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The splendor of vinyl: How to build and preserve a vinyl collection in the digital age

Two hipsters and a record player 650
There’s this wonderful moment in the movie American Splendor in which Harvey Pekar meets Robert Crumb for the first time. The scene encapsulates why collecting vinyl is such a wonderfully human pursuit. Crumb, who is introduced to the socially-inept Pekar at a garage sale, immediately notices the Jay McShann jazz record under Harvey’s arm and compliments him on his find. Pekar (played by Paul Giamatti) cranks his neck, gives Crumb a suspicious look – wondering if the lanky looking fellow secretly covets his treasure – and then engages him in conversation. The two discover that they have a mutual love of jazz – not to mention an obsession for collecting vinyl and comic books – and a great relationship and collaboration ensues. Two grown men who would eventually become underground cartoon legends bond over a record.

Couple in ParisIf anything, that experience taught me that records hold a special place in human consciousness. We accept their imperfections because we are equally as imperfect. They are very much like people: fragile, dirty, sometimes magnificent, sometimes a major disappointment. Records require effort, just like anything worthwhile in life. You have to take care of them, or watch them deteriorate. Records remind of us of the best and worst times in our lives. Hunting for that elusive record is like finding one’s life partner. You never know when it’s going to happen, and when it does, it’s never planned.

Based on recent sales figures, it would appear that the five year surge in vinyl purchases is not a fad, but a genuine attempt to reconnect to something in a more organic, personal way in spite of this increasingly digital world , where we’ve become a society of anonymous screen monikers, email addresses, and Twitter accounts. 

Let’s go find some records.

For established vinyl collectors, nothing we are about to suggest is going to be a revelation. But for the newly initiated, it may come as a surprise that abundant vinyl treasures await, if you know where to find them. There are some rules to the game which will not only save you money, but preserve your investment in this very imperfect medium. Between the hunt and proper cleaning and storage, there is a lot of fun to be had. Let’s first talk about where to look. 

Used Record Stores

The sad truth is that there are very few record stores left compared to what existed twenty years ago. And those outlets that have survived have had to make room for CDs, DVDs, and other products just to keep the lights on. Used records have become far more expensive because shop owners have to pay the bills somehow, and with demand on the rise, they can get away with it. It’s not a matter of greed, it’s simple supply and demand. Most of the better used records stores like Princeton Record Exchange (Princeton, NJ), Bleeker Street Records (New York City), Music Millenium or Everyday Music (Portland, Oregon), Grimey’s (Nashville) and Amoeba Music (Los Angeles) have raised their prices in recent years, but all are still worthy of a trip if you are seeking out used or new or used vinyl.

With due respect appreciation for small, local record shops, the best source for new vinyl is the Internet.

Used record stores certainly exist in college towns – something about college students listening to music? Some of my best finds over the years were in small college towns like Saratoga Springs, New York (Skidmore) or Evanston, Illinois (which is really Chicago, but don’t tell the students at Northwestern University that). It’s almost always a crapshoot, and you’re likely to get dirty sitting on the floor looking through the $2.00 records, but it’s often worth it if you find that pristine copy of Saturday Night Fever or  Dark Side of the Moon.

Another solid source for used records: garage sales. The great thing about garage sales is that home owners really do want to get rid of their old junk, so prices can be negotiable. Don’t haggle over fifty cents,. though If you find a record you want and the condition is acceptable, give them the $1-$2 they want. It’s a win-win for both parties.Record album bin scaled

Estate sales can be a good source for used vinyl, but keep in mind you usually have to purchase an entire lot. Some auction houses might let you take a look at what is in the collection, but it’s a real gamble if you can’t examine the records’ condition.

Don’t forget Goodwill and The Salvation Army. People often donate their entire record collection to either one of these organizations. Classical music seems to get dumped at both stores in huge quantities, so it may be worth bribing whoever checks the donations in each week to set the best stuff aside for you. Experienced vinyl collectors know when it’s coming and can separate the quality vinyl from the garbage in about two minutes.

Finally, high-end audio stores are often a good source for new and used vinyl and, as a bonus, are a good place to audition a new turntable. 

Online Record Stores

With due respect and appreciation for small, local record shops, the best source for new vinyl is the Internet. The prices are lower and the selection is vastly better – plus, it’s hard to visit a record store in London when you live in, say, Duluth. I’ve had very good luck with most of the online retailers in the U.S. While not every pressing will arrive 100% flat, most will refund your money if the pressing is really warped. The really good retailers will even reduce or waive shipping costs for large orders. 

