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A Potted History of ‘SPAINS’ (Est. 1922)

I believe that SPAINS Audio Visual – Bromsgrove is one of the oldest (if not the oldest?) electronic retailers still in operation in the midlands, the company having passed down three generations of the Spain family.Radio Broadcasting commenced in 1922 and Mr. S.M Spain who served throughout the 1914-18 war and experienced the early development of ‘Radio Telephony’ during that time was convinced that there was a huge future in this new medium. So in 1922 he and his wife acquired a WW1 army Nissen hut on the Pershore Road, Stirchley, a suburb of Birmingham and commenced making crystal sets to receive these new broadcasts. These he displayed and sold in his first shop on the Pershore Road.

A crystal set was a basic radio receiver, but without valves it had no amplification so required headphones and a strong signal to make it work. Demand for these sets became increasingly popular until around 1927 when the revolutionary new thermionic valve took over. These valve receivers were capable of powering a loud speaker but required an accumulator to operate it which required re-charging after only a few hours use.

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Mr. Spain was able to capitalize on this by purchasing the company’s first vehicle, a model T Ford and then advertised and operated an accumulator hire and re-charging service. The van proved invaluable to the fledgling business although its wooden floor sometimes corroded with spilt battery acid! The shop was also busy selling wind up gramophones and 10″ and 12″ records at this time.

From around 1900 to the late 1950’s the main method of recording and playing back sound was by these flat shellac based discs played at 78rpm.

Trade flourished for the next few years as Broadcasting hours and the popularity of records increased. This enabled Mr. Spain, with the help of his younger brother and brother-in-law to open further shops in Bearwood, Small Heath, Yardley, Northfield and Bromsgrove.

However the Second World War had a disastrous effect on most retailing businesses when the men were called upon to help the war effort. It became increasingly difficult to operate a retail outlet during wartime conditions and eventually Mr. Spain became independent of his younger brother and brother-in-law and concentrated solely on his Bromsgrove shop situated at 81 High Street.

Although black and white television sets were available in primitive form during the 1930’s, transmissions closed down on 1st September 1939 because of the war and did not recommence until June 1946.

However, after this time there was a huge demand for consumer goods such as televisions, wireless sets, radiograms, cookers, washing machines etc. In 1953 the Queens coronation was to be broadcast and demand outstripped supply! It became obvious that larger premises were urgently required.

A new site was located at 2 and 2A New Road in Bromsgrove (a former grain warehouse) and after careful restoration the business transferred to these premises in 1953.

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This move co-incided with Mr. Spain’s son John leaving school and he promptly joined the company to cope with the explosion in retail sales. However after only 2 months John was ‘called up’ for 2 years National Service as a wireless and radar operator in the RAF followed by a one year course at the EMI College of Electronics in London. Co-incidentally his cousin Eric was already working on the development of colour television at Alexander Palace in London so they were able to meet and discuss the then latest developments.

The 78 rpm record was superseded in 1952 with two new types of microgroove records respectively playing at 33 1/3rd and 45 rpm. Stereophonic records began to appear in the 1950’s. All these developments were good for business and we were soon able to open a thriving record department.

By the mid 1950’s technology was advancing by the minute. In June 1956 the first British transistor set was introduced by Pye. Other manufacturing followed including the highly regarded Roberts Radio (By Royal Appointment) and Hacker both of which appointed us as their sole agents for this area. We were already appointed main agents for Bush, Murphy, Decca and Ferguson televisions so we were able to keep ahead of our then many rival retailers.

Spain’s were now employing more staff to cope with the huge demand of converting existing 9″ and 12″ Black and White televisions and erect the associated Band III aerials to receive the then Independent Broadcasting Channel.

Viewers now had a choice of two channels for their 9″ or 12″ monochrome televisions! Nowadays there are well over 200 channels, some of which are now in High Definition with appropriate Hi Fidelity surround sound!

Reel-to-reel tape recorders had widely been available since the 1950’s but it was not until 1963 when Philips introduced the compact cassette that interest in this form of recording and playback started to rise dramatically.

