Perfect Sound Forever


Adventures of a Temporary Vinyl Wholesaler
By Kurt Wildermuth
(June 2015)

"I seen my opportunities, and I took 'em."
--George Washington Plunkitt, of New York City's Tammany Hall, 1905

On November 4, 2014, the universe played tricks on me as a consumer. The universe said: "Sorry, you can't have that thing... However, you can have this one... You can also have that one."

That one was a particular punk rock album. By gifting me with multiple copies of the album, the universe set me up for a series of small adventures, and those adventures taught me lessons about how merchandise, timing, and value depend on context.

This is the story of my newfound middle-age pastime, my sideline, my brief career, as a vinyl wholesaler. And like most entertaining and enlightening stories about the commerce of vintage vinyl, this tale begins with Bob Dylan, English muffins, and a duct-taped bundle.

Bob Dylan

On that fateful fall day, Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series, Vol. 11: The Complete Basement Tapes was released. I'm a Dylan devotee, a Basement Tapes enthusiast, and a music collector, so I wanted the deluxe, truly complete, 6-disc version of the set. In the morning, I phoned a record store--one of the last of its kind in my adopted hometown of Manhattan--and was told they'd reserve a copy.

On my lunch hour, I took the subway downtown and walked to the store. When I introduced myself, the 20-something clerk looked stricken. The store hadn't actually received the sets. That day's shipment was in the FedEx truck parked outside, and he didn't know when the delivery would be unloaded. "It usually happens pretty soon after he parks there," the clerk explained.

"Would you say, within the hour?"

"Maybe ..."

"Would it help for me to speak with the guy?"

"I don't think so."

I stuck around as long as I could, but finally I took the subway back uptown and returned to work. Just as I was ready to stop being loyal to the record store and walk over to the nearest Barnes & Noble for the Dylan set, the phone rang. The record store had received the CD's. No hurry, but when would I be able to pick mine up?

I said I'd probably come in the next day. Dylan-wise, I'd been so close and yet so far. Hours later, that strange, temporarily frustrating experience hardened my determination to buy, yes, English muffins.

English Muffins

The day before I failed to buy the Dylan CD's, I'd tried to buy plain English muffins. Astonishingly, three grocery stores in my neighborhood were out of them. All I found were a few boxes of cinnamon-raisin, which wouldn't have suited the pulled-pork sandwiches I planned to serve for dinner. So on the evening of November 4, I decided to try other grocery stores and delis in the area.

At the northern edge of my neighborhood, as far from home as I was willing to travel for English muffins, a grocery store was not only fully stocked with plain but was offering quite a discount. One package of 12 English muffins cost $2.99, whereas two packages of 12 together cost only $3.29.

How could all the nearby sellers be out of a common item that this store had in abundance and on sale? Pondering the mysteries of delivery and pricing, I bought the two-pack. The deal ended up being for real; the store wasn't just getting rid of stale overstock. In fact, those English muffins turned out to be the freshest, tastiest ones I've ever eaten, and I've eaten copious English muffins.

Sometimes you give to the universe. Sometimes the universe gives to you. Sometimes persistence pays off. And as you'll see in the following accounts--and corresponding accountings--value is always relative.

The Duct-Taped Bundle

From that grocery store, I took a different route home than usual. On the curb around the corner from my block, something colorful caught my eye, and it turned out to be a stack of LP's. The cover iconography looked vaguely familiar, I stepped closer, and soon I was staring at The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2, released by Raw Power Records in 1987. In the late ?80's, I paid a lot of attention to music of this kind--what we called indie rock--especially of the punk, hardcore punk, and "alternative" varieties. I'd never heard this album, but I seemed to recall its being influential.

Now someone had duct-taped many copies into bundles, which were piled up next to full garbage bags. The whole scene suggested "Building superintendent disposes of tenant's belongings."

Most of the time, I keep my eyes peeled as I perambulate, and I perambulate often, so the odds are favorable that I'll find something interesting somewhere in this city. Most of the time, I find nothing interesting. This time, I scored. Not only had I happened upon records, but they weren't a nonstarter, such as polka or some other processed cheese. They were a cool item worth investigating, in a sedate neighborhood you wouldn't associate with such a thing.

I grabbed the top bundle, crossing my fingers that it included at least one playable copy. As I rounded the corner toward home, I considered going back to grab another bundle, but the first bundle, the English muffins, and my shoulder bag were too heavy for me to carry anything else.

