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Pete has got a grand old bag
IT is just an old bag really – a throwaway item of which several thousand were produced over the years and duly consigned to the bin without a moment’s thought when its purpose had been served… which in most cases was as soon as you got home.
But oh my! What vivid, colourful memories were evoked by an image recently placed on the internet of what is almost certainly one of the few surviving paper bags that were, several eons ago, dispatched on a daily basis from family-run Swindon music shop Kempsters.
“Got a punk single there every Saturday”… “Remember getting the first Shadows LP at Kempsters”… ”Spent all my pocket money at that shop”… “I’d always buy whatever was Number One at Kempsters – didn’t matter if it was crap”… “Really fancied the girl in the record department.”
So, musician Pete Cousins – aka Teddy White – was enjoying a good old rummage through a box of 45s at his Old Town home when he suddenly produced, Eureka-like, that once familiar yellow and white stripy bag with the distinctive purple/mauve lettering.
For Pete, images of the first Canned Heat album, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s and myriad treasured singles on long-departed, dearly-beloved vinyl labels such as Coral, London America, Pye International R‘n’B and Fat Possum swiftly tumbled forth.
What did Pete do next? Put it on his Facebook site, of course… triggering a host of comments about the heady days of rock‘n’roll, soul and punk when three minutes of exciting, engaging music pressed onto a seven-inch plastic platter that span around on your turntable at 45 revolutions-per-minute ruled the day.
And for many Swindonians these precious, prized, oft-played and inadvertently scratched items were acquired at Kempster & Son, located – just as it says on the bag – at 98 Commercial Road.
The business is still going strong at the same premises today – though it has been more than quarter of a century since they sold their last record, having long since abandoned vinyl, cassettes and eight-track cartridges to focus solely on instruments.
At the mention of the eye-catching paper bags proprietor Jeff Kempster, 68, who took over the business from his father Jack more than 40 years ago and continues to work there today, instantly responds: “Oh yes, the yellow striped ones. We used to order them by the thousand.”
It was, as a 27 year-old Jeff recalled in a 1973 Adver feature, a “do or die gamble” for his late father Jack, a piano tuner and repairer, to leave Trowbridge to set up Kempsters in Swindon in 1952.
Pianos, accordions, brass instruments and sheet music were the staples before Jack branched out and started selling “harmonicas and a few 78s” (records that played at 78rpm.) Towards the end of the 1950s they began stocking singles along with electric guitars and amplifiers as rock’n’roll gripped Swindon – or at least those bequiffed younger elements newly enraptured by the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley… This is what Jack Kempster, himself an accomplished musician, told the Adver in May 1961: “Rock ‘n’roll is one of the finest things that could have happened for younger people.
“Many who did not know they had any music in them have taken it up seriously by buying rock‘n’roll guitars. There are now several rock groups playing in and around Swindon that are as good as you will find anywhere.
“They started off with cheap guitars when the craze came in two or three years ago and now will spend £50 on a new electric guitar.” Often on hire purchase… Jack added: “Rock‘n’roll has certainly been more than a passing craze with these lads.”
Three years later Jack reported a run on harmonicas due to the “sudden popularity of rhythm and blues. Groups like the Rolling Stones use harmonica very effectively indeed…”
He added: “It’s all a case of keeping up with the Joneses really.” The Brian Joneses, presumably.
Our 1973 feature on Kempster & Son spoke of the shop stocking 2,000 album titles, an extensive range of singles, 80 tape cassette titles “and roughly the same number of cartridges” (remember them?) from the downstairs premises. Meanwhile, musicians from as far as Bath and Gloucester patronised the “flourishing musical instrument department” upstairs. Former Commonweal student Jeff, we reported, was building up the cassette and cartridge side of the business while continuing to stock soul and r‘n’b imports from the States for a hardened horde of slavering aficionados and local DJs.
Today he says: “We closed our record department about 28 years ago. WH Smith killed it for us, offering £1 off the Top 50 albums. It took all the profit out of it for us.
“We had three people run the record department so we couldn’t afford to run the department after that.”
Jeff adds: “I still miss the record department. It’s a great shame. I loved playing them.”
- REFLECTING on his Kempsters paper bag Pete Cousins, 65, whose bands have included Tomorrow’s Children, Teenage Polecats, Stadium Dogs and various Teddy White incarnations, says: “If I’d kept every one of these bags I’d have to build a new shed.
“I was nine or ten when I bought my first single from Kempsters. Over the years I must have bought about 80 per cent of my music from them.
“For many years, until being a mod started taking my money for an ever-changing wardrobe, every single penny of my pocket money, and later wages, went on records – so I must have had a fair old few bags.
“There was a carousel on the counter at Kempsters which held 45rpm singles on various labels by various artists. The one thing they all seemed to have had in common was that they had black labels with silver grey writing.
“They were Buddy Holly on Coral, Eddie Cochran on London American… after buying a few I knew I could pick anything out of the carousel and buy it without listening.”
- GARY Williams, 59, worked at Kempsters for around five years in Seventies, while also dee-jaying at the Brunel Rooms and Vadims.
He says: “My first day job was in the Kempsters record department. Mum and dad were not too chuffed that I’d left school instead of going on to teacher training college. But they were somewhat mollified when Jeff promoted me to manager.
“It was perfect for me... record shop in the day and dee-jaying at night. Who needed sleep in those days?
“Most of the Swindon DJs came to us. Saturday was a big day because that was usually when we took delivery of northern soul imports which I had taken a punt on.
“I only ordered a few copies of each so – after me – it was first come, first served.”
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