The indie shops that kickstarted computing

A pink retro-style computer on a blue background
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Apple knows a thing or two about running successful stores. By letting people play around with the goods, congregate for a natter and ask experts for advice and support, its shops attract large crowds and even encourage some to whip out their credit cards to make a purchase.

When Apple opened its first branch in Tysons, Virginia almost 20 years ago, this approach felt invigorating. Where rivals would keep a beady eye on customers and discourage attempts to touch the products, Apple’s growing number of stores began to feel like welcoming social hubs.

In many ways, they invoked memories of the earlier days of computing. If you rewind to the late 1970s and early 1980s, computer shops were similarly more than just places to buy software and hardware.

They were destinations that allowed enthusiasts to share their passion and form friendships – and they arguably underpinned a fledgling industry by nurturing the talent that would go on to drive it.

Just as Neil Tennant met Chris Lowe in a hi-fi store on King’s Road, Chelsea in 1981 and formed the synth-pop duo Pet Shop Boys, and just as Curly Music in Liverpool attracted the likes of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, independent computer shops encouraged creativity by acting as a focal point on high streets up and down the country.

Early days

It didn’t take long for computing’s own pop-star equivalents to emerge. At the forefront of this revolution was Bruce Everiss, a trained accountant who had already set up a computer bookkeeping company.

“I would read the trade magazines Computer Weekly and Computing,” he told IT Pro's sister title, PC Pro, discussing publications founded in 1966 and 1973. “These covered the beginnings of home computing in the US and the opening of computer stores there and I realised what was going to inevitably happen in the UK.”

It was 1978 and those US stores were doing a roaring trade, particularly by selling the 8-bit Apple II. When Everiss opened Microdigital in Brunswick Street, Liverpool – Britain’s first dedicated computer shop – he also sold Apple’s first mass-produced microcomputer. His shop also had the £200 Z80-based Nascom 1 and £40 MK14 computer kits on the shelves, the latter created in 1977 by Science of Cambridge, the company that went on to become Sinclair.

“In the early days there was no commercial software, only hardware,” said Everiss, whose shop ended up repairing hundreds of Nascom 1s when customers struggled to get them to work. “Meaningful commercial software only eventually arrived with spreadsheets and games, but we did sell enormous quantities of books, which I imported from the US and sold in the shop. This brought knowledge to the UK.”

Sense of community

Information about computing in the UK was relatively scarce at the time. Hobbyists would scour Electronics Today International, published in the UK from 1972, and they would go on to devour Britain’s first computing magazine, Personal Computer World, six years later. But they generally learned by talking and sharing.

“The store quickly became a social centre and a vital fountainhead of knowledge,” Everiss said. “The microcomputer postdocs from the University of Liverpool visited frequently and there was a computer club with everyone learning from each other. We even published our own magazine, Liverpool Software Gazette, which was another great source of knowledge.”

One employee, a teenage Eugene Evans, worked at Microdigital every Saturday, soon joining the games company Bug-Byte where he earned £35,000 per year. Evans, coder David Lawson and another former Microdigital employee Mark Butler went on to co-found Imagine Software. Everiss joined to run the PR department after selling Microdigital to Laskys in 1981.

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Everiss, Evans and Butler were by no means the only ones to progress from retail to software development and publishing. Brian Howarth ran a computer shop called Digital Fantasia around the corner from the colossal Norbreck Castle Hotel in Blackpool and used it as a base to create and sell the Mysteries Adventures series of text adventures.

Buffer Micro in Streatham, London, published games, utilities and gambling tools for the ZX Spectrum in 1984, including Athlete, Super Bridge, Pools Predictions, Make Music and Buffer Adventure. Mr Micro in Swinton, Manchester, ran a developer/publishing house above the shop and released Mysterious Island in 1983, as well as Crazy Golf, Harlequin, Punchy, Willow Pattern and more.