In my apartment, I undid the duct tape and counted the copies. There were 37, and all but four of them were still sealed in shrink wrap. They looked as close to pristine as you could expect, given their age and the circumstances.

Copies 37-34

After a dinner of pulled-pork sandwiches on plain English muffins, I went online to check the availability and pricing on the usual vintage-record-vending sites: eBay and Discogs. As I found first an eBay seller in Texas offering a sealed copy of the album for $42.50 and then a minimum sale price on Discogs of $9, I grew excited. Not being an online seller, I didn't know what I'd do with my 37 copies, but they potentially could bring me at least hundreds of dollars. I decided to go back and nab the rest before they became landfill.

When I returned to the scene, however, the other three bundles--approximately 120 copies--were gone. You have to be quick when the universe delivers something worthwhile in this metropolis.

Hours later, an eBay seller in New York posted a sealed copy of the album for $30. A coincidence? I assumed that this person had somehow ended up with the other three bundles. Maybe he or she--most likely he--had grabbed even more than that before I'd walked by. Who knew how many copies had been out there or how many had been stashed somewhere in the neighborhood--in a basement, at the back of a closet, piled up like a totem?

My first impulse was to place my finds in good homes. To that end, I emailed friends:

Hello, Rock and Roll Fans with Turntables or Perhaps Access to Turntables,

A few hours ago, I picked up off the sidewalk 37 copies of a 1987 punk compilation, The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2. Here's some info about this "sleazy punk rock from the gutters of NYC":

According to listings at Discogs and Ebay, copies of this record could be worth anywhere from $9 to $42.50! However, I'm writing because, generous and lazy soul that I am, I'll be happy to give each of you one copy. No questions asked, but I'd prefer to hand these records to people who'll actually play them and appreciate them for all their loud, fast snarliness and gnarliness. 

If you're that kind of person, just let me know, and we can arrange a delivery. Meanwhile, at some point soon I'll actually open the shrink wrap on one of these puppies and give it a spin. The rest will go into my basement storage space until I figure out whether to try selling them or just donate them to a thrift shop.

Four likeminded souls replied to say they'd take copies. They were all quite excited about receiving this piece of gutter-punk history.

Copies 33-32

Wanting a copy for myself and curious about the music, I unwrapped one LP. An unwrinkled insert was inside the jacket. The vinyl itself glistened. But when I placed the disc on my turntable, started the platter rotating, and lowered the tonearm, the outside edge of the album proved so warped that the needled skipped. So on the first copy I'd tried, the first song on the first side was unplayable.

To this day, that defective copy sits on the bookcase in my office, a memento of serendipitous fun and a rebuke to the cult of sealed records. People think sealed is sacred, a guarantee of virginity, but if you're buying vintage vinyl, you're much better off finding an open jacket so you can check the disc for damage.

Luckily, the second copy I opened played perfectly and sounded great, free of surface noise. Some of the music was goofy and dated, but overall the record was better and more diverse than I expected. Yes, 1987 was past the heyday of hardcore punk, but this music turned out not to be generic hardcore. This artifact, fresh from some local capsule, was not just interesting but was worth listening to, if you were part of the approximately 1% of the world population to whom it would make sense and not just sound like horrible noise.

Copies 31-27

The next day, I went back to the downtown record store to pick up the Dylan set. I brought one copy of The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2, sure that the store's record buyer would want to take at least that one off my hands. The 20-something clerk behind the counter looked impressed by the record and seemed surprised when the buyer said it wasn't a good fit for them. True, their merchandise is more alternative and "other" than punk. The buyer recommended that I try a nearby record store I knew about but seldom visited, which specialized in punk.

I thanked him and left. On my way home, I stopped in a used-record store where I'd seen the middle-aged buyer make ungenerous offers on albums people wanted to sell. In the past, I'd sworn never to bring a record there. Now, out of curiosity, I showed the buyer my album and said I had about 30 copies.

After checking briefly online, he said, "I'll give you $5 for that one."
"Just this one?"
"I'll take three or four ... maybe five."
"At $5 a copy?"

He shrugged. I wasn't sure what that meant. Maybe he'd pay that price for each one? Was he sort of apologizing for not offering more money? His offer was fine, but I didn't want to let even one copy go until I'd tested the waters elsewhere.

