“You can’t take it with you.” You’ve heard that often enough, probably more often if you are a collector. “The person at the end with the most toys wins.” You’ve likely heard that as well, or maybe you said it in response to the person who told you that you couldn’t take it with you. So which is it? I think both statements are true. I have been a collector for pretty much my entire life, at least since the time I had an allowance. Whether it be stamp or coin collecting, jelly glass collecting (The Archies, Flintstones, Howdy Doody, Swanky Swig, etc.), playing card decks, pulp novels, Breyer horses, unusual neck ties, sheet music with cool graphics, 45 rpm records, record albums, books related to art or music, knick-knacks, dust collectors, etc. etc. etc., I can safely say I have collected/accumulated non-stop and with reckless abandon throughout most of my life. I didn't even start collecting cool neck ties until I quit work and quit wearing ties, which shows you what more free time and a collecting habit can do. Thank Jerry Garcia for the tie fetish.
Let’s focus on my record collection, a collection containing thousands of albums and hundreds of 45 rpm records. I could be more specific, but a recent link posted by Boomerocity’s Randy Patterson noted that one should never discuss personal possessions with others because it could be misinterpreted as bragging. But for me it’s just a statement, not meant to impress or to boast. Collecting for me was just a way of life, something that I enjoy, and something that can be done fairly cheaply if you wait for that great find rather than just looking it up on eBay and paying a much higher price for that convenience. While others chose to get outside and play sports, attend sporting events, sunbathe, or whatever, I got my enjoyment from the thrill of the find.
I can honestly say that I know I can’t take the collection with me. But taking it with me is not my concern. My bigger concern is that after amassing what I deem to be a great collection (solely determined by the actual space said collection takes up in the house) over the course of 50+ years, what becomes of it after the end of my fruitful life? I can say with certainty that there is no one out there who appreciates my collection the way I appreciate it. That’s because I collected what I liked, so it is tailor-made for me alone – records collected for the music or to fill what I perceived as a void, or albums collected solely for the jacket artwork, because I thought the art was sexy, humorous, or unique. And you know it’s the same with your collection.
I remember, about 30 plus years ago, when my wife was a teacher and I was a banker, and I had Columbus Day off and my wife had to work. I decided to use my free time to make the rounds of the Jacksonville, Florida, thrifts, and ran across a clean copy of the Partridge Family At Home With Their Greatest Hits album. I was playing that album when my wife got home from work, and I was very proud of my find. The jacket had a small square shape, about one inch by one inch, cut out of one corner, and although that blemish still bothered me, I did decide the album was worth the quarter I paid for it. It was not a factory “cut-out”, mind you, but intentional damage by some bored kid who was likely listening to the record at the time of its deliberate disfigurement. Possibly the kid needed the piece of cardboard for some school project. Who knows? But over 30 years later I still remember the “find”, and how happy it made me at the time, other than the damaged jacket. So this is a key aspect of collecting – the memories associated with the time of purchase, or how the songs on a particular album made you feel. I know these memories add no value to this record to anyone other than me. By the way, I picked up two more copies of the same lp thrifting over the years, with one being a small corner-notch true cut-out, and the other being an umblemished complete jacket, sans cut-out. But I still have that square-notched album in a box around here somewhere. I can’t remember where I bought every album I’ve got, but I do remember where and when a great many were purchased.
I still lament that a collection can’t feasibly be passed on in its entirety to someone else who faithfully continues to add to that collection, then passing it on to some other caretaker at the end of their life. But then the collection can’t be enjoyed by more than one person, which also is sad. I was searching the internet to see if there are any large museums dedicated to record albums. And the answer is basically, “No”. I did see references to museums in London, Hong Kong, Stuttgart, and Seoul, but I also saw where various libraries over time have sold off the albums they once maintained there. There are various articles online about Zero Freitas, a Brazilian businessman reportedly having the world’s largest collection of record albums (over 6 million in the most recent article I located from 2016, noting that he hoped to build a museum and catalog all those albums for public use, transforming them into a vast listening archive).
