ROTTEN TO THE CORE
Adventures of a Temporary Vinyl Wholesaler
By Kurt Wildermuth, Part 3
The oddest reply to my emails came from a store owner on Long Island. I wrote him while drinking my morning coffee one Saturday. When he answered within the hour, he seemed overcaffeinated, overexcited, or both. I owned 20 sealed copies of The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2, I'd explained. I had a car and drove to Long Island frequently, so I could deliver the records to him.
He wrote: "If you deliver 20 copies, I'll give you $200, plus a CD and some chocolate. That's Vol. 1, the one with the red cover, right?"
Some chocolate ... ? Maybe he was under the influence of caffeine and sugar. "No, it's Vol. 2, with the yellow cover. Are you still interested?
" "No, sorry." As I'd suspected, he wanted only the rarer and more valuable Vol. 1, no doubt planning to retire on the proceeds from cornering that market.
Oh well. Onward!
The Continuing Story of Copies 23-?
A certain urban outfitting chain claims to be the #1 vinyl retailer in the U.S. I emailed that chain, but never heard back, so I began investigating in person. At its Upper East Side branch, a 20-something clerk and I talked LP's. He told me about the album his dad had recently given him, the Clockwork Orange soundtrack. He said, "Some people think it's strange that we sell records," and I explained that vinyl had made a comeback. He told me the chain's Herald Square branch had a vinyl section so large that an employee was assigned to it.
I visited that location and spotted some collector's items at reasonable prices. The 20-something clerk there told me that a famous California music retailer curated the vintage vinyl.
I emailed that retailer.
"We'd have been interested in the records," an employee replied, "but our curatorial role there ends this month."
Oh well again. I praised their choices and prices in the Herald Square outfitter and recommended that they try opening a New York store, since it keeps getting harder to buy good records in this city.
The next weekend, in a small town on Long Island that I hadn't visited in decades, I discovered a new record store. The large space included a stage with amps and instruments, but there weren't many records or a single CD. A large portion of their inventory was devoted to punk. How did they expect to stay in business? Was the place more a club than a store? Was it a front for something more lucrative?
The store's 20-something clerk had a punk look, and the top of his head nearly came off when I mentioned the records I was hawking.
"What are you looking to get for them?"
"In New York, I'm getting $10 a copy."
He seemed unfazed. "The owner isn't here right now. Why don't you leave your number."
I gave him all my info, but never heard back. I picture the owner as a grizzled cigar chomper taking one look at my note and saying to the clerk, "Kid, when you've been in this business as long as I have, you know that you never give anyone $10 for a record."
During my next visit to Venice, Florida, I stopped into the used-vinyl store. I told the owner: "I'm the guy who emailed you a couple weeks ago about the punk album."
Her eyes widened because she knew immediately what I was talking about.
"I knew my price was high," I explained, "and that it was a long shot."
"It wasn't that much of a long shot. But down here, they want the obscure bands, but they don't want to pay a lot for them."
I ended up buying from her, for a mere $6, an album by an obscure English hardcore band I'd never heard of, proving her point even while supporting her business. Despite my "support," she shuttered her store a few weeks later.
Back home, nearly two months after finding The Big Apple, I checked eBay. One seller in Iowa was offering a single open copy for $28. The seller in Texas was still hawking his sealed copy for $42.50.
The seller in New York, the person who might have scored all the copies I didn't take, had moved to an extreme tactic: 100 sealed copies for $350 or Best Offer--$3.50 a copy or less! Clearly, that seller wasn't moving merchandise any more swiftly than I was. Wasn't vinyl supposed to have made a comeback? I was grateful that I'd taken just the one bundle, because more than 37 copies would have turned into an existential burden. Suppose they'd just sat for years, filling up my basement storage area. Space is at a premium here in Gotham.
Copies 23-19 at Last
On New Year's Eve, I phoned my downtown punk buyer. "About six weeks ago, I sold you some copies of The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2. I'm wondering if you'd be interested in buying more."
"I think I haven't sold any of them."
"Hang on a minute... Do you remember how many you sold me?"
"Right. I still have all five. Sorry, man."
If that store couldn't move those records, who could?
That afternoon, determined to make a sale, I took five copies to the used-record store where the middle-aged buyer had offered me $5 for the copy I was holding and thought he might buy more. Prepared to take $25 or even $20 for this batch, I walked up to the buyer.
"Hi," I said.
"Hi." He didn't recognize me.
"About six weeks ago, I was here with one copy of this record. You said you'd be interested in buying a few. I have five." I said nothing about price, still testing the waters but now also testing his memory.
"Five copies ..." After a few minutes of Web research, he said, "I'll give you $10 a copy."
"That works for me."
"I'm probably crazy." To justify his "crazy" offer, he noted that Ism and Ed Gein's Car were on the record.
I nodded and added, "I understand the Mob was pretty big too."
"I saw the Mob once. They were on a bill at the Knitting Factory with Sonic Youth and-- what was that band? The Swans."
"Wow. Quite a show."
