact, which considering we’d never met before collaborating on this, was great. I was conscious that this is very much his project that he has been working on for some considerable time and my role was to present the (continually expanding) mass of information in as visually coherent and accessible a way as possible (as well as getting all the framing sorted and images prepped!). I’m grateful for the name-checking though as it was extremely challenging and when we started out we had no idea that we’d have so little time to install and it would be alongside the amazing shop construction team too! I’m just so pleased that people are able to relate to and engage with it.

  2. I first ventured into the shop either in the late 70’s/early 80’s. It was not the first time I passed the shop, mostly on the bus but this time on foot. I entered, started looking through the records, said hello and asked a few questions. The gent working in the shop looked at me, almost not answering. When I said I was from Canada visiting my relatives (my aunt and uncle lived on Second Avenue, my mother grew up on Lymouth Road) his attitude changed. I think he didn’t like Americans. I left that day with a stack of EPs, one being Bauhaus “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on Small Wonder. I think I might still have the carrier bag. Wish I made it over for the 2016 art exhibit.

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