Britain's last cassette shop lures nostalgic music fans

Mars Tapes caters to a growing group of listeners seeking to recapture the joys of the analogue medium

MANCHESTER (Britain) • Tucked away in a corner of the top floor of an indoor market in Manchester, north-west England, is the last shop in Britain dedicated to selling cassettes.

Mars Tapes crams around 1,000 cassettes, a Coca-Cola radio, boom boxes, vintage editions of the Walkman cassette player and other tape-related accessories in a compact retail unit smaller than one of the city's tram carriages.

Hits by stars including Elvis Presley, Florence + The Machine and Lewis Capaldi line its shelves, as classic tracks provide a musical backdrop, taking customers back in time.

The shop was set up in 2019 by an eclectic group of people united by a love of music, explained co-founder Giorgio Carbone.

Spanish sound engineer Borja Regueira, 28, and his girlfriend Moira Lorenzo, 27, had initially proposed starting a cassette-only shop.

Italian Carbone, 30, and 28-year-old journalist and musician Alex Tadros supported the idea and merged the store into the group's record label.

NOSTALGIC TREND

The shop is tapping into a nostalgic trend in cultural consumption heightened by the coronavirus pandemic.

People have turned to reading books, and watching classic films and television series, to stave off boredom and find escapism during lockdowns.

Sales of vinyl - the pocket-sized plastic cassettes' predecessor in music distribution - jumped to their highest level since the 1990s in Britain last year.

Modern artistes such as Lady Gaga, Dua Lipa and Selena Gomez have released tapes recently, pushing cassette sales in Britain up to around 157,000 last year - the highest figure since 2003.

Mass production of cassettes began in the 1960s, with 2.4 million tape players produced and sold worldwide by 86 different manufacturers by 1968.

But their British heyday ended with the explosion of CD sales in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving some music fans pining for a bygone era.

Warehouse manager Mark Williams, 38, browsed Mars Tapes' collection with an analogue camera hanging from his neck and said his interest originated in "nostalgia more than anything".

"I'm a child of the 80s and 90s - I grew up with cassettes. It's tangible, something you physically own, not just downloaded data," he said.

SOCIAL CONSCIENCE

But the boom in cassette consumption is not confined to an older generation seeking to relive their youth.

Younger listeners increasingly prefer to savour music rather than mindlessly skipping through online playlists and endlessly scrolling through social media.

"People like the idea of having something physical. Lately, especially with the coronavirus and lockdowns, it's a way of appreciating the music more," said Mr Carbone. "There's a lot of work behind a cassette. It's something we lost with time, to appreciate what we have and listen to something more than once and not just skip it."

Care assistant Jane Fielding, 22, occasionally listens to cassettes on her Walkman. "I like the simplicity. There's no distractions, no notifications on my phone," she said.

Most tapes cost no more than £10 (S$19), with prices rising to £50 for limited-edition products.

Cassettes are cheaper and easier to produce than vinyl and Mars Tapes limits its runs depending on genre and artiste to keep costs down, Mr Carbone explained.

The store acquires stock from websites such as eBay, individual donations and record labels including Universal. Mr Carbone, Mr Tadros and Mr Regueira's record label also supports local indie bands by purchasing their tapes.

"In Italy, there's not that music culture. It's good to be here because there are a lot of people passionate about cassettes," said Mr Carbone.

"We thought cassettes were the most affordable way of making records and helping bands."

'ANOTHER LEVEL' OF LISTENING

Socially conscious listeners want independent artistes to earn a good living from their work instead of filling the coffers of streaming giants such as Spotify and Apple Music.

Streaming services accounted for 80 per cent of British music consumption last year, but have been criticised for short-changing musicians.

"You own the music and support the artiste, big and small," Mr Carbone added.

He acknowledged it seemed "crazy" to occupy a bigger unit after Britain's winter lockdown this year and the economic damage it wrought.

But grants from Manchester's council and rent holidays helped Mars Tapes survive.

Mr Carbone thinks cassettes will remain a "niche" interest but reckons demand will remain steady.

"There's something about the sounds of cassettes that's just different," he said.

Prospective customer John Yates, a 45-year-old shop manager, agreed. "It sounds better on cassettes, a lot different than listening on the radio - it's another level," he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2021, with the headline 'Britain's last cassette shop lures nostalgic music fans'. Subscribe