Located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, tucked away on a quiet street just behind the Pantheon, is a small but perfectly formed record shop, Crocojazz, specialising in jazz, blues, gospel, country and crooners. It is managed by a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, Gilles Coquempot.
I discovered Crocojazz in June 2015, when I was in Paris for the annual street music festival, La Fête de la Musique. The shop is a treasure trove for collectors, packed with thousands of new and second-hand recordings. Crocojazz is an immersive, multi-sensory experience. The air smells faintly of old cardboard. Cool tunes play in the background. There is stuff everywhere: posters, flyers, pamphlets, framed photographs, vinyl, CDs, DVDs and books. The place is a visual feast. No space goes unused. There are even records pinned to the ceiling.
Unfortunately, I could only spend about an hour in the shop when I visited in June. But I was so impressed with the extensive array of jazz LPs, particularly vinyl pressings that are normally hard to find, I vowed to return. As soon as possible.
In November 2015, I was back in Paris for a long weekend to attend the independent wine growers’ festival, Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants, and spend a few hours buying vinyl.
My wife and I arrived in Paris on Friday afternoon and checked into our hotel Mercure Paris Bercy Bibliothèque, in the 13th arrondissement, close to Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Friday night we had dinner with friends at a favourite brasserie, L’Europeen, opposite Gare de Lyon. On Saturday morning we made a short walk along the river Seine to Port de Tolbiac, to meet the same friends for breakfast at one of Eric Kayser’s boulangerie café’s. I drank capuccino, talked excitedly about visiting Crocojazz and ate more patisseries than intended. I enjoyed myself too much, which meant I set off for Crocojazz a little later than planned.
I got to the Latin Quarter, 5th arrondissement, just before lunchtime. I recalled that Gilles shut Crocojazz for lunch between 1.00pm and 2.00pm. I could have wasted an hour in a café, but to get maximum value from the day I decided to make my way to Crocodisc, a sister shop located a few streets from Corocojazz.
Crocodisc is comprised of two shops, side by side at 40 and 42 rue des Ecoles. The stock of vinly and CDs at 40 rue des Ecoles spans soul, funk, rap, jazz rock, reggae, salsa and world music, while the shop at 42 has pop, rock, punk, indie, electro and soundtracks. Both shops are small, but they are bursting with stock. I could have spent ages at Crocodisc, but I only had an hour before Crocojazz opened. I dug through the racks quickly and bought a few vinyls:
- Stan Getz with guest artist Laurindo Almeida (second hand, Verve, re-issue)
- Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd – Jazz Samba (second hand, Verve, re-issue)
- Ethiopian Soul And Groove – Ethiopian Urban Modern Music Vol 1 (new, Heavenly Sweetness, enhanced re-issue 180g)
I arrived at Crocojazz a little early, a few minutes before 2.00pm, and it was shut. The old exterior had been given a fresh coat of paint since my last visit. It was still the same distinctive yellow and blue, but I think I preferred the way it looked earlier in the year: a little shabby.
I felt awkward loitering outside Crocojazz. Across the street was a shop that sold books and recordings, La Dame Blanche. I hadn’t noticed it in June. I popped in for a quick dig. Lots of nice vinyl.
When Gilles arrived to open Crocojazz I was waiting outside. He gave me a quizzical look. Maybe he remembered me from June. Maybe I just looked like another sad vinylhead. We exchanged greetings. He opened up and I was in there like a rabbit down a hole.
I contained myself admirably. I let him get his hat and coat off before I hassled him. I told him that I was from England, had visited earlier in the year, loved his shop and had been desperate to return ever since my first visit. I explained that I was there to buy vinyl, but also to ask him a few questions about Crocojazz, if he didn’t mind.
He agreed. You’d never seen anyone whip an iPad out of there bag so fast. I’d installed a voice recorder app a few days before in the hope Gilles would agree to be interviewed. I’m embarrassed to admit that my French language skills are non-existent. Luckily, Gilles speaks very good English.
The interview went as follows:
Gilles, are you the manager or the owner?