"I wasn't too impressed by the Mob."
"Right. They were probably straightahead hardcore."
"I liked straightahead hardcore. They just weren't that interesting."
"Ism had that guy ..." he began.
"Jism. That was the singer's name." The name kind of rang out in the otherwise silent shop, where other employees and customers were listening.
"I must be thinking of someone else. I'm talking about that guitarist. Elliot Sharp."
"I think he had a band with a similar name. I/S/M, with slashes in between the letters."
As we talked the talk and he wrote up the ticket for my $50, I took the five copies out of my bag. I noticed that one of them had some back-cover damage. Gulp. I quickly handed over the records, took my slip, gave the shop's used LP's a quick run-through, then redeemed my ticket at the register and took off. Carpe cash!
On January 2, 2015--almost exactly two months after finding the records--I phoned a small Manhattan store I'd discovered on the Web. The buyer and I exchanged a few voicemails. He offered $10 a copy, but didn't specify how many copies he wanted. I feared he would check eBay and take back his offer. At that point, the NYC eBay seller was offering 20 copies for $50, plus $9.25 postage. Even with the shipping, that was about $3 a record! The market was nearing rock bottom. But the store owner called to say he'd take five copies for $50.
When I arrived at the store and told the owner my name, he looked excited. When I handed over the records, he immediately became disappointed. Like the overzealous, candy-offering owner on Long Island, he'd thought I was selling Vol. 1 despite my having specified that it was Vol. 2. When people envision a goldmine, they stop paying attention to the details. I assumed he too would decline to buy any copies.
After looking online for info about Vol. 2, he apologized. "I hate to go back on my word, but I can't do $10."
"OK ... What can you do?"
"I can do $7."
Not bad. "That works for me." I took the cash.
He was the first buyer to ask where I'd gotten the records: "Are you a collector?"
"Yes, I am, but I found the records on the street. Literally. They were piled up on the sidewalk in my neighborhood."
He looked guardedly miserable, probably still in shock at not getting Vol. 1 and wondering if he'd overpaid for Vol. 2.
With $35 in my pocket, I felt like king of the world. Within the hour, I bought a snazzy vintage sport jacket from my favorite charity thrift shop, where it was marked down from $85 to exactly $35. The synchronicity seemed like a sign, a confirmation from the universe that my distribution methods were on track.
That evening, to capitalize on my momentum, I emailed the Archive of Contemporary Music, a nonprofit organization in lower Manhattan whose contributors and board members have included luminaries such as Lou Reed, David Byrne, and Keith Richards. "Would you be interested in a donation of one copy of a 1987 New York City punk compilation called The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2? If so, I'd be happy to deliver it." They never replied.
That same evening, a friend who doesn't have a turntable or a particular interest in punk gave me $10 to "get in on the action" before all my copies were gone.
And I finally decided to donate two copies to my favorite thrift shop so they could make a couple bucks: one copy appeared to have been nibbled by a rodent in one corner, and the other had substantial water damage beneath the shrink wrap. I'd somehow failed to notice these problems earlier.
"Not in the best shape," I told the person who accepted the donation the next day, "but still worth somebody's bucks."
He seemed amused by my bothering to say that. No doubt he was accustomed to receiving items, including countless records, far closer to garbage than these "collectibles" were. One person's trash, as they say...
Having depleted my stock, I was fired up to move the rest. I took my remaining copies to Long Island, where I stepped into a record store I'd avoided for years because the owner struck me as a creep and a scoundrel. Luckily, the owner wasn't there.
"Wow!" said the 20-something clerk behind the counter when I showed him the album. "Does that even have a bar code?"
"I think it predates bar codes. This record was never reissued."
He examined one copy and even held it up, still in its shrink wrap to check for warping, the only potential customer I ever saw do that. "Norman Bates and the Showerheads," he said approvingly to his 20-something coworker, who nodded but remained expressionless as he cast an inexplicably wary eye at me. "The record buyer isn't here. He'll be here tomorrow."
"I live in Manhattan. I'm just out here today."
"We normally pay 50 cents a record."
"I'd want more than that for this record."
"You should try our other store. The buyer's there today."
At their other store, the 20-something buyer didn't say "Wow!" or mention Norman Bates and the Showerheads, but he was interested in the records and seemed baffled that I was offering them to him. "We normally pay 50 cents."
"I'd want more than that for this record. I live in Manhattan, and there I'm getting $10."
"I can't do $10."
"How about $7?"
"I'll give you $5."
"For how many?"
"Or I can give you $35 in trade."
He was the first of my customers to mention the common practice of offering more in trade than in cash for records and CD's. In fact, he seemed to favor the trade, uncomfortable at paying so little for a record he'd undoubtedly sell for much more.
"I'm in a hurry," I replied. "I'll just take the cash."
Hours later, in search of coffee, I drove through a nearby one-horse town. It was my real hometown, though I'd lost all ties there and only visited some of the businesses. As I neared the end of Main St., I spotted a record store that hadn't existed a few months before. I parked and brought in my five copies of the album.
