Record-hunter Bart Sibiel honours Belgium’s remaining legion of well-stocked vinyl emporiums, from Veals & Geeks in Brussels to Wally’s Groove World in Antwerp.

Veals & Geeks, Brussels

Both major Belgian blips on the international club music radar, Popcorn and New Beat, were the result of an irrepressible thirst for obscure music by key DJs. The fact that Belgium sits at the crossroads of international traffic routes, flight paths, train lines, highways and, in a more metaphorical sense, cultural influences, means it was fairly easy for DJs and later, shop owners, to access a wide and almost unlimited variety of music. Hunting vinyl abroad was easy. The now defunct Sabena airlines connected Brussels to most major global cities and tales of Belgian collectors pillaging US warehouses, or flight attendants shopping for the latest hot records during stops in New York for clubs back home have inspired many a young and eager vinyl-enthusiast.

Still, these overseas trips were the exception rather than the rule and were not even necessary for building a sizeable and quality collection. Record shops were widespread in Belgium and every thirty-something music lover or DJ has a well-stocked arsenal of tales about their favourite stores that fed them great music. The most legendary of those stories usually involves the opening of newly-arrived shipments at USA Import on Thursdays and fighting with (or rather hoping for scraps left over by) top DJs for soon-to-be club hits. And something similar was happening in shops all across the country.

Online shops and digital downloads largely killed this tradition. It lingers on in a watered-down version in shops like Doctor Vinyl in Brussels where new vinyl is still regularly stocked. But it’s mostly a long-lost memory despite vinyl’s recent resurgence. Change doesn’t have to be all bad, though – with the unlimited availability of the latest and hippest releases online, making a difference as a DJ no longer requires painstakingly building up a relationship with shop owners to get the best new stuff by digging deeper than the competition.

That’s where record shops come back into the picture. A vendor’s knowledge and guidance introduces us to new styles of music we might otherwise overlook if they’re unlisted by web 2.0-savvy search engines that build upon previous searches. Most importantly, though, the piles of neglected records gathering dust are the most interesting, as they hide gems that make heads turn. With new tunes being far more accessible than before, DJs build their reputation on connecting the freshly made with the forgotten. Certainly with club music going, as it does, in cycles rather than moving forward, the 90s House revival being the current manifestation of this phenomenon, only a few borderline-autistic fellow collectors keeping the walls, rather than the dancers, company will notice.

Of course these old records are also available online. Discogs has become the standard for all but the very laziest of DJs. Our laziness, combined with the web thinking on our behalf, and zapping our motivation, all conspire to block us from discovering the unknown. We end up going for what high-profile DJs play or recommend and follow it like sheep.

Only the most determined wander off the beaten track. They know it’s far more enjoyable to flip through thousands of records than to click your way through a similar amount of music online. It certainly has a romantic quality, but it’s far easier and more satisfying to work your way through immense quantities of records, equipped with a vast knowledge of labels, producers and other data you find in liner notes. Combine that with a healthy dose of curiosity for the weird and aberrant and it’s the best way to discover the greatest, most surprising gems that will get you noticed as a collector or DJ, which will result in your own flock of docile sheep.

For these music lovers, Brussels and Belgium are still a very interesting place. Most major cities still have at least a few decent record shops, and almost every weekend a record fair is held somewhere. Flea markets and thrift shops are everywhere. Another good thing about Belgium is that most sellers don’t bother with the internet. Traditional hotbeds of vinyl trade like New York City and London are mostly cleaned out of bargains and only really interesting to those willing to spend lots of cash. Very often those records are also (if not only) available online.

Not that Belgium is a paradise where the streets are paved with plenty of cheap, sought-after records. The internet has raised awareness about the value of records, motivating some to go straight for the outrageous and ask ridiculous prices. Nevertheless the fact that we’re not taken all that seriously, and aren’t on top of most people’s city-trip list helps to keep the crates in our shops well-stocked with superb vinyl. Combined with the ease of travel to Roeselare, Putte or Paal to go record-hunting makes this a good country to live in for a music-enthusiast. Add an open mind and you’re bound to end up with a mighty and diverse collection to make any DJ stand apart. Much like Fat Ronny, Olivier Pieters and many who went before them.

A ready-to-go list would spoil the fun but Doctor Vinyl, Veals & Geeks, Juke-Box in Brussels, Wally’s Groove World, Record Collector and Tune-Up in Antwerp and Music Mania in Ghent are excellent starting points. Last year some interesting new ones were added to the already broad choice of record shops in Belgium. 72 Records and Monsieur Jean in Brussels and Music Zombi in Ghent are fine places to spend some time and money.

Doctor Vinyl, Rue De La Grande Ile 1 Groot Eiland – 1000 Brussels
Veals & Geeks, Rue des Grands Carmes 8 Lievevrouwbroerstraat – 1000 Brussels
Juke Box, Boulevard Anspachlaan 165 – 1000 Brussels
72 Records, Rue du Midi 72 Zuidstraat – 1000 Brussels
Monsieur Jean, Avenue Latérale 9 Zijlaan – 1180 Brussels
Wally’s Groove World, Lange Nieuwstraat 126 – 2000 Antwerp
Record Collector, Lange Koepoortstraat 105 – 2000 Antwerp
Tune-Up, Melkmartkt 17 – 2000 Antwerp
Music Mania, Walpoortstraat 3 – 9000 Ghent
Music Zombie, Keizer Karelstraat 21a – 9000 Ghent