No…just the manager. The owner is downstairs.
(When Gilles says “downstairs” I think he means “down the road.” Crocodisc is a just a few streets away from Crocojazz.)
How long has the shop been open?
Next March, is 30 years. It’s a long time.
Has it always been in the same location?
Yeah. It’s the same shop. Just the Jazz department and blues.
(The telephone rings. Gilles laughs and says, “Sorry.” We pause for a few minutes while he takes the call. When he’s finished, we continue our conversation.)
Have you worked here since the shop opened?
Crocodisc, you mean?
No, here. Crocojazz.
Here…30 years ago.
So you’ve worked here all the time it’s been open.
Right. Yes. Since 1986.
Do you have anyone that works with you?
No. I’m alone.
Yeah. I’ve been in the job 40 years now. In the beginning, when Crocodisc opened, the jazz section was over there. I was there for six years.
[I failed to calculate quickly enough] Did Crocodisc open first, or did the two shops open at the same time?
No. Crocodisc opened first.
How long has Crocodisc been open?
Oh, now…something like 36…37 years ago.
Crocodisc and Crocojazz share a website. It’s only a couple of pages. There are telephone numbers, but no email addresses.
No, we don’t have any email address.
So you don’t sell online?
No. Because I’m alone right here, you know, and if somebody is making…er…it harder by Internet I’ve got to go to the post office and do packaging…and I have to shut the doors. No, I can’t.
Ah. OK. I was going to email and say, “Could I come and ask some questions?” But there was no email address.
(Gilles laughs) No.
In the last 10 to 15 years a lot of record shops have disappeared.
Why have Crocodisc and Crocojazz survived?
I dunno. Because…er…maybe the staff. I mean, people working on these companies are good ones. Also, a lot of people prefer to come in here and talk, you know. It’s harder on any website around the world.
So you think they come here because of the advice you give…the knowledge you have?
Yes. Right. I give a lot of things, you know. People can listen to the records here. Sometimes they only know the big names when they come in. If you do an interview in the street and ask someone, give me the name of a fine trumpet player, the first one is Miles Davis. But who is talking about the other people…you know.
Yeah. So you share your knowledge and expose customers to artists they’ve not heard of. When was the peak for the shop? When did you have your largest number of customers?
Normally in December. It’s the peak of the year. Because people buy a lot of presents for Christmas Day or New Year’s Eve.
I mean, what year was your peak?
Peak? I can’t remember. Because…er…every time there is a peak when a big record is re-issued on CD, on LP.
So it changes.
Right. Yeah. When the CDs came out a lot of people stopped buying records and buy CDs. But a lot of customers prefer vinyl. I mean, the cover, the sound, the quality.
Why do you think there is such a concentration of record shops in the Latin Quarter?
Maybe because a long time ago it was the place where you had jazz clubs. In this neighbourhood we’ve got a lot of jazz clubs. At Notre Dame you got a few. Up the river you got a lot.
And they are still open?
Has Record Store Day had an impact? Has it increased interest in vinyl?
Well…it’s more for the rock.
In recent years I’ve noticed a bit more jazz being released for Record Store Day.
Some. Limited editions. Or the re-issue of something very rare. But Record Store Day is more for rock. Jazz is only 2% of the record revival. Some people, they don’t listen to jazz. Or just a few, like Miles, Coltrane…just the big names.
With the rise of digital formats…CDs, MP3s, Spotify…all that kind of stuff…why do you think people still buy vinyl?
I dunno. A lot of customers who come in here…it’s the vinyl freak…lovers, you know. And for my part we never stopped buying the records. I compliment my records with CDs. It’s hard to find rare records. We get some in here. Sometimes they only make a few…maybe only 500 for the world.
When record companies do really small runs – sometimes only 150 – how can they make any money? By the time they’ve paid for distribution…
Yeah. Right. Well…sometimes they come from a small independent label and they don’t have too many charges. If they call, it’s one guy. You make an order and they deliver one or two days later.