"Who knew there was a record store in this town?" I told the middle-aged owner.
"For a while, no one did. People are realizing I'm here. I started out in the back of the beauty parlor down the street."
Truly a diehard. While he looked online for info about The Big Apple: Rotten to the Core, Vol. 2, I browsed. His stock included many albums by obscure artists on independent labels, and the quality was high.
"Cool stuff!" I said.
"Thanks! I try." He was highly interested in The Big Apple, but when he spotted the latest eBay listing from the New York seller, he grunted. "Twenty copies for $50."
My heart sank. "Yeah, that guy is undercutting me."
He said nothing.
I finished browsing and walked over to the counter. "So what do you think?"
He looked betrayed. "What's your best offer?"
"In New York, I'm getting $10 a copy."
He shook his head. "I don't have that kind of purchasing power. Sorry."
Pause. I still sensed interest. "Do you want one copy?"
He shook his head.
I took the cash, and he took the record. "I grew up in this town," I told him, "and I'd have loved this place. I'll definitely stop back in next time I'm around. Good luck with the record."
I didn't ask if he wanted four copies for $20, even though a few hours earlier I'd happily made that deal. The one copy I sold him seemed appropriate. And if I'd sold those last four, my wholesaling adventures would have ended on the spot. I wasn't ready for them to end. I wanted more excitement and more reward.
At home that night, I discovered that the New York eBay seller had actually reduced his price to $50 total: 20 copies for $40, plus $9.25 shipping. When I told my girlfriend, she laughed and said, "At this point, you should just buy them to get them off the market."
"Exactly. It's crazy. There's one copy for $42.50, one for $40, one for about $20. Then there are 20 for $40, plus $9.25 shipping. That guy is fucking up the market."
At some point, the New York seller also started offering the album on cassette. Again, 20 copies for $40, plus shipping. Maybe my adventures as the Typhoid Mary of The Big Apple were ending whether or not I wanted them to.
When I related my latest Long Island escapades to a record-collector friend who grew up out there, I discovered that he'd missed my initial email blast in November. Once I'd told him about the record, he wanted a copy, and I delivered one to him the next day. I delivered another copy to a 20-something coworker who had a turntable but only a small vinyl collection.
That night, I gave into a longstanding temptation: I emailed the New York eBay seller. I said that his business was none of my business, but I had some experience selling that record, and I hoped he didn't mind my writing to him. I recommended that he try five copies for $50. No one wants 20, I explained; there just isn't the market. The most they're willing to buy is five, and then they're willing to pay more. The more valuable the record seems, the more they're willing to pay.
He replied, "Thanks for the help! I appreciate it!" That's all he wrote, so I had no idea if he would take my advice.
In writing him, I had various aims. One was to put my experience to good use. Another was to "correct" the market. That is, I wanted to help him, but I also wanted to help other sellers. In addition, I wanted to shield the people who'd bought copies from me, so their merchandise wouldn't seem devalued to potential customers who checked online. Finally, although my stock was nearly gone and I probably wouldn't speak with those sellers again, I wanted to protect my "professional reputation," so they wouldn't think of me as a creep and a scoundrel, the Eve of The Big Apple. It bothered me that some of them might already have concluded that I was the New York eBay seller screwing them by fucking up the market!
Sometime after my correspondence with the New York seller, his LP's vanished from eBay. And sometime after that, his cassettes vanished. I don't know what the items sold for, if they sold.
As I write this, one store owner who gave me $10 a copy is selling one for $25. The seller in Texas still wants $42.50 for his sealed copy. Perhaps like the buyer in the first hole in the wall I visited, this seller doesn't care if the record sells. It can stay online forever, until eBay folds or he does.
The next time I visited my hometown, I stopped back in the record store. The owner didn't recognize me.
"I'm the guy who sold you the punk rock album."
His eyes widened. "I sold it!"
"How'd you do?"
"I got 10 bucks."
"Great! Doubled your money. I knew you wouldn't have any trouble selling it."
"The right person came in. I hadn't seen him in years... Bring another one!"
"I will, next time I come out."
"... It could take years to sell it. . . ."
The next weekend, I had to deal with some business on Long Island, so I delivered my penultimate copy of the album to that store. I don't know if the owner recognized me this time, but he recognized the cover as soon as I held it up. He smiled and opened the cash register. "Five dollars is the going rate, right?"
I smiled. "Five dollars is fine."
True hometown boy makes good!
Any takers for a bona-fide chunk of New York punk rock history and a surprisingly good listen? The bidding starts at $5. Shipping and handling are not included.
KURT WILDERMUTH has written two previous articles on the business of vintage vinyl: "Black Vinyl" (http://www.popmatters.com/feature/176475-black-vinyl-confessions-of-a-music-collector/) and "Duplicates of Duplicates" (http://www.furious.com/perfect/duplicatealbums.html). For more information, please visit www.kurtwildermuth.com.
In case you missed it... See Part 1 of the story || See Part 2 of the story
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