But who could forget Just Micro, a popular weekend hangout on Carver Street in Sheffield? It opened its doors in 1983 and soon began developing its own titles, becoming one of the UK’s most successful games companies: Gremlin Interactive.

“I opened the shop because large retailers such as Boots and WHSmith were selling software but they weren’t offering support,” said Ian Stewart, a former tool maker who began his retail career with Laskys. “I also noticed Laskys was selling loads of computers but hardly any software and I saw it as an opportunity to get in early.

“This was the time when the BBC Micro was driving enthusiasm from a school’s point of view so we focused on software with Just Micro, always envisioning that we’d also get into some form of publishing.”

Just Micro was a busy shop. “We had a solid foundation of regulars who we’d have to chuck out at the end of the day, but they all got to know each other,” Stewart recalled. “I think we just created the right vibe, making the kids welcome and having all of the machines set up so they could play any game they wanted before buying it.”

Sometimes as many as 60 children would pack into the shop – “when they were coming out of the rain, it did start to smell a bit” – but before long those young people were also bringing in demos of games they had made. “They would ask if they could put it on a machine to show us and we’d gladly take a look,” Stewart said. One of those customers was Peter Harrap who created Wanted: Monty Mole in 1984, a game that became a smash hit and spawned five sequels.

“That’s how the first steps were taken,” said Stewart. “We hired a couple of programmers, had an artist and brought in more. We then began to distribute the games across the UK and eventually into Europe. Looking back, it felt natural to progress from retail to publishing but you have to remember there were no rules to follow. We were making it up as we went along.”

Even so, it was a winning formula that introduced scores of people to computing. “You’d have groups of kids piling in and maybe one of them would have a Spectrum and they’d go round to that person’s house to play or code,” Stewart said. “We also sold a lot of Z80 and 6502 programming books. People wanted to see what they could do with computers.”

Demo scene

Micro Fun in neighbouring Rotherham attracted a strong demo scene – a computer art subculture that saw creative minds vie to produce boundary-pushing audio-visual presentations. Computer clubs were also formed by some shops, including Micro Power in Leeds, founded by former accountant Bob Simpson.

Such gatherings were common across the country (and indeed, the world – it was how Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak met). In the case of Micro Power, the club was a way of seeing what people could do.

“Micro Power offered a way for introspective people to talk with others and bounce ideas around,” said Chris Payne, who ended up working for Simpson after interviewing him as part of his business studies degree. “It also provided a focus for creativity: remember, in those days, people could live on unemployment benefit and it allowed people time to tinker and code. People are creative given the resources.”

Micro Power had its own software arm, Program Power, and one of the most prominent developers for the label was University of Leeds graduate Richard Hanson, who developed a Centipede clone for the publisher as well as Martians, Invader Force and Alien Dropout.

He went on to form Superior Software, which released titles such as Repton, Stryker’s Run and Zarch. Meanwhile, Micro Power would continue to expand. “It opened another outlet in a beautiful former bank in Leeds and we laid out BBC Micros upstairs so that headmasters and computing teachers could come and look around,” Payne said.

“We’d also demonstrate these huge, super-wide daisy wheel printers which needed lots of space. Each time, we’d be forming relationships.”

By the end of the 1980s, the independent shops were under threat and closing. Up until then, the shops had done a wonderful job of keeping up with the conveyor belt of home computer launches from the TRS-80, Acorn Atom, BBC Micro and Dragon 32 to Sinclair’s Spectrum range, the Commodore 64 and the Amstrad CPC. They had continued into the 16-bit era and carried on supplying software for machines that had been and gone: “The likes of WHSmith would clear the shelves and start selling something else when a computer was discontinued,” explained Payne.

However, increasingly, mainstream buyers were as likely to head for Dixons as their local, independent supplier and computer magazines were selling in their hundreds of thousands, meaning that knowledge was a mere turn of the page away. “Time had moved on,” said Stewart, who sold Just Micro in 1989. And yet the foundations had been laid and stars were made.