In Part 1, I broke down what I see as the basic kinds of collecting philosophies/motives – completionists, obscurists and eclectics – and then I offered some basic ideas on how to approach a beginning collection. Namely, start with a genre you like, read up on its history, sample the canon associated with it and then learn more from there.
In Part 2, I want to tackle the “where to buy” question but that still, ultimately, comes back to what you want to buy and therefore, what your collecting philosophy/personality is.
Step Four: Hunter or browser?
People often ask, “where do you buy your records from?” and while understandable, it’s the wrong question to ask first. The “where” isn’t remotely as important as the “what are you looking for?” That’s why I began this guide with a discussion of collecting personalities. Once you identify the kind of collection you’re aiming for, tracking them down isn’t rocket science. There’s eBay (of course), there’s record stores (of course), there’s record swaps and thrift stores, et. al. Each of these have their own inherent advantages and disadvantages but if you don’t have a clear sense of what you’re looking for, your choice in record sources may end up being woefully deficient.
A hunter has a want list (whether literally paper or in their head) of what they’re looking and when they hit up eBay or a record store, the first thing they’re checking is to see what’s matches up with their want list. Not all hunters are completionists but almost by definition, all completionists are hunters (how else to check off records from your list?)
In contrast, the browser is content to wander into a pile of records and flip through them to see what’s interesting. They may also have a want list of specific records but for them, the process of discovery is where the pleasure lies as well. Obscurists and eclectics both have a strong strain of browser in them, especially obscurists. In the glory days of sample diggers, they were the ultimate hybrid of hunter/browsers.
So, for example, if you’re a hunter, there’s no better resource than eBay. That site changed the proverbial game for record hunters (arguably for better or for worse) since it opened up the marketplace for their literal searches way beyond just a city or region. Certainly, eBay has a multitude of downsides too – it certainly hastened though didn’t cause, in my opinion, the disappearance of many mom-and-pop stores around America. However, if we’re just talking about eBay’s role in helping build a collection, it’s a useful (and often expensive) tool.
eBay has mixed value for the browser though. On the upside, you can comb through the listings, find stuff that looks interesting and the fact that many sellers integrate sound clips is an additional boon. I have most definitely discovered new records through eBay. But it’s still not going to compete with the visceral experience of going through a bin of records and having the time to pull out a jacket, look it over, scan the notes, etc. Browsing, as a process of discovery, is best done in person and so that means record stores, swaps, thrifts, etc. (more on these later).
So before you set out to figure out where to find records, you should decide whether, at heart, you’re a hunter, browser, or both (these two, as I’m stressing, are not mutually exclusive).
Step Five: Set a budget
If you’re independently wealthy, you don’t need to be reading this guide. Hire me as your record concierge instead.
For everyone else, it helps to think about your collection over the long-term, not short, and budgeting what you’re willing to pay. This is generally sound advice for any kind of purchasing impulse but it’s especially important in a market as volatile as records. Impulsiveness runs deep in collecting and while, on rare occasions, it can help you score a deal before someone else beats you to it, all too often, it goes the other way and becomes a liability, where you overpay simply because you let yourself get caught up.
When I say “set a budget” I don’t mean adopting a philosophy where you say, “I’ll never spend more than $10 for a record.” I know people who’ve done it but it’s never made much sense to me. “Having a code” such as that isn’t about records; it’s about having a code. I can respect that but don’t try to convince me that it’s a good way to go about collecting; it’s not. Every record is different. There are some records you probably should never spend more than $10 on. 1 But there are other records that are absolutely worth paying “market rate” for because, well, they’re great records. You could also say that you’ll never pay more than $10 for dinner and in the end…you’d be denying yourself some greater pleasures for the sake of a principle for principle’s sake. It’s not worth it.
Anyways, first ballpark how much a month you’re willing to spend and as best as possible, try to keep to that. Where you set that limit is hard for me to say. Personally, I don’t think you should be spending more on records than food, let alone rent, but a record budget that’s similar to one’s clothing budget might be a better comparison.
The monthly budget is something you’re allowed to cheat on so long as you’re willing to underspend later. That’s actually not as hard as you might imagine. Here’s something you should all remember: The vast majority of records – even for obscurists – will come around again if you’re patient. So it shouldn’t be that hard to tell yourself, “I went over budget last month, I’m going to chill this month and avoid any records on my want list that I know will be available a few times a year.” Let’s put it this way: I’m doing that right now because of some, um, recent purchases.
Second, especially for hunters out there, you should ballpark how much a particular record is worth to you. This is, of course, tricky because “worth” and “value” are wholly relative, constantly changing concepts with records. Today’s $50 record may be worth $500 in a few years or vice versa. Also, we all want good value for our purchases but let’s also admit that value is an illusion that simply makes us feel better for our consumerist impulses. That said, try to get a handle on what you think the market rate for a record is and relative to what, what you’re willing to spend. Once you have that figured out, stick to it. Again: all records (well, almost all) come around again. And again. And again. Just trust in this.
For browsers, this advice may be less relevant if you’re not necessarily hunting for a specific record. But I think it helps to walk into a record store and decide, ahead of time, “I’m not going to spend more than $50/100/whatever” and try to keep to that. This is ultimately advice about the value of moderation and again: it applies to many things beyond just the vinyl game.
Step Six: Where To Look
But this said, eBay is a tool best used for someone beyond the beginning stages of collecting, at least if budget is a concern (and it should be). Just the cost of shipping alone creates an added burden. If you’re looking for beginning pieces, odds are, you’re buying records that are more likely to show up in a record store and often (but not always) at prices cheaper than eBay. This obviously varies from genre to genre: if you’re all about collecting German krautrock but you don’t live in Germany, eBay may be a better option.
