One block from the hustle and bustle of Carnaby Street in London, a new yellow storefront serves as a portal to Jack White’s vintage Americana. The red tin ceiling, rows of vinyl records and 1950s recording booth evoke White’s home in Nashville. But it’s the glimpse of a classic British phone booth, tucked away by the doorway and playing secret recordings of White’s voice, that reveals Third Man Records is trying out a British accent. The intimate store, dubbed Third Man Records London, opened on Saturday and was built on the former site of a lazaretto, a historic flourish that plays deep into White’s mythology.
The retail store and concert hall join the brand’s stores in Nashville and Detroit, marking Third Man’s first location outside of the United States.
“London is really personal to me and to Jack,” said Ben Swank, co-founder and co-owner of Third Man. Rolling stone. “This is where the White Stripes were really appreciated for the first time. They broke in here first. I lived here for a little while and we love this city… It was always kind of understood that if we did a third location it would make the most sense. It’s just very personal to [Jack] and I think he wanted to do something to show that respect to the city.
Third Man Records London, located on Marshall Street one block from iconic Carnaby Street, offers two levels of retail next to the Blue Basement, a 60-person venue that will be used for both paid concerts and secret shows. White personally designed the space, which brings touches of his American roots to the city, including a 1950s vinyl recording booth from Nashville. (White also personally refurbished the store’s till, also shipped from Nashville.)
Although the space is small, the emphasis is on unique details. Downstairs, fans will discover a “Literarium,” a vending machine for books created by Toronto artist Craig Small. This is only the second of its kind in the world, handing out small, random books with the insertion of Third Man tokens. These tokens, also used to save time in the recording booth, represent the face of actor Dick Van Dyke, the quintessential American trying to be British.
“I like the possibilities of [the Literarium]Says Swank, who also runs Third Man Books with publisher Chet Weise. “We could get snippets from writers we like or ask them to do a one-time essay. I love the total chaos of its randomness, so readers are surprised by something they’ve never heard of before. It will always be replenished and renewed. There will always be new things in there.
White and Swank began pursuing the idea of a store in London last January, shortly before the pandemic hit. They hired Camille Augarde, previously of Rough Trade and Fat Possum, to oversee the store and label. While the store could have opened in 2020 had it not been for lockdown delays, the team says the time has come for Third Man to welcome the London public, especially since the England currently has no coronavirus restrictions in place. (While London is fully open, with no current mandate on masks or vaccines, Third Man will need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to access the Blue Basement shows.)
“We accidentally had a lot of time to put everything together because of the pandemic,” Swank notes of the store. “I think it’s lucky because it’s just starting to open up here. The timing is really good.
“It was really interesting trying to set up something like this during the pandemic and not being able to travel,” Augarde adds. “The original idea was for Ben and Jack and everyone who was all instrumental in its design to come and oversee a lot of it. And obviously they didn’t go. It was 80 percent done in video.
As a label, Third Man is known for their limited edition vinyl records and reissues alongside albums and EPs from the label’s own signatories. This vision will continue in London, but with a greater focus on emerging artists from the UK and Europe.
“We’re doing well in the US with our artists, but I just don’t think we’ve had enough broadband to do that kind of expansion,” says Swank. “We rely heavily on our distributor here, which is great. It felt like we needed someone to be that resource person [in London]. “
Augarde adds: “In addition to making our American artists known, we are also very keen to give a boost to certain British and European artists. So that it is not only an American label and that it is also a global label. “
For the opening of Third Man Records London, Third Man has brought in several UK artists to create vinyl offerings that will be available in black vinyl worldwide and in limited edition yellow vinyl in the Soho store. These include unreleased and new recordings by Paul Weller, David Ruffin, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cornershop, Gina Birch of the Raincoats and The Magic Roundabout. The store will also sell exclusive collaborative products, such as a Bella Freud merino knit sweater and a Rockins scarf.
“We’re actually small enough that if it turns people off, that’s fine,” Swank adds. “The attitude here is different from the United States, so it’s a tough talking point, but I don’t mind offending unvaccinated people. “
Since Third Man Records opened in Nashville in 2009, White and Swank have had numerous discussions about how the label and its sales spaces could continue to grow. Detroit opened in 2015, with its pressing plant added in 2017, but there are no concrete plans beyond London. Swank says he imagines there will be more global retail spaces in the future (Tokyo is a bucket list possibility). Ultimately, Third Man Records wants to welcome all kinds of music lovers, especially those who would otherwise be too intimidated to walk into a record store.
The brand’s initial mission seems particularly relevant after 18 months spent with mostly virtual contacts.
“When we started, about 12 years ago, the goal was really to get people out of their butts and into a brick and mortar store,” says Swank. “To stop buying things online all the time. Face-to-face conversations are how culture thrives. I think that record stores and bookstores are the place where culture is disseminated in a city. They are super valuable that way. When we first started there were only a lot of Jack White fans and now we’re in a place where we don’t know who all the fans are.
“It’s really a success to have these unique physical spaces and to get people interested not only in the idea of Third Man but in records in general,” he adds. “We try to put it in context so that it doesn’t look like a strange antique in your grandmother’s house. “