Vinyl record
Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector

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. These are the tales of a record collector.

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.

Photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

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.”

The Prosperous-Looking White Out-of-Towner

In matters of collecting, context is everything.

I was once looking at records at a Manhattan flea market near the scuzzy one when a prosperous-looking white out-of-towner and his wife walked up. The out-of-towner approached the somewhat-down-and-out-looking black woman who was selling the records. Who knew where these records had come from? I was holding copies of Bruce Springsteen’s The River and Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves, both of which I’d owned as a teenager, sold, and longed to hear again. I doubted they were from the black woman’s collection. She was just collecting money, and not very much money—I think the records were two for $5—from people who wanted these things. She might even have been standing in for the real seller.

The out-of-towner took a cursory look through some of her wares. “I have original Beatles albums,” he announced, grinning. “Still in the plastic! What would you give me for them?”

Without batting an eye and with a hint of disgust, the woman answered, “I’d give you nothing.”

The out-of-towner stopped grinning and stepped away.

The Savvy, Older Woman Again

So, I said, “all sorts of things.”

“Well,” the savvy, older woman told me, “I have folk. Joan Baez, Bob Dylan. Sgt. Pepper’s. Rolling Stones.”

“I’m interested in all of those,” I told her, “but I have a lot of them. The specifics really matter.”

“That’s why I ask. I have”―holding her hands out to the right and left, indicating a shelf full of LPs―“so going from that direction to this one isn’t easy.” Meaning if I could name what I wanted, she’d tell me if she had it. As though I was at an outdoor eBay and needed to think of something to search for, trying to conjure some psychedelic classic from the ‘60s or some garage rock obscurity I’d neglected to buy in the mid-‘80s…

Moments like this are why I bring my lunch to work every day. I hate having to think of what I want on the spot.

“Maybe another time when you’re out here.”

“I’m not out here that often.”

If she had asked me to go to her apartment right then and there and have a look at her records (don’t get any ideas—just her records), I might have agreed. But I hadn’t even checked the quality of the records on the table. The last thing I wanted was to get upstairs and find a shelf full of great old records that looked like they’d been played with screwdrivers. I’d have needed to get a sense of her records’ general condition, but I don’t like to work too hard for my discoveries.

I don’t mean to sound callous, but I might as well be honest: At this point, I have enough music to keep me entertained, enough artifacts to keep me amused. My crate-digging days are all but over. And as a particular, peculiar kind of music collector, I like to deny myself things, to toughen my resolve for moments that really matter.

Sometimes you give to the universe. Sometimes the universe gives to you.

Why am I like this? Not only why am I a music collector, but why am I the kind of music collector that I am? I might as well ask why I breathe the way I do. It comes from my being an only child. Not a lonely child, but a child who knew intuitively how to keep himself entertained. A child who always loved being in control of his physical and imaginative space. Equally, it comes from my growing up in a suburban house where life tended to be pleasant and uneventful. Music opened worlds. Records were a route to ecstasy, exoticism, challenge, and fun. So I’m playing—playing at collecting, then playing what I collect.