Since the pandemic began, most weekends, I’ve taken some solace in indulging my love of record picking – more specifically, filling the gaps in a collection that started in 1981 and has ebbed and flowed ever since. My oldest records have accompanied me despite in excess of fifteen house moves. I’ve outgrown storefuls of clothes, broken cupboards full of mugs but my early vinyl seems intent on outliving me. The first album I bought with my own money, ABC’s ‘The Lexicon Of Love,’ bears my initials and year of purchase (1982) in biro, just inside the sleeve, as does Soft Cell’s ‘Nonstop Erotic Cabaret’ (likewise, 1982, though actually released in 1981). I’ve never felt the need to replace my original copy of The The’s ‘Soul Mining’ (1983) and short of it snapping in two, I never will. In the late 80’s, however, my collection took a turn for the worse. Jobless, penniless, on at least two occasions I sold off upto 80% of my records, simply so I could eat.
From 1989 – 1992, I worked in the secondhand wing of the record store, Selectadisc, in my birth city, Nottingham and here, I set about not only filling the gaps but expanding my vinyl treasury. On a bad day, we’d buy in five or six records but on a good day, a hundred or more. Part of my job was to clean, sticker and rack the incoming stock, some of which would be sold within the hour. With a few exceptions, we always kept the racks alive with new stock. Behind the counter, multiple copies of easy sellers – Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, The Smiths, Dire Straits – all in good retail shape. Scratched records were rejected, as were torn and tattered sleeves.
On Saturdays, like clockwork, around four in the afternoon, during our busiest hours, “the dudes” would inevitably roll up and make their weekly request. “Can we see your Zappa?” Often, I was already lifting out the multiple copies of ‘Hot Rats,’ ‘Weasels Ripped My Flesh,’ etc and carefully laying them across the counter. Zappa was gold. Eyes widened at the ever-replenished gatefold spread before them. Thirty quid, forty quid, fifty quid and more, depending on condition and rarity, it was like selling quack medicine to Red Indians. I didn’t get the appeal back then, at least not of ole Frank and his odd, often comical jam outs but that lust for the missing piece was already deeply instilled in me. You had to have what you had to have.
Five minutes walk around the corner, at the top of an ancient arcade, stood an altogether different secondhand vinyl store, Rob’s Records. Famously, Rob, the proprietor (I never did find out his surname) bought anything you wanted to sell, regardless of the quality. His prices, solid and never changing. A pound for an album, 50p for a single. There was no haggling, just the same price for everyone, take it or leave it. On occasion, completely strapped for cash, even I took it.
Browsing in Rob’s was a trip. Racks, long since full, simply overflowed across any adjoining surface, down to the floor in piles, up to the ceiling. No section markers for punk, reggae, new wave, etc, no A to Z – you just had to go through everything. Most gave up after a few minutes but the shop was always busy, invariably the same customers, picking through the multitudes of Mrs Mills albums to get to the Motorhead and the Megadeth. Rob’s is still there too. Passing it recently, on a nostalgic amble around old haunts, I very almost went in but I was suddenly gripped by the fear of never finding the exit again.
My favourite secondhand record shops employ a fine balance between order and chaos. Clearly labelled, departmentalised sections are great – particularly if they aren’t so full that you can’t actually flick through them. But the peripheries are just as important. What’s on the wall behind the counter? What’s in those tubs at your feet? What’s in those unmarked bags at the back? Sometimes, there’s gold to be found in stock that hasn’t yet been priced.
Everything needs to be within reach. There’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to check the condition of something that’s beyond arm’s length. Prices need to be clear and not stickered to the sleeve. I love that, in Atlantis Records, Hackney, as with my ABC and Soft Cell originals, the prices are pencilled inside the sleeve. Price stickers ruin sleeves. Those garish, oversized, old HMV ones, removable only with lighter fluid, are the bane of the collector. And in a visit to a highly reputable West London store recently, my wallet was greatly deterred by the awful, handwritten descriptions and prices on every record. Print. It. Out.
Of course, the main criteria for buying a secondhand record is price and condition. I’m still amazed to find scratched, chipped, uncleaned records in racks. Some shops obviously simply go straight from buying stock in to racking it out, leaving the choice to the customer. There’s no actual obligation to clean a record up but few people are going to return to a shop where vinyl isn’t prized. Older vinyl is, after all, technically antique. Twice recently, I’ve encountered the same original copy of John Foxx’s seminal ‘Metamatic’ album that appeared to be not just scratched to fuck but scissored. Records in that state should be in a skip, not on a shelf.
Last week, in one South London record emporium, I found myself almost overwhelmed by the sheer volume of stock. On paper, it’s a good problem to have. As one enters, it appears the possibilities are endless, that all manner of bargains await, that every miserable gap in one’s collection will surely be plugged by nightfall. The reality was somewhat more depressing : racks and tubs stuffed to the gills, every single item filtered through the Discogs median, the more interesting genres tucked away below the knee, one way aisles. Amidst it all, I simply gave up, as one might 30 minutes into an orgy. For all the good fruit on display, one has only so much energy.