"Let me get back to you," I said. "I want to see how I do selling in bulk."
"I understand."
"You're not going anywhere."
"Maybe ... Let's hope not."

The next day, I spoke on the phone with the record buyer of the punk store that the first buyer had recommended. Without any persuading, the punk rock buyer offered me an astonishingly good deal: "I'll start at $10 a copy and charge $15. I'll take three or four, maybe five. If they do well, I might go up to $12 a copy."

With that proposal, I had a business plan in place. However, just to confirm that the terms were as good as I'd get, I contacted a savvy buyer at a store in Brooklyn.

"We're interested," the buyer told me. "Please bring them in for an appraisal."

"Could you tell me your level of interest?"

"I'd probably buy them all, and you're definitely looking at a few bucks a copy."

"The thing is, one potential buyer is buying only five copies at a time but is offering $10 per copy. I doubt you'd want to match that."

"That price is crazy high. You should definitely take that."

So the next day, I took it. True to his word, the 20-something punk buyer handed me a $50 bill for five copies.

"Pleasure doing business with you!" I said.

He nodded, or was it shrugged? "We're looking for stuff like this."

"Do you want to take my phone number in case you want more?"

"Call me in about six weeks, and we'll see how they did."

Copies 26-24

Six weeks felt like a long time to wait. Fired up with entrepreneurial energy, I hoped to pursue other Big Apple possibilities in the meantime.

Three shrink-wrapped copies of the album weren't in good enough shape to sell to the punk store. I remembered some downtown record stores I'd browsed in where quality of the product--the condition of the records or their covers--didn't appear to be hugely important. Surely, in hip downtown neighborhoods, record sellers would see the attraction of punk history and offer at least a dollar apiece for these slightly worn artifacts.

On my way to one of the down-and-dirty record stores, I spotted one I'd never set foot in. The name suggested that the shop specialized in oldies, but who knew what I'd find inside, especially since a 1987 album could now qualify as an oldie. I gathered my courage and entered. At the back of this hole in the wall stuffed with beaten-up vinyl was a counter. Behind it, a middle-aged man sat hunched. He had a cash register but not a computer.

He looked up from whatever he was reading, and I showed him a copy of The Big Apple. "Would you be interested in a sealed copy of a 1987 New York punk rock compilation?"

"I don't know anything about it. Is it out of print?"
"What's it worth?"
"Do you want the eBay prices or the Discogs prices?"
"Ballpark, ballpark. Is it a $30 record?"
"Well, yes ..."
"I'll give you $10." He opened his register, pulled out a ten, handed it over, and took the record.

I'd hoped for a dollar and expected to have to negotiate for it. He'd unhesitatingly given me $10, the "crazy high" price.

I could have said: "Sir, I must advise you not to give me so much money. I've sold perfect copies of this record for $10, and as you'll see if you look closer, there's a bit of water damage on the cover of this copy. Plus online prices, which you don't seem to care about, start at $9." But I didn't say that, because values are always contingent and because, hey, caveat emptor.

I was aghast at the high prices in this cave, where every record appeared to be a $30 record. Although I was eager to leave before the buyer changed his mind about the $10 he'd given me, I wanted to experience the store in full, since I doubted I'd ever come back. I ended up not finding a single album I was willing to pay for.

    Meanwhile, the buyer was taking out a plastic sleeve for The Big Apple and putting a price sticker on it. "Hey, what's this?" he asked.

Casually, I answered, "That's some damage."
"You didn't say it was damaged!"
I wanted to answer: "Well, no, sir, I didn't say anything about the quality, and you didn't ask. You leapt before you looked."
Instead, I answered: "I'm not trying to rip you off." And I wasn't. But, hey, carpe diem: Seize the cash!
"I'll just put $20 on this one," he said.
"You won't have trouble selling that for $20." I based that statement on his prices for far less worthwhile records in far worse shape.
"I don't care if it sells. It can stay here forever."

He then inquired about my record collection, but I told him it wasn't for sale. Since a lot of my records are rare and most of them are in excellent condition, I couldn't imagine how much the whole assemblage would be "worth" in this place.

"My customers pay top dollar," he announced, "and I pay top dollar."

I nodded.

"But they need to be in excellent condition. Not like the one I just bought."

I thanked him and left.

See Part 2 of the story

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