Do you make an effort to support local labels? I know you stock stuff released by Paris-based Heavenly Sweetness, for example.
Ah yeah. We work with Heavenly Sweetness, Sam Records, with Jazz Workshop…you know.
You stock a lot of new records, but what proportion of your stock is secondhand?
(More customers started to enter the shop. I thought I might out stay my welcome so decided to end the interview there. Gilles had a business to run.)
That’s cool. Thanks very much. It was really nice to talk with you and very kind of you to let me take up so much of your time. I’m gonna buy some records now.
Sure. Be my guest. (Gilles laughs)
I stopped recording, but our conversation didn’t end there. With the iPad switched off, Gilles seemed to become more relaxed, keen to converse. As I rummaged through the racks of records I’d pull out an LP and comment on the cover, artist, pressing or label. Gilles would respond with a story or little nugget of information. He’d get excited and play recommendations on his record deck and CD player. We carried on like this for a couple of hours. He’d occasionally break off to serve a customer and then he’d be back, with more recommendations and stories about artists, labels, pressings, imports and clubs. I always carry a small notebook, so I made notes as we talked.
Even though the shop is very small, it contains a lot of stock. There were records and CDs in racks, on shelves and in boxes on the floor. I didn’t have time to go through everything, so I focused on the records stored in racks. They were the easiest to access. Every row was tightly packed. The only way to sift through them without causing damage was to lift out about ten records from the front of the row. This left enough space for me to flick through the remaining covers. Once I got to the back of the row I’d replace the ten or so I’d taken out. Each time I moved from one rack to another Gilles would follow and tidy the set of records I’d just finished flicking through. I tried to leave the rows as tidy as possible, but it was difficult to align the top edges of the LPs evenly. They were packed so tight it required a lot of downward pressure to get them level. I didn’t want to press too hard in case I buckled some. I got the impression Gilles wasn’t impressed with my technique. He held back as long as he could, then he said, “Here. Like this.” He showed me how to lift the middle of the row a little and jiggle the records until they spaced themselves evenly. This allowed me to get the top edges level without applying too much downward pressure. “Cool”, I said. “Thanks very much.”
One of the records I pulled out was Oblique by Bobby Hutcherson. “This is a great record,” I said. “I bought this re-issue by Heavenly Sweetness the last time I was in your shop”.
“That’s my cover”, said Gilles.
I looked at him, confused.
“The first pressing was released in Japan”, said Giles. Never came out in America originally. That re-issue by Heavenly Sweetness…they used my cover.”
“Ah”, I said. “You mean they took a copy of the original cover that you own to make the re-issue.”
“Yeah”, said Gilles.
“That is cool”, I said.
At some point in the afternoon I asked Gilles what his favourite record was. He told me that in an interview he was once asked what record he’d want with him if he was stranded on a desert island. He told the interviewer he’d probably choose some Mingus or Monk. He was told he could only choose one, so he said he’d take a box set. The interviewer clarified, only one disc. He said that if he was forced to choose one, he’d prefer to take none. What he liked varied depending on his mood.
We discussed our record collections and discovered that we both had so many CDs and vinyl LPs that we sometimes made duplicate purchases, unaware of our error until we got home to file items.
We talked about jazz clubs and record shops. Gilles recommended two shops in the U.S. – Jazz Record Center in New York and Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. He also highlighted a jazz club that I should visit if I’m ever in New York, Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village.
There aren’t many better ways to spend an afternoon. I thanked Gilles again for his time. We shook hands and I walked out of Crocojazz with a few purchases:
- Miles Davis – Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (new, Fontana, remastered audiophile re-issue 180g)
- Miles Davis – ‘Round About Midnight (new, WaxTime, audiophile virgin vinyl re-issue 180g)
- Walter Bishop, JR. – Soul Village (new, Muse Records)
- Duke Pearson – Wahoo (new, Heavenly Sweetness, re-issue 180g)
I left happy. I left enlightened.
64 Rue de la Montagne
Tel: (33) 01 46 34 78 38