Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector

Kurt Wildermuth

When I touched a copy of the Beatles’ Rarities from The Odd, Older Man’s box of records, the hair stood on the back of my neck.

“Odd, her obsession seemed to bore so many otherwise reasonable people. She whispered, ‘Care to know the secret of happiness, young man?’

Born acquisitive, I nodded.

‘Collect something,’ she said.”

-- Allan Gurganus, “When the Saints Come Marching In: A Novelist Discovers the Secret to Happiness”, The New York Times, 17 October 2013

I haven’t read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, but the movie disappointed me. Touted as depicting the wacky subculture of music stores and the people who love them, the flick only skimmed the surface of that swamp. A Richard Linklater movie could do justice to the mania and fanaticism (please get on it, Richard—think Slacker meets Dazed and Confused, maybe). High Fidelity, the movie, whetted the appetite, then failed to deliver the nitty-gritty, reaching for a mass audience by substituting romance for records, swapping cuties for record-collector scum.

Accept no substitute. Here’s the real music collecting deal. It’s a love story, but the love is polymorphous: taking many forms, extending in many directions, all the while gathering details like they’re dust particles.

The Odd, Older Man

I’m the middle-aged guy who enters the thrift shop and generally heads straight to the LPs and CDs. I’m an unabashed hunter seeking that dopamine hit of finding something.
One Saturday, I came home and found a little note taped to my door. It was from the odd, older man two apartments away. “I have an Audio-Technica turntable I have to get rid of and since you’re the only person I know who still plays black vinyl, I’d be happy to give it to you. I also have lots of LPs (but mostly classical). Phone # on back.”

Black vinyl. As opposed to…? As though he knew lots of people who played colored vinyl, or as though records were made in other materials, such as blue rubber or brown wood? He’s a very nice but odd guy, something like the kind of guy I’d have become if I hadn’t moved out of my parents’ house, if I hadn’t had long-term romantic relationships, if I hadn’t ended up (so far) living in this Manhattan apartment with my girlfriend, Susan.

The odd, older guy has lived his entire life, 70 years, in that apartment. As a child, he played with the kids in this apartment. He has seen tenants come, and he has seen them go. When Susan and I moved here, six years ago, he and his mother lived there. “I’m a mean old lady,” his mother said, and she meant it. A couple of years ago, the mean old lady died.

In all these years, he had never been near this apartment. How did he know that I still played “black vinyl”? There were two possibilities.

A couple of years ago, my old, beloved Sony turntable finally gave out, and I experimented with ways of replacing it. First, I brought up from my storage area in the basement the old turntable that Susan’s father gave me. When that turntable proved unusable, I bought a cheap, vintagey-looking one at a thrift shop; then an inexpensive, new, but fairly useless one at an audio store; and finally a moderately priced Audio-Technica, which I love even more than I loved my old Sony. So the first possibility was that the guy down the hall remembered seeing me in the elevator with one of those turntables. At the time, he and I had a brief, pleasant conversation about audio.

The second possibility was that he’d overheard a recent exchange between Susan and me. She opened the door to the trash-and-recycling closet on our floor, two doors from his place in the other direction, and asked if I wanted to look at the records someone had left there. “You probably don’t want them,” she said. “They’re classical.”

She was right.

When I phoned my neighbor—let’s call him Stephen—I got his answering machine. I left a message saying that I’d be happy to take his Audio-Technica off his hands. I’d give it a good home and probably store it in case my Audio-Technica gave out. I’d also be happy to look over his records, but I wouldn’t be interested in the classical. I wanted only pop, rock, folk, and jazz. Anyway, he should call me whenever it was convenient for him, and I’d come over to “pick up da shtuff.”

The Odd, Middle-Aged Guy

I am a music collector. I don’t mean a downloader. I have shelves full of LPs and CDs. They’re shelves, though, not rooms. For decades, I have been obsessed with music and the artifacts of recorded music—the art of the physical objects—but I’m no hoarder. If I play something and decide I’ve spent enough time trying to like it, I’ll most likely donate it to a charity thrift shop, let the shop make maybe a few bucks (these days, alas, maybe less than that), and let someone else appreciate the music, the artifact, or both.

But there’s no denying it: I’m the middle-aged guy who enters the thrift shop and generally heads straight to the LPs and CDs. I won’t elbow you out of the way to get there or block the whole selection with my body so you can’t get a look, but I’m an unabashed hunter seeking that dopamine hit of finding something. I can’t believe what I’ve just found or I can’t believe what I’m listening to. For me, the impulse to collect music is as simple as that reward system, but from there, as the impulse branches out, the motivations become quite complicated. It’s not as simple as giving the rat some cheese for navigating the maze.

The Savvy, Older Woman

Here’s an example of how complicated it can be to collect music.

After leaving the message for Stephen, I went out to run errands and look in some thrift shops. About an hour and a half later, I was walking home. Two older women had set up tables on the sidewalk and were selling some of their belongings. I’d stopped at their tables before, but I’d never bought anything. This time, I looked through some LPs, which were interesting but nothing I wanted. I don’t often see copies of The Best of Wilson Pickett, Vol. 2, but that relative rarity doesn’t mean I want a copy. Need a copy? Unless it’s for work or to satisfy the wish of an ill person, no one needs any recorded music. We own music because we want it.