Below we’ve listed some solid sites for browsing new vinyl. These retailers also sell turntables, cartridges, and cleaning supplies, to boot. Beware, however, that prices on new vinyl tend to be pretty high. Not every record will be a bank-buster, but you should be prepared to spend $25-40 or more for a new release, especially if the pressing is on 180 or 200 gram vinyl. Audiophile pressings will run even higher, but keep in mind that just because something is “remastered,” it isn’t necessarily worth the a premium. 

eBay and Amazon can be great resources, too, but be careful. Private sellers are not always honest when it comes to the condition of their records – a high rating doesn’t guarantee anything. I once bought a rare Japanese pressing of a Sam Cooke album that I had sought after for years. It cost me $90 (including shipping from Japan), and while the vinyl was in “mint” condition as advertised, the record was so warped that I risked destroying my cartridge if I played it. It currently hangs on my wall in a frame as a constant reminder of what not to do. 

You’ve got a huge stack of wax – now what?

Perhaps the most common complaint about vinyl is that it can be noisy. The snap, crackle, and pop often associated with records is something people might expect from their cereal bowl, but not their music. The thing is, Vinyl – even new vinyl – should be cleaned before you play it. The manufacturing process of new records often leaves a residue that should be removed and, besides that, records have a way of becoming dust magnets really quickly. Dry and wet cleaning methods each have their pros and cons, but wet cleaning is necessary if you plan on investing in a lot of used records. Used vinyl (aside from any scratches) often contains smoke, dust, sand, bodily fluids and other residue that has become stuck in the grooves. While cleaning a record is the best way to ensure the optimum sound quality, the most important reason to clean your vinyl is that it will prolong the life of your phono cartridge.

Harry Weisfeld, President of VPI Industries, has been manufacturing and selling his HW-16.5 record cleaning machine for close to 30 years, and after selling close to 50,000 of them in the United States alone, he’s developed a strong cult following among audiophiles, collectors, and used record stores.

While VPI is not the only company producing record cleaning machines, the $650 it charges for the HW-16.5 is actually on the low end of the spectrum. Some competitors  (Nitty Gritty and Clearaudio, for example) ask for Record cleanerbetween $1,000 – $4,000 for their models. All of the machines require replacement cleaning fluids and brushes, too, so the costs can rise rather quickly.

For those not ready to throw down a month’s rent on a record cleaner, the $79  Spin-Clean Record Washer System MK II is an affordable and effective option. This manual wet cleaning system doesn’t vacuum up all the dirt and cleaning fluid  its more expensive rivals do, but it’s cost effective if you don’t mind the manual labor. The Spin-Clean doesn’t dig down deep enough for really dirty records, but after using it to clean more than 500 records in the past year, I have nothing but praise for the results.

Once your vinyl is clean, don’t stick it back in its original and no-doubt dirty album sleeves. A box of 50 static-free record sleeves runs about $20 and they do a fantastic job protecting your vinyl from dirt, static, and other contaminants. Dig the album cover art as much as the record itself? Outer sleeves for protecting the album covers are also a worthwhile investment and are relatively cheap.

Save your relationship and store your records properly

Proper storage is key to the long-term well-being of both your records and your relationship with your spouse/partner/roommate. Nothing clutters up a joint like hundreds of licorice pizzas, as evidenced in the video below. Plus, improper storage can lead to warping. Do yourself a favor and throw down a few bucks for some furniture. 

I’m not a big fan of Ikea’s wares,  including its horse…I mean meatballs. With that said,  Ikea’s Expedit shelving unit is perfect for records. The 4 x 4 Expedit will run you $140 and you can easily fit more than 1,000 records inside. One safety tip – use the supplied safety screws to secure it to the wall – you don’t want to find out what it feels like to be on the bottom of a vinyl avalanche.  West Elm manufacturers a similar looking unit that is made out of solid wood, but it will also run you $450 more.

Collecting and listening to vinyl in this modern an presents an exciting opportunity to reconnect to music via a source long left for dead by the mainstream. Not only do analog records sound great, but they provide a uniquely  tactile, highly social experience that might just take you on some unexpected journeys, introducing you to people you might not otherwise have met in our digital age.

 top image via Vinyl Keeper