The Pain and Joy of Selling My Vinyl Records
On the cusp of Record Store Day, one man's nostalgic decision
(Next Avenue published this essay in honor of Record Store Day, Saturday, April 13, an annual event celebrating the culture of the independently owned record store.)
My daughter took some time during a recent weekend visit to clean out her collection of childhood stuffed animals. For every puppy, polar bear or baby seal she saved, three or four were set aside for Goodwill. Perhaps due to the influence of Marie Kondo, the “queen of tidying up,” she held each object and appeared to ask herself, Does this item spark joy?
I found her emotional test impressive. So much so, I thought it was time I did the same with my compact discs. And when I ran my finger across each row of CDs, more than a few failed the Kondo test. As with guests who have overstayed their welcome — like, by 15 years — it was time to give them (well, some of them) the heave-ho.
First, Unloading My Music CDs
Initially, I was going to place them in our New York co-op laundry room, which doubles as a trading post for unwanted items. My wife Sue, the logical one, instead took them with her to work, returning that evening waving $15 in cold, wrinkled cash.
“Did someone in your office actually buy that stuff?” I asked, grabbing the money out of her hand.
She shook her head and handed me the business card of a used-record store just a few blocks from the subway she uses for her commute home. To hear Sue tell it, they were pleasantly surprised by the goodies she offered, considering that — unlike most collectors who enter in the store — she appeared to have a real job and was in the age range suggesting a Kenny G groupie.
With some used CDs worth 15 bucks, I thought the heretofore unthinkable: What would my vinyl records bring?
Let's back up a moment. In 2015, I wrote a piece for Next Avenue about the emotional connection I had to my collection of 45-RPM singles bought throughout the 1980s— using the kind of grandiloquent language usually reserved for spouses, firstborns and bottles of Scotch. Those singles, I swore with a catch in the throat and mistiness of eyes, would be mine forever.
Well, that was four years ago, brother. Long enough to learn that emotional connections can be severed when dollars come into play.
A Final for My Vinyl?
Anyway, we didn't have a turntable, and what little '80s music I still enjoyed was now available for streaming or on the laptop hooked up via wi-fi to speakers in the living room and kitchen. Vinyl? We don't need no stinking vinyl!
The first order of business was deciding which records I could part with most easily.
The dated, but still criminally catchy, Turning Japanese by the Vapours, Wall of Voodoo's eerie Mexican Radio and the groovtastic dance remix of Hall & Oates' Possession Obsession got the ball rolling. At least 30 records in all, including a few LPs to sweeten the pot.
I then typed a carefully-annotated list of my more interesting records — British imports, with a couple of arcane one-off U.S. releases going back to 1979 — and went to the record store. If the price was right for the first batch, I'd let them know about the others.
A Trip to the Record Store
Carefully placing my haul into a recycling bag, I went to the record store, not knowing what to expect.
Ninety minutes later and $90 richer, I discovered that not only could I part with the rest (especially when the store manager expressed more than a passing interest in the list), I was going to do it armed with the knowledge of their (possible) worth.
Naif that I was, I figured all I had to do was type titles into a couple of record collectors' websites and start adding up the numbers. What I hadn't taken into consideration: there’s more to a record than just songs.
For three days, I strained my eyes bloodshot while, flashlight in hand, I Sherlock Holmesly hunted down the clues that determined a record's value.
Searching for Musical Clues
I was searching for things scratched into the runout groove at the end of each song. Symbols like hearts and lyres. Numbers crossed out and replaced by others. Mysterious messages like “A PORKY PRIME CUT” and “MONEY TALKS, PEOPLE MUMBLE.”
It didn't end there.
Did my Clash single come in a pink sleeve with wider printing than others? Bingo, a first edition!
Were the letters LW visible on the Devo album? Congratulations, I was the proud owner of the rare L.A. pressing!
Then there was an obscure indie single entitled Gacey's Place by the Mentally Ill, which, unsurprisingly, never made Casey Kasem's Top 40 Countdown. I had bought it on a whim 40 years earlier without even hearing it. And after playing the single twice, I'm sorry I did. Still, I saved it, believing that, some day, the value might increase a little more than its original $2 asking price.
Apparently, someone else felt the same, because he was selling his copy. For $500!
Five hundred bucks?! There was no way I would get that, but I now knew it had some value.
A Week of Emotional Abuse
The rest of the 45s were now standing in rows in the living room, looking at me wistfully like a brood of homeless Jack Russell puppies. I'd go through them, take some out, then put them back the next day. I'd remove others and replace those, before starting the whole palaver over again.
This emotional abuse went on for a week. Sometimes I simply held the records, searching for the spark of joy that made me think, This. I. Must. Keep.
By the time I was ready to pull the trigger — or lift the tone-arm — only a relative handful were joy-worthy. The rest had done their time and were ready for parole.
When I entered the record store again, it was with the recycling bag and a backpack of records. So many, in fact, that it would take the manager a couple of hours to give them the examination they deserved.
What Was I Doing?!
Walking around the neighborhood to kill time, the full impact of what I was doing hit me. These records were among the last physical links to my first exciting, maddening, exhausting decade in New York.
I couldn't tell you what I had for lunch yesterday, but, boy, I could look at any of those record sleeves and describe in detail how I first heard the music, where I bought it, which skinny tie I was wearing and how much fun it was when (even then) I studied the runout groove for those secret messages. It was a full-blown adventure in sense memory.
Walking around Greenwich Village now — where I had originally bought most of them — made me question my decision. Had I made a mistake after all? Wasn't the possession of these records the closest I would ever come to time traveling?
What the Record Store Manager Said
Returning to the store, I was sure this was all a dreadful mistake. Just as I was ready to slide the records back into my bag and run out the door, the manager spoke up.
“So, I looked over your stuff, and I'm going to give you 375 doll--”
“I'LL TAKE IT!”
William Faulkner may have been right when he said, “The past is never dead. It isn't even past.” But it doesn't mean you can't sell it for a good price.
More Than Money
Money wasn't the only reason I was glad to get rid of the records, though.
The sale was one more pile of useless stuff no longer taking up space in my life. And while it was nice having my taste in music vindicated, I'd have to think long and hard to name even a dozen records I let go of. Some emotional connection that was.
One more thing. My copy of Gacey's Place went for $60 — a 2,900% increase from what I paid 40 years ago. Tidying up can lead to tidy profit.