Evil Genius Records first opened its doors in Lyttelton. Five days later the earthquake closed them. Benjamin James rolled the dice again in Berhampore, the obscure neighbourhood tucked between Newtown and Island Bay, not unlike Lyttelton’s working class sidecar to Christchurch, with Apa Chappel to help him source and sell albums and Rosie Smyth to brew and serve coffee. One year later they have a lot to celebrate.
NO earthquakes, no deaths, and two healthy babies for Smyth and Chappel. Plus, their store has become much more than a place to dig for rare vinyl and have a decent cup of coffee.
“That was always the idea for the store – to be more of a community hub,” says James.
Driving the point home, at that moment a neighbour stops by to pick up her allotment of fresh vegetables – Evil Genius is the local drop-off point for Wairarapa Eco-Farm’s CSA. Again and again, over the course of an hour, even though they’re closed for the day the front door slides open and heads poke in – coffee seekers are gently turned away, but one collector is invited to flip through the vinyl and CDs. Peter stops by to pick up what remains of the daily paper, which he reads to the people at the nearby retirement home.
“He used to sneak it out,” Smyth says with a smile. “We told him he could just have it.”
The three owners all live within a block of the shop, which has the feel of a clubhouse or remodelled garage fitted with mismatched furniture and great street art. Oversized posters and t-shirts designed by Oscar Guerrero hang high on the walls. An oriental carpet covers most of the cement floor and a couple of tables nose up to a long padded bench that lines one wall. Opposite it, LPs from around the world and CDs by New Zealand artists are displayed above bins chocked with vinyl. A counter under the front window has a stash of board games for kids. Unlike some cafes, nothing is too precious or twee.
James calls it a Lyttelton look. If anything, it’s utilitarian – once a week furnishings are shoved aside to accommodate live music, dancing kids, and lots of locals bearing takeaways. Fish n’ Chip Fridays have drawn performers from all corners of the Wellington music scene and this week is no exception, with Emily Fairlight opening a weekend of music and events to celebrate the store’s first birthday.
“I’m keen to turn Evil Genius into a club for musicians,” says Chappel. Already, it’s become a place of refuge from the CBD masses, with regular patronage from screen stars and musos. “We want more local musicians to bring their music in if they have an album release.”
“Hosting music and having people in here is the most pleasure we get from being here,” says Smyth, who’s become a vinyl fan while running the café side of the store. She’s the only North Island source for Lyttelton Coffee Company beans and is planning to expand the kitchen to serve more food, with the help of Chris Boswell, who’s a customer and runs a catering business just a few steps farther down Adelaide Road.
“That’s been really special for me, being young and having a café, people giving us free materials and advice,” says Smyth. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without that help. We’re really thankful to Wellington and Berhampore and the musicians.”
Other plans for the next year include linking into more gigs with Mighty Mighty, similar to their Saturday night birthday bash which features local acts like The Nudge and The Mantarays rocking alongside Lyttelton’s Delaney Davidson and Marlon Williams. At the store that day, Riki Gooch, Warwick and the Wankers, and Von Thundersvolt will entertain at a BBQ and 30 percent off sale. Sunday brings 400 new albums onto the shelves, a magician to amuse the kids, and soul singer Louis Baker for the mums and dads.
Originally published October 3, 2012 in Capital Times.