I heave my selections up onto the counter, steeling myself for whatever number the cashier was about to unveil. How had I found myself standing in front of this glass case, trying to add up the purchases in my head, wondering what I needed all these records for? Why did I need the soundtrack to “Top Gun”? Why did I need another copy of “Back In Black?” “But this one’s a different pressing,” I justify to myself. It all started off innocently enough.
Twelve months ago, I pulled the trigger and ordered a turntable, joining rank in the vinyl revival. I toyed with the idea for a year, ever since a visit to a hipster coffee shop in San Francisco where something was spinning in the background. The vibe of conscientious listening and the tactile-ness of vinyl appealed to the Luddite in me.
My own musical journey was stuck in whatever Chicago’s Q101 was playing in the late ’90s (so, Pearl Jam). I learned how to drive while juggling a portable CD player with that crazy tape deck adapter, avoiding bumps because my player had no buffer.
Years ago, I sold off my CD collection and really have been a consumer of streaming services, owning nothing, but with access to everything. I knew the metaphorical shoreline of Top 40 hits was just the beginning and that there was a vast ocean of music out there. So I waded in. I pointed my browser to Amazon and loaded up my cart with a turntable and one record, Voices by Phantogram. After it arrived, I delicately hooked everything up, peeled off the plastic covering the sleeve and breathed it all in.
Glorious memories of reading through the liner notes on CDs in the ’90s came flooding back. I showed my daughter the strange 12″ black circle and told her that it was music. Her five-year-old generation, slowly growing into our primary consumers, only knows music as an intangible, instantly available amenity, coupled with an infinite selection. Even CDs are an oddity. Vinyl is wonderful in that you can actually see it working, making it easier to explain to a kindergartener.
We went over the terminology and how everything works. I taught her how to hold the record, how to gently place it on the turntable, and how skipping songs involved more than just the press of a button. She quickly took an appreciation to one song in particular and kept asking me to play that one again. I obliged and we danced, again and again, arms stretched to the ceiling; a wonderful feeling for this dad.
But after listening to the same record over and over, I needed more. So, while on a date with my wife, I tip-toed into my local record store.
I live in the middle of Illinois, surrounded by corn and soybean fields. Despite the physical isolation from a big city, it’s a college town and there are a couple record stores in the area. My go-to home for records is Exile on Main Street, a small shop crammed into an old train station.
Inside, they’ve got a little bit of everything. Up front is a small stage shaped and painted to look like the store’s namesake record. In the back is the digger room. Wall-to-wall used records, like puppies in a shelter, just waiting for a new owner.
My first time through the door, I was nervous. It’d been 15 years since I was last in a record store and I was worried I’d run into a real-life Barry who would destroy my selections and drum me out of the store. I didn’t do myself any favors, verbally fumbling, “So, uh, how does this work?” The clerk pointed out the different areas of the store and I started digging for the first time.
Selections in hand, I psyched myself up to face the dreaded record store clerk. In reality, he was kind and even gave me a CD his friend mixed, chock full of punk music. Leaving no chance to embarrass myself untaken, my new copy of “Thriller” fell out of its ripped sleeve before I could exit the store. I gathered it up and ran away.
Unlike vinyl listeners of the ’80s, we have the Internet now and can look for records at home in our underpants. I started where any self-respecting Internet user does: Reddit. r/vinyl. Reddit has a little bit of everything. People show off their hauls, talk equipment, and swap stories. I noticed that discussions would often reference Discogs, which turns out to be the grand vinyl list and marketplace.
If you’ve searched the physical record stores for something and just can’t find it, Discogs likely has a seller looking to take your money. Once I saw that almost anything could be found and purchased on Discogs, I started to create a list of albums I wanted. Unlike the endless and perfect duplication of MP3s, records are pressed in batches and once they’re gone, well, they’re gone.
I discovered that on Black Friday 2014; Dave Matthews Band released Recently, the album that contains a live, acoustic version of my favorite DMB song, “Dancing Nancies.” I spent time at my local record store searching for it, as well as the usual suspect, Amazon. But since it was a limited pressing, they didn’t have it. Discogs did. In fact, there were over 15 sellers who had listed it for sale, almost all still sealed and mint. Why are they still sealed? Because they are independent record stores that use Discogs as an online marketplace to reach an audience outside of a 10-mile radius and sell their store stock.
My first experience with record serendipity happened over my lunch break. Cruising Modern Vinyl one day, I saw that Blues Traveler represses were coming out in limited numbers. I sent my store a note, asking if they could order me a copy of “Four.” I never heard back, so I just assumed the answer was no and that I’d never see the record without paying through the nose for it.
As I dug through the shipping box that Tuesday, I was shocked to see that sly cat sitting there staring back at me. I asked Jeff, the owner, if someone had ordered that and he said no. It was mine. Such a satisfying feeling to have found something I wanted, something I thought was a lost cause. This elation would never happen with Spotify.
It didn’t take much time on Reddit to discover that there was no love for the turntable I had purchased, an Audio-Technica LP60. They said it was crap. Well, not as crappy as a Crosley; those things are apparently made by Satan. The LP60 is a dual-speed, automatic turntable, with a built-in preamp. It’s also a dead end; there’s no upgrading it. Worst of all, it doesn’t have a counter weight, so it’s unclear what the tracking force is. Redditors want you to know that it will destroy your records. What you need is vintage.
The most popular vintage turntables are from Technics. Since those aren’t made any more, the only way to get your hands on one is to ask your grandparents, frequent charity shops, or surf Craigslist. Since I live in a relatively unpopulated area, it took weeks of searching, but one finally popped up on Craigslist.
The seller wanted to get rid of a Technics SL-D3 for $80. After a few texts, I agreed to meet him at his house in a rural town nearby. Where had this hobby taken me? Here I was in the driveway of this guy’s house, wondering if I should even go in.
Standing in his musty living room, he said what I didn’t want to hear: “The turntable’s in the basement. Let’s go.” I did NOT want to go into some stranger’s basement. Heart pumping, I walked down the stairs and found a little cabinet with the turntable perched on top. I looked around. Not much other than a couple of giant dog cages. Except, I saw no evidence of huge dogs; just a couple yorkies. Did he lure Craigslist strangers to his house, shove them in a big dog cage and do unspeakable things? I did not want to find out.
We were almost finished when he mentioned that he had some records he’d sell me as well. Once again, the pull of vinyl robbed me of my good sense. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll take a look.”
“They’re upstairs. Let me go get them,” he said.
As he walked up the stairs and closed the door behind him, I thought the gig was up. I was now his prisoner all because a bunch of strangers on Reddit said my turntable was no good.
After a few nervous moments, the door opened, and he came back down clutching a stack of records. As my adrenaline subsided I looked through what he had. The sleeves were water damaged, but there was a copy of the soundtrack to the 1990 classic “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Of course I needed to buy that.
The record itself seemed fine, so I offered a buck, handed over the cash, and got the heck out of there. Safely back in my car I vowed to never again make solo visits to strangers’ basements. Unless it was a really good deal. Curse this.
One spring Saturday evening, around 8 p.m., I was back at the Exile, digging through the used bins, looking for something and nothing. A couple in their late 40s walked in and started chatting about the used blues and pop albums. I heard the woman say, “I wonder if they have that one album, with the colored pyramid on it?” I knew right away what she was after; they debated for a few minutes before deciding it was Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
On my way out of the room, I mentioned to them that the store didn’t have any used copies, but they did have the 2011 reissue over in the new section. In that moment I became the one thing worse than the snooty record store clerk: the guy who hangs out at the record store correcting people. My conversion was complete.