On Feb. 16, after six and a half years operating in Highland Park, Wombleton Records abruptly announced its closure with a brief message: “The shop has closed its doors. We're keeping the space for other projects and we will have occasional events like the old days, but we've run our course as a day in day out retail shop. Thanks for all of the good times and your business.”
No warning, closing party or blowout sale. Shop co-owner Ian Marshall was unreachable for almost a week afterward. Patrons were stunned. Where will they now score first-pressings of vintage vinyl that they so covet, which Marshall travelled around the world to physically collect and bring back to his appreciative customers?
“Everything runs its course,” Marshall explains. “It was fun. I loved it. But running the shop was like owning exotic cats, probably not the greatest financial decision but interesting, fun and scary.”
Wombleton opened in September of 2010. At the time, York Boulevard was pretty quiet. Café De Leche, The York and Urchin Vintage had recently opened, joining Johnny’s Bar, Future Music and a few art spaces down the road. Marshall and his wife, Jade Gordon, had been living in the neighborhood since 2005, and one morning he decided to walk around and look at prospects. Everything on Figueroa Street was too loud, expensive and big. He made his way up to York, an intimate network of blocks with only two lanes of traffic, people merrily jay-walking from one side to the other, and the potential to blossom into a hip sector for small businesses.
“I wanted it to be like a fantasy record store. Like you just walked into a shop on Kings Road in London in 1969.” —Wombleton Records co-owner Ian Marshall
Marshall noticed a narrow space, formerly a beauty salon, which had been empty for a year and a half. He approached the neighbors, “legit hippies from the 1960s,” running a weaving studio called Pets With Fez, who gave him the landlord’s number on the condition he would not play EDM or hip-hop all hours of the day. He assured them he had a different plan.
By that evening, Wombleton was born. Marshall, a self-described “record-obsessed person since childhood,” had both worked in record stores and stocked shops, including the short-lived Territory Records store-slash-barbecue-restaurant in Silver Lake. He thought he could make it work. “It seemed easy, which is in retrospect laughable,” he says. Where most record shops were cluttered, charmingly dusty, “shoddy junk-heaps oriented towards dollar bins and 50 percent off,” Marshall took another approach.
First, they decorated the space with embossed wallpaper, potted plants, Persian rugs and antique hanging lamps. A friend, David Donohue, built harpsichord-shaped record bins. “I wanted it to be like a fantasy record store,” he says. “Like you just walked into a shop on Kings Road in London in 1969. It came out looking more 1970s faux-Victorian, which was perfect.” The name, painted in gold lettering on the outside, was a play on the popular British children’s books about the Wombles.
For Marshall, the wallpaper was everything. “I never had the heart to hang anything on the walls. I was in love with the wallpaper. I loved staring at it. It has a hallucinatory quality to it actually. I liked people walking in and saying, ‘Oh, this is different.’”
His philosophy for stocking the store was simple: “We have the stuff the other shops don’t.” Wombleton only sold records that were out of print, rare, collectible, first pressings or otherwise coveted by local selectors and vinyl hounds, and pretty much strictly focused on music from the '60s, '70s, and '80s. “It was the store I wanted to shop at,” he explains. To achieve this, Marshall, along with trusted tastemaker Donohue, took more than 20 trips to England, Scotland, Germany, Holland/Utrecht, Jamaica and other distant corners of the world, handpicking and bringing back 50,000 LPs and 20,000 45s over the years.
Shopping at Wombleton was expensive. Many people didn’t like that. Some people hated it. Marshall says, “We got flack for the shocking price tags, but everything from these trips sold. It all sold.” Sounds great, but the money that came into the shop went back into funding these trips. Finally, as his sources were depleting, the records he used to find abroad for £6 were now costing him £30 each, so there was no profit to be made.
“It’s not a doom-and-gloom closure though,” Marshall says. “I loved doing the trips and making weird deals, driving around the countryside and eating at pubs with David, who was brilliant, and I owe him so much for his immaculate taste in things I didn’t even know about.”
One more person who deserves mention is Wombleton’s notorious employee, Elden M., who appeared a few months into the store’s existence. “He was bringing in records, and we bought his whole collection piece by piece until he had nothing left. And we were like, geez, OK, we need to hire you.
“He is the reason we even kept the store going the last three years. We wanted to keep him in a job, but also he kept us in business. He was the greatest record store employee in the universe. Of all my finds across the years, Elden was our greatest score.”
It’s a bittersweet moment for Marshall, who helped foster a record shop community that now includes Mount Analog, Gimme Gimme Records, Avalon and Permanent Records, all within walking distance from Wombleton. “These places have heart. Our selection between the five of us was unparalleled in the world. So it’s a little sad that we’re dropping out of that. It was a beautiful period, but I’m ready to do something else.”