At some point even his collection will likely be broken up and sold. In a way, splitting up any collection is perhaps for the best, with records once again being hopefully broadly distributed to individuals who want that rare gem or valueless novelty item for their collection, and who will appreciate them just as much as the former collector did. Collections will likely be sold either in bulk to a record store or reseller who gets it for a fraction of its true value, or will be donated to a thrift store, where some lucky individuals (more likely the employees processing the goods as they arrive) can cherry pick the albums for the perceived valuable records, then to be sold on eBay or Amazon, and others mishandled and abused by bored folks who are just killing time in the thrift store. That’s another collector fear – that their collection will become a source of great revenue for a complete stranger after loved ones haphazardly clear out the collection to make space for a new guest bedroom.
The problem with any large collection is that they are eventually too big for the collector to enjoy the items individually. So breaking up the collection seems to be the logical and best alternative. But a lot of collectors hate to part with anything, regardless of value. I’m one of those people. Whether it be the translucent blue lucite fist or the slightly creepy Emmett Kelly doll head long removed from its body, both sitting on shelves in my “study”, I have trouble parting with things. I also get great enjoyment from my collection as a whole, not just in the individual albums. I like sitting in my study, surrounded by shelves of record albums and all my other “collectibles.” But for my wife and minimalistic daughter, merely the sight of the room and its contents is enough to cause some stress, and it is viewed as a space in need of a good house cleaning.
An older friend inquired a while back about me possibly teaching him to sell on eBay. I asked why he wanted to start selling on eBay. He said he was concerned that his grown children wouldn’t take the time to properly sell his rare camera collection (although he said one of his kids had sold items on eBay before) and that they would not get what the collection was worth. I told him that his kids would likely go for the low-hanging fruit (life insurance, savings, brokerage account, home equity, etc.) after his passing, and then likely turn over the sale of his household goods to an estate sale company. And while true, only a very small fraction of the actual collection’s value would be realized, the kids would be fine with what they got from the rest of the estate. I told him that he is better off just enjoying the collection while he is alive, and that he should not be too concerned with what happens to it after his death.
While I am quick to offer such sage advice, an aging process that does not seem to be slowing down gives me pause to have the same concerns. Yet I continue to shop at thrift stores, estate sales, and used record stores, adding to my collection. My wife remarks about the elderly folks (anyone 10 to 20 years older than us, or maybe our age) who we see at estate sales, continuing to add to their depression glass, owl, clown, or innumerable other collections, despite the fact that their kids or grandkids will eventually have to clear out all that “crap” after they pass away. I tell my wife that to stop collecting/accumulating is to admit that you just might be nearing the end of your life, so who the hell wants to admit that? I went to an estate sale a while back, recognizing a number of old clocks for sale that I had seen a few months earlier in another estate sale. The owner of the estate sale company told me that, yes, the recently deceased resident had collected clocks right up to his death, buying from estate sales, and that the family had elected to use the same estate sale company to dispose of his possessions. So I can at least see who benefits the most from estate sales. With estate sale companies often getting around 30 percent of total sales, I guess you only have to sell the same clock about 3 times before your estate sale company has received almost 100 percent of the sales price. I’m not trying to knock estate sale companies. I know that the greatly reduced stress caused by having someone clean out your loved one’s home is worth something, and the estate sale company is able to put a price on that stress reduction.
My wife sometimes asks what she should do with my many collections if she survives me (which statistically is highly likely). I tell her to sell what she wants, donate what she wants, and throw away what she wants. Go after the low-hanging fruit. As far as the record collection goes, she honestly would likely make more selling it to yard sale goers for $2 an album than she would by selling it to a high profile record seller who would likely offer her pennies on the dollar for the entire collection, despite the fact that a good many albums would easily sell for $20 to $100+ on eBay. And at least the yard sale would pass on the good deals and good fortune to a lot of folks, rather than to one dealer. Spread the joy.