Speaking of budget: I’m a big fan of sniping sites like esnipe.com, mostly because they prevent you from engaging in irrational bidding wars. You set the price you’re willing to go to and that’s it. If you win, you win. You lose, you lose. But there’s none of that insane back-and-forth that jacks up records way beyond their conventional market value (thus wrecking the market in the process).
Besides cost issues, one other limitation, at least from an American perspective, with eBay is that it’s not useful for records whose titles are written in any language besides those using Roman lettering. Trying to find Thai or Russian records from eBay’s English language site is next to useless unless the seller is bothering to translate things into English for you (and even then, you can never be sure if the translations are consistent from seller to seller).2
As noted, eBay is great for hunters but not nearly as useful for browsers. For the latter, it’s all about:
But assuming you have a least a couple of options open to you: record stores are what browsing is all about. They work for hunters too – I’ve literally seen people (you know, like myself) holding pieces of paper, sifting through bins. But ultimately, where stores excel in a way that almost no other space can, is providing moments of idiosyncratic discovery, where you find something you didn’t realize you were looking for until the moment you find it.
Finding a good store, these days, is the trick. The easiest way to define “good” is “a store that has records you want, at cheap prices” but given that most places don’t exactly advertise that…
The thing is: I don’t really want to write a guide to record stores since those already exist. And the sheer number and diversity of stores creates a rather long taxonomy to walk through. Let me boil this down to what kinds of things I look for in a decent store:
**What’s the ratio of new/old? Most independent stores do one well…but not both. A store that’s mostly used usually means the folks who run it need to constantly find stock for the store. That’s a good thing from a buyer’s point of view. Speaking of which:
*Does it have a “new arrivals” section that’s constantly updated? The “constantly updated” part is really key here but I do find a new arrivals bin to be a convenience. Of course, so will your competition.
*Does it have a listening station? It seems to me that many stores don’t put a premium on this and that’s likely because listening stations probably only benefit a minority of buyers (i.e. either the super-picky condition hounds or needle-dropping browsers, neither of which is a store’s bread and butter customer base). So I can’t really be mad at a store that doesn’t offer one but I like the ones that have them better.
*Are there price stickers on the records or do they price at the counter? (You don’t want the latter in most cases).
*Is there a diversity of genres represented? This a real bonus for eclectics and obscurists since it means that you’re likely to find records outside of the usual rock/soul/jazz wheelhouse. If they have a marching band section? A sound effects section? These are all good signs that the store is likely to be more open-minded about what it stocks vs. a store that hyper-specializes in only a handful of genres. The latter is useful for completionist hunters; not so much for browsers.
*Does it have a decent dollar bin section? Non-essential but in stores that tend to more narrowly specialize in their genres, you might find bargains in records from genres outside the store’s wheelhouse. It takes effort though.
*Is the staff knowledgable or at least cordial? If someone working at a store knows your tastes and can help you with suggested titles…that’s invaluable. But here’s the thing: it’s not a requirement. You could go to a store with some ignorant surly types and that’s fine too so long as the store stock is good. Finding a record mentor in a store is a bonus, but non-essential.
Last thought…what makes record stores great is also what makes them a little exhausting. Browsing takes time and the hit/miss ratio will almost always be something massively skewed…I’m talking less than 5%, even in a decent store. But of course, it’s finding that 5% that keeps us coming back.
There are some folks who, for example, romanticize the idea of thrift store diving (no Macklemore jokes, please). And the appeal isn’t complicated: prices are good but there’s also that sensation that you’re digging through someone else’s detritus, hunting for hidden treasures. For an obscurist or eclectic, you’d think a thrift store would be kind of perfect since they seem more open to the random than the completionists.
The problem is that thrift stores usually end up with the same records you see everywhere: huge, big selling pop albums that no one else but a thrift store would be willing to take. Someone with a discrimination collection is less likely to dump it at Goodwill (maybe their heirs though). Again: there are always exceptions to this, hence why people bother to go thrifting at all, but it’s not nearly as good a resource as one might presume it is. Basically, it’s low in financial cost but high in opportunity cost. Just be aware.
Personally, I think thrifts hold little value for hunters; they’re more of a browsers’ playground.
The vinyl equivalent of comic book conventions and likely just as nerded-out, swaps can be complete feeding frenzies filled with people with absolutely no social skills but hey, this isn’t a cotillion. That’s the downside…you have a lot more competition at a swap than most stores and “browsing under pressure” isn’t so fun. However, what makes swaps useful is that they tend to be populated by two tiers of record sellers: people buying choice pieces (high cost but high desirability) or people liquidating stock at low prices. That can make them very useful to both hunters and browsers of all stripes.
That said, I feel like swaps work best for folks at either end of the extremes: intense hunters will thrive and low-key browsers will walk away with good deals if they avoid getting caught up. Being in the middle, you might find a rougher time with it given all the jostling, wheeling/dealing, and the heartbreak in seeing everyone else walk off with records you wanted. The same phenomenon happens in any record marketplace but usually away from your view.3 Swaps lay it bare.
If you live near a big city, there’s likely to be a few swaps that come through monthly or bimonthly. Just google your city name and “record swap” and see what pops up. Just be aware that many charge a basic admission fee (to cover their overhead costs) and others still will charge an early bird fee for those who want to get a jump on the crowd. Early bird fees are strictly for hunters.
Step Six and a Half: Bring a portable when you’re in the field.
- Thriller for example. There’s a gazillion copies out there. If you have to pay more than $1-3 for a mint copy, you should learn some patience. ↩
- Of course, if you’re looking for Thai records in the U.S. but not going to Thailand…well, you shouldn’t expect it to be easy. ↩
- Unless you go digging with a friend and they keep pulling heat while you’re staring at your umpteenth Mystic Moods LP (and not “the good one”). ↩