Is Valletta's D’Amato Really The World’s Oldest Record Store?

EST. 1885: Fact or hype?


An intriguing detective story is currently unfolding on Malta’s blogosphere. Trackage Scheme, an online space for Malta’s alternative music scene, have returned to one of the island’s most beloved and enduring spots for recorded music in an attempt to test whether a bold claim about its history is in fact true.

D’Amato in St John’s Street, Valletta claims to be the oldest record shop in the world, with ‘EST. 1885’ firmly etched into the floor of its entrance as you walk inside the still-operational shop. A wonderful possibility, sure, but can it be backed up with hard data?

In a blog series for Trackage Scheme – the third part of which will be going live tomorrow – Jonathan Cilia decided to see whether he could gather the necessary evidence.

What results is a wild goose chase, pitched like a serialized detective story. Only in this case, the hunt is not for a thief or murderer, but for any paper trail that Giovanni D’Amato may have left 131 years ago. 

But where do we start?

1 Damato

Now run by Anthony D’Amato and his two cousins, D’Amato records was (supposedly) set up in 1885 by Anthony’s great, great-grandfather Giovanni D’Amato, who was born in Italy in 1861.

Operating with an aversion to social media that would make hipsters blush, the store relies on a loyal clientele to keep going: a heartening testament to its enduring grip on the cultural texture of Valletta. Anthony himself is keen to discover the truth about the store; perhaps more so than anyone else. Though he’s proud of the possibility that it may just be oldest record store around – and believes that the country as a whole should realise how important this is – he wants to try and “authenticise” this as much as possible.

And this is where the Trackage Scheme boys stepped in.

Understandably enough, Anthony himself could only trace his family history up to a point: namely, the 1930s. Luckily, plenty of research has been done into D’Amato’s involvement in recording and fostering the indigenous musical scene at the time, and we have clear evidence of Maltese musicians going up to Italy to record their music so as to sell it through D’Amato.But to find something more concrete, the team had to root through some musty documents. 

"We have clear evidence of Maltese musicians going up to Italy to record their music so as to sell it through D’Amato"

The National Archives in Mdina seemed like the logical step forward in their search. But he was too good for their search, and no evidence of Giovanni ever being involved in any mercantile/land appropriation-related court cases was found.

Relocating to the National Library in Valletta did nudge the boys in the right direction, even if it wasn’t quite the jackpot. Sorting through adverts in local publications – of which there were actually quite a few at the time – did lead them to examples of music shops operating at the time… but none for D’Amato.

In Cilia’s words, “It was like finding ads for McDonalds and KFC, but not for Burger King.”

2 1 Portable Gramophones

They did, however, find a D'Amato advert for portable gramophones in The Times

It was clear, then, that the team needed to up their game: getting more specific and pro-active along the way. Rifling through old newspapers in the hope of spotting a tell-tale advert was no longer going to cut it.

Turning to the infamous Strait Street, the group took a cue from the old Simonds Farsons adverts they saw in the area, assuming there would be some kind of D’Amato connection: given that drink and music generally go hand in hand. As it happens, Farsons had their own archive of cool stuff, but also as it happens – once again – this yielded little fruit with regards to D’Amato’s history.

However, it’s well known that D’Amato was Malta’s official reseller for HMV Records – which would certainly have required a government permit of some kind. 

2 Court Case

Clue from 1889: D'Amato vs Bugeja

But once again, the team found themselves at an impasse. Sure, D’Amato was built on government land. And sure, this should technically make the Giovanni D’Amato’s negotiation for the land more traceable. But in fact:

“We had a government notary look for the notarial records of the exchange of land, but of course, since it was Government-owned land, no outside notary was needed, so there were no notarial papers concerning the exchange of land.”

Damn it.

But at this most desperate moment – with every clue apparently leading to naught – the Trackage team’s man at the Mdina Archives stepped in with some fresh information: namely, an 1889 court case involving ‘D’Amato Giovanni vs Bugeja’, concerning “borrowing and owing of money and land”.

A spot of good old fashioned deduction – which, yes, would make even Sherlock Holmes himself proud – led the team to track down Antonio’s death certificate.

Where to next? We’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out. 

For the full story, check out the original blog posts here and here.

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