The owner of the records came over. She looked like she wanted to lead me by the hand through this whole process: Ah, I’ve seen your type before, you people entertained by the idea of old records. She didn’t bother saying hello. “Do you have the turntable?” she asked. You know, the turntable you’ll need to play those round things.

“Yes, I do,” I said.

She didn’t pause. “I’ve just started using mine again,” she said. “But,” gesturing at the records, “I’m clearing out some.” A bad sign for me: Would she be clearing out the good stuff or just the oddities and not-so-hottities? “And my prices are better than what’s on eBay. I checked.” Another bad sign: “Better” prices don’t translate to $1, which is my preferred price for a used LP on the street. I’ll even go as high as $2. OK, I once paid $5 for the Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms, but that was the original, on Stiff Records, being sold by some dude on a blanket in the East Village. He looked like he was selling the records because he really needed the money.

Now I nodded at the woman. “These are interesting, but they’re not what I’m looking for.” I started to move away.

“What are you looking for?”

“Oh, all sorts of things.”

The Creepy Store Owner

An answer like that can get you into trouble.

About 25 years ago, I was kicked out of a used-book-and-record store in Binghamton, New York, for giving the owner an answer like “Oh, all sorts of things.” He was an odd, older guy who seemed to take his business way too personally, as though I’d just walked into his home and he wanted to offer me a refreshment.

I’d just driven into Binghamton for the first time, seen the store, and stopped to check it out. I went straight to the LPs. He came straight for me, smiling. Could he help me? What was I looking for? As though we were about to begin a long, fruitful friendship.

After I answered him honestly but vaguely and kept flipping through the LPs, he stopped smiling. “I’m sorry,” he said sharply, “but there’s nothing for you here.”

I thought he was kidding. “Excuse me?”

“There’s nothing for you here. Come on—out.” He shooed me through the store, out the door, and down the stairs. Begone, riffraff. I didn’t argue because I didn’t care that much. He seemed to be a very particular, finicky kind of people person, and I decidedly was not his kind of person, but I’d meant no offense. All I meant was that I like all sorts of music, and when I’m not shopping for something specific, I have no idea what I might buy.

That’s one thrill of collecting: stepping up to the selection somewhere and not knowing what you’ll find, not predicting what’ll prompt a purchase. I tend toward pop, rock, folk, and jazz, but under the right circumstances, I’d buy a classical album, a spoken word album, a sound effects record. It all depends on what’s in front of me and what’s inside me at that moment.

The Russian Vendor

Here’s an example of how much the circumstances can matter.

In Manhattan, there’s a scuzzy weekend flea market in a parking lot. Part of that market is in an area I call the Alley of Dubious Legality, where you get the sense that people’s pilfered belongings are on display. You know those CD holders that are like photo albums, with pages of plastic sheets into which you slot the discs after removing them from jewel cases? CD holders like that are among the items offered in the Alley of Dubious Legality, spread out on tables as though they’d just been lifted from an apartment where the window by the fire escape was left open.

I won’t set foot in the Alley of Dubious Legality because it makes me feel sleazy, but I sometimes brace myself for the scuzzy part of the flea market. I can deal with scuzzy but not with sleazy.

One Sunday at sundown, when the vendors had started packing up, I approached one of the regular vendors at the market. I was holding two CDs from his selection: Bob Marley’s Legend and something else. Neither one was anything special. You see copies of Legend everywhere, and I’d never picked one up because I’d been waiting for the right price: namely, next to nothing. Neither one of these discs was priced, just as none of his wares were priced, just as most of what’s at the market isn’t priced. I always get the feeling the vendors are sizing me up, judging how much I’d be willing to pay for this or that.

I figured: It’s closing time, so the vendor should be willing to deal. I’d never tried dealing at the market before, but what the hell. I got his attention, held up the discs, and said firmly but (I thought) politely: “I’ll give you $5 for these.”

He looked at me, looked at them, looked back at me, and took the CDs out of my hand. “No, you will not,” he said in a thick Russian accent.

“OK!” I said. I laughed, left, and vowed never to go near his tables again.

The Russian Vendor Again

Years later, I was looking at LPs in boxes near that spot but far enough away, I thought, to be out of the Russian zone. I was holding a couple of alternarock classics, probable collector’s items, in excellent condition. I was planning to go through all the boxes, assemble a pile, and then try to negotiate a price. Who knew where the seller was or what the asking prices would be?

Suddenly, over my shoulder, the Russian vendor said, “I have Nirvana, whole collection. I’ll give you good price.” Since this was years after our first exchange, he had no idea that we’d ever spoken. I was just a potential customer. He had walked toward me, but stopped far enough away that at first I wasn’t even sure he was talking to me. But he was! He thought I was some kind of alternarock trash, and he wanted to sell me poor dead Kurt Cobain’s legacy. Once I knew that the LPs I was holding belonged to the Russian, I put them back in their box and left. I just won’t do business with him, no matter what he’s selling.

Maybe at that point I was taking a twisted, internal form of revenge against the store owner in Binghamton. I was thinking: “I’m sorry. There’s nothing for me here.”

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