I tell my kids that they should just set up an eBay sales center in our home if my wife and I were to pass away, and that they likely would never have to seek another job if they wanted to do so. Of course, that option does not appeal to either of them. They have their own lives, their own interests. And because my wife must have carried the dominant gene, my interest in collecting was apparently not passed on to my kids. And to be honest, sitting in a room listing albums on eBay doesn’t even appeal to me, and I love albums. I’d rather spend my time finding another album to add to the collection than listing one I have on eBay.
As I acquired albums over the years, I often bought duplicates if I saw a nice clean copy for cheap. In the early years, pre-eBay, I bought the duplicate just in case I scratched my copy of a favorite album (I had at least 8 copies of Herman’s Hermits Blaze album at one point before recognizing my sickness). In later years, during the rise of eBay, I said that once I retired I would sit down and sell my duplicates on eBay. But my collection grew beyond my wildest dreams, and such an undertaking seems quite challenging. Selling used albums on eBay can be a tedious and very time-consuming, and sometimes thankless, endeavor. First, I never want to sell a used album that I haven’t play tested from beginning to end. Second, sellers who say they “visually graded” an album because they don’t own a record player, might as well be saying, “Best of luck with your new single-use frisbee.” I recently saw one seller who actually stated that the buyer was not assured that the record would play, and that the records were being sold as is with no returns. Amazingly honest. And funny.
In recent years I’ve bought some visually graded albums off eBay, and some play, some don’t. Some are so badly warped that the needle skips across the entire record. Some described as “near mint” make you wonder just how bad the seller’s eyesight or hearing actually is. As many collectors know, some scratches can be overcome with the right touch (reversing the direction of the needle across the record to clear out the groove, or placing a quarter or two on the tone arm so it bears down on the needle as it crosses the light scratch), but good results are not always obtained, and more damage can occur to the record than you originally started with. And some scratches just can’t be remedied. Honestly, I usually bid on “visually graded” records as if they were in Poor or Very Good Minus condition, because 9 out of 10 times they are. If I miss out on a good one, so be it, as my favorite hunting places are thrift stores and yard or estate sales, because another thrill is getting the new "gem" cheap.
As I have typed this, I have listened to a number of albums from start to finish. One was the two-record The Very Best of Poco, released in 1975 on CBS Records, pretty much, ironically, before any of their big hits were released. But still it is an easy listening, great 2-record set. Another in the listening rotation today was Donnie Fritts’ Prone to Lean, released on Atlantic Records in 1974. Another nice easy listening album. Like a great many albums in my collection, I’d never heard of Donnie Fritts when I bought this record in a thrift store. I’ve always looked at such purchases as a way to hear music that oftentimes got lost in the music shuffle, not promoted properly by record companies with shallow pockets when it came to advertising. I would say that more often than not I find albums that are actually pretty listenable. But when you take a look at the Fritts album’s liner notes, you see that background vocals were provided by Rita Coolidge, Billy Swan, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, and Jerry Wexler, among others, so hey, for 99 cents it was worth a listen.
I’m not pushing any of the albums I mention, because what I like isn’t necessarily the music you like. And oddly, some of what I’ve bought isn’t even music I like. Take my Amazon Beach album, by The Kings, released by Elektra Records in 1981. It’s one of my favorite albums, but only because of the cool jacket art by Ron Larson, featuring cartoonish but none-the-less sexy Amazonian looking women on the beach.
Another album on the play list today was The Free Movement’s I’ve Found Someone of My Own, released on Columbia Records in 1972, a year after the hit single (# 5 in the Hot 100) title cut was released on Decca Records. I had never run across a copy of this album until I found it in a used record store in Burlington, Vermont, recently. I loved the hit single as a kid, so I bought the record to see what the rest sounded like. The group, sadly, only had one other charting song, The Harder I Try, which is also on this lp, but I personally didn’t find any hidden gems on this album. But that’s the way it sometimes goes, and the album is still listenable. Another reason to keep the cost low on such purchases.