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The next major landmark for us was colour television. The BBC had started transmissions in 1967 (10 years after cousin Eric became first involved in its development) and by the end of 1968 most BBC1 and ITV programmes were available in colour and once again demand exceeded availability.

The quest for Hi Fidelity goes back to at least the 1930’s and although Hi-Fi separates had become more popular in the mid 1950’s it was not until after 1970 that both the radiogram and the portable record-player were rapidly displaced by these ‘audio separates’.

Technology continued to advance into the 1980’s. The first ‘Walkman’ (miniature non-recording portable tape player feeding stereo headphones) was introduced in 1980 by SONY. The camcorder was developed in the 1970’s for professional use but the domestic version did not appear until the early 1980’s. The Compact Disc (CD) was launched in 1983.

Then came satellite broadcasting! Long before Sky began broadcasting in February 1989 we were contracted to install a large satellite system capable of receiving Russian transmissions.

However I would like to mention one more important date, i.e. December 1990 as that was the date that Jonathan Spain, the grandson of the founder S.M Spain, joined the company, and with the help of his loyal staff was able to bring it safely and competitively into the 21st century.

Along with the popularity of satellite TV, manufacturers started to develop larger CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TVs with screen sizes up to 36" with the bulk and weight that required two strong people to lift. These TVs still had a 4:3 aspect ratio until the late 90s when widescreen was launched and gave us the 16:9 aspect ratio, something more akin to what you would see at the cinema.

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Whilst VCR video recorders were still popular from the early 80s, a new playback format of DVD was launched in the 90s offering far superior picture and sound quality compared to tape. Originially, DVDs were playback only but were developed in time to become recordable along with the introduction of the DVD recorder.

Audio, meanwhile, was flourishing and in the early 90s we had a dedicated demonstration room available to audition hi-fi equipment. We stocked various brands like Arcam, Mission, Castle, Rotel and Quad to name a few!

A change of customer viewing and listening habits toward the millenium saw the introduction of the home entertainment system which usually comprised of a DVD player with a built in amplifier, combined with 5 satellite speakers and a subwoofer. This would provide full surround sound from the TV, but also came with the option of playing CDs and radio making the traditional hi-fi system redundant for some households. The added bonus of discrete speakers meant there was a general downturn of the seperates market.

By the early 2000s we were heavily involved involved with Sony as a brand, to the extent we were often mistaken as a Sony centre. We stocked almost the entire range of TVs, DVDs, camcorders, cameras, and even AIBO, the robotic dog! (Although for £1000, we didn't sell many!)

At one point in the mid 2000s we toyed with the idea of opening a dedicated Sony centre outside of Bromsgrove, but at the last minute we decided against putting all our eggs in one basket. Long term, this was the correct decision because the Sony centre concept has long gone.

TVs were changing dramatically with the launch of Plasma technology which enabled a slimmer, less bulbous design when compared to their tube predecessors. Plasma TVs were knows as flat screen, and they could even be wall mounted.

The first shipment we had of JVC 42" Plasma TVs cost £7999 each. We can vividly remember mounting one on the wall for a shop display and a few days later, we were gathered around it watching the tragedy of 9/11 unfold.

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Over the next few years, the flat screen TV gained smaller sized using LCD technology and became much cheaper to buy resulting in many households upgrading their complete set-ups and adding TVs into additional rooms.

To this day, TV remains our main core business. With huge improvements in picture technology and the introduction of HD and 4K, the demand is there for larger screens. 55" is our most popular screen size, however the largest we can physically fit in our van is an 88"!

One brand which has really changed our business over the last 10 years would be Sonos. Sonos wireless music products have taken the torch from the iPod and other similar products to deliver streamed music around the house without the need to run cables everywhere.

This brings us pretty much up to date, although with the last two years have been tough with the pandemic and having to close the shop, we are finally getting back to normal with improved product supply and no restrictions.

I believe that with so many family businesses disappearing over the years, the secret of this company’s success is not only to adapt to a swiftly changing market but that we still operate as a modest family unit enabling us to give you that personal touch, selling leading brands at competitive prices. Plus of course, our after sales service. After all…


-John S. Spain (Chairman)

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