A short distance from the hustle and bustle of London’s Carnaby Street, a new yellow storefront serves as an entrance to Jack White’s old-fashioned Americana. The ceiling of red tin, the rows of record players, and the 1950s-era recording booth are reminiscent of the White’s Nashville home. But it’s the view of a traditional U.K. telephone box that is tucked away by the entrance and plays secret recordings of White’s voice that will reveal that Third Man Records is trying to develop the British accent. The cozy store, named Third Man Records London, launched on the following day and was constructed in the old location, a historical glimmer that is woven into the mythology of White.
The retail store and music venue are a complement to Third Man’s Nashville and Detroit locations. The store marks the brand’s first store outside of the U.S. The store will also set the stage for Third Man to expand its record labels in Europe, the U.K., and Europe.
“London feels really personal to me and to Jack,” Third Man co-founder and co-owner Ben Swank tells Rolling Stone. “It’s when the White Stripes actually first got noticed in a more general way. They first broke through here. I was in the city for some time, and we love this city… The city always has a given that it was the best option when we had another place. It’s a personal thing to Jack, and I think he was looking to show respect for the city.”
Third Man Records London, situated at Marshall Street one block away from the famous Carnaby Street, features two levels of retail along with the Blue Basement, a 60-person venue that is utilized for tickets-only concerts and secret shows underplay. White designed the space on his own and brought his American roots to the city, including an old-fashioned vinyl recording booth shipped from Nashville. (White also personally refurbished the till in the shop, which Nashville also delivered.)
The space isn’t big, but there’s a heavy emphasis on distinctive details. In the basement, guests will discover the “Literarium,” a book vending machine designed by the Toronto-based art director Craig Small. It’s the only one of its kind in the world that will give out small books randomly through the use of Third Man tokens. The tokens also can be used to purchase time in the recording booth. They have the image of the actor Dick Van Dyke, the classic American trying to appear British.
“I love the possibilities of [the Literarium],” Swank says. Swank also is the director of Third Man Books with editor Chet Weise. “We can get excerpts of writers we love or ask them to write an original essay. I like the total chaotic nature of it all, for people to read and be pleasantly surprised by something they’ve not seen before. It’s constantly replenished and rotated. There’ll always be new items in there.”
White and Swank initially started exploring the idea of opening a London shop in January, just before the pandemic struck. They employed Camille Augarde, previously of Rough Trade and Fat Possum as the store’s manager. And records label. The store could be open by 2020, if not for the delay in the lockdown process. The team believes that it’s now the perfect time for Third Man to welcome the London people, especially as England has no coronavirus regulations in place. (While London is fully open without any current restrictions regarding vaccines or masks and masks, the Third Man will require vaccination against Covid-19 to be able to watch performances at The Blue Basement.)
“We’ve accidentally had a really long time to roll it all together because of the pandemic,” Swank writes of the shop. “I believe it’s a good thing because it’s only just begun to show up here. It’s actually very great.”
“It’s been really interesting trying to set something like this up during the pandemic and not being able to travel,” Augarde says. “The initial concept is for Ben and Jack and all the others who contributed to the development of this project to join us and supervise a large portion of it. But they aren’t. It’s 80 percent been done over video.”
As a record label, Third Man is known for its limited-edition vinyl releases and the reissues of albums and EPs by the label’s own signed artists. The same concept will be carried forward in London but will focus on emerging musicians from the U.K. and Europe.
“We do well in the States with our artists, but I just don’t think we’ve had enough broadband to take on that sort of expansion,” Swank says. “We’ve mostly relied on our distributors here who are fantastic. It was clear that we needed someone else to be that person in London.”
Augarde says, “As well as spreading the word about our U.S. artists, we’re eager to provide a boost on some U.K. and European ones too. To ensure that it is not only a U.S. label and to be a global one, too.”
To celebrate the launch of Third Man Records London, the Third Man has tapped several U.K. artists to create vinyl releases available on black vinyl around the world and with limited editions of yellow vinyl at The Soho shop. They include previously never heard and new recordings by Paul Weller, David Ruffin, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Cornershop, The Raincoats’ Gina Birch, and The Magic Roundabout. This store can also sell exclusive collaboration merchandise, including the Bella Freud Merino knit sweater and a Rockins scarf.
“We’re actually small enough where if it turns people away, then it’s fine,” Swank says. “The attitude over here is different than in America, so it’s a hard-talking point, but I don’t mind offending non-vaccinated people.”
When Third Man Records opened its doors in Nashville in 2009, White and Swank had been in numerous discussions on ways the company and its retail stores could expand further. Detroit was opened in the year 2015, and the pressing plant was to be added in 2017. However, there are no specific plans for the future beyond London. Swank states that he believes that there will be more international retail locations in the future (Tokyo is a bucket-list possibility). In the end, Third Man Records wants to accommodate every type of music enthusiast, but especially those who may be not comfortable in the record shop.
The brand’s original mission feels particularly relevant following 18 months that are mostly spent in virtual contact.
“When we first started, like 12 years ago, the goal was really to get people off their butts and into a brick and mortar store,” Swank states. “To not buy things on the internet constantly. Conversations in person are the way the culture develops. I believe that records stores and bookstores are the places where culture is spewed out in the city. They’re very valuable in that way. When we first began, there were many Jack White fans, and we’re now at a point that we’re not sure who the majority of fans are.
“It’s been really successful having these unique physical spaces and getting people interested in the idea of not only Third Man but records in general,” He adds. “We’re trying to re-contextualize it, so it doesn’t just seem like a strange antique in your grandmother’s house.”