I find album collecting very therapeutic. First there is the thrill of the hunt, followed by the excitement of actually finding something worth buying. Then taking it home, carefully cleaning the vinyl and jacket, replacing the inner sleeve if missing or damaged, and then placing the completed project in a mylar sleeve to protect it. The beauty is that you can listen to other records while you do this stuff. If you collect albums, you know that placing a record in a clear mylar sleeve immediately makes it look collectible and valuable. That’s a fact. So here again is something unmeasurable in dollars that enhances the value of my record collection to me. It always bugs me when I go into an antique store or even some used record store, and the albums are overpriced but not even put into mylar sleeves. I feel like saying, “Hey, you know it isn’t worth this without a mylar sleeve!” Sadly, the records oftentimes aren’t worth what they are asking even with a mylar sleeve, but it still bugs me…….
As a collector, I get almost the same feeling of enjoyment from everything I collect, regardless of actual dollar value. Maybe not with the Breyer horse collection….. We bought my daughter a few Breyer horses at a yard sale when she was very young. Fearing that she might break the horses, she asked me to put them away for later in life. So what did I do? I started buying Breyer horses any time I saw a cheap one in a thrift store or at a flea market. The collection continued to grow, and it grew exponentially to my daughter’s waning interest in horses, real or toy. Did that stop me, the consummate collector? Of course not. Do I particularly care about collecting Breyer horses? No. But I like the idea of an even larger collection.
One problem with culling down a collection of any type, even if the item doesn’t have any real dollar value, is that each item had some meaning when you bought it. So low values don’t necessarily make it easier to get rid of stuff. This is true of a lot of sheet music, which I collect because of the cool cover graphics. The fact that most pieces wouldn’t sell for more than $3, if even that, does not deter me from holding onto it and acquiring more. The same goes for playing card decks. I usually buy decks because they are cheap and because I like the graphics. But when the decks begin filling multiple large boxes, am I really able to enjoy them? No, but that doesn’t make me want to get rid of them, either.
I guess you are seeing my dilemma by now. Borderline hoarder, just waiting for that big lottery win to enable me to set up my own museum. And if I had to describe my collecting, I’d say that throughout my life I viewed it as if I was the curator of a large pop culture museum, always on the lookout for another item to add to a nonexistent exhibit. But alas, that museum is not to be, although I do still buy lottery tickets.
Let me get back to my record museum thoughts. I think the problem with things like record albums is that you have to physically hold the jackets or actually listen to the records to get enjoyment from them. Even if there was a great record album museum, how could they possibly display enough album jackets to keep their patrons’ interest? How many folks would make a long drive to such a museum? Even if in your town, how many folks would walk into such a museum? If Zero Frietas is successful with cataloging his six million plus albums and producing a viable listenable archive, how many folks will access the database? Probably fewer than you would hope. I could never walk into a record museum and say, “Let me listen to cut number three on side one of Toronto’s Girls Night Out album.” That is, unless I already know about the album, or someone has shown the album to me or recommended it. That’s just the way it is…… As you might have guessed, I have a copy or two of that Toronto album, although most of you have likely never heard of the group, unless you live in Canada, where the group had five platinum lps. It is amazingly good, and I just listened to it for the first time while writing this article. Like so many albums of the past, it was probably never promoted or played on radio stations in the United States. And that’s why the thrill of the find is unending, even if no new record album was produced from this day forward. I bought the album because it has a 3-D front cover, and came complete with a pair of 3-D glasses. Who could ask for more? The record was released by MCA Records in 1983, so don’t be looking for state of the art 3-D. It was just a quirky promotional gimmick that got my attention.
As usual, I digress. In short, collect what you like, enjoy what you collect, and don’t worry about what eventually happens to it after you are gone. Maybe your spouse will meet and marry someone who enjoys your collection. Just kidding! Remember that you are collecting for you, and you alone. Don’t collect for some perceived investment value. It’s not as fun or rewarding. Anyway, my point of this article was to leave you confused, wondering what to take away from it. I hope I’ve been successful! I’m off to my next thrift store, in search of another unneeded but great must have album!