September 17, 2010 10:37 pm

First Person: Paul Mawhinney

 
Paul Mawhinney

Paul Mawhinney owns two million singles and one million albums. ‘I fed my family and paid for my house but everything else went on records’

When someone asks me an obscure question about a record my eyes light up and I feel like I’m part of the human race again. The world out there is dead. It has its ears closed. But a few people still care about music, and they come to me. And so they should: I know records. I have about three million of them now – two million singles and about a million albums. It’s the largest collection in the world.

The first record I ever bought was “Jezebel” by Frankie Laine, when I was eight. But it was in my early twenties that things really took off. By the time I was 30 I had 160,000 records. I worked as a travelling salesman for a paper company and I would visit all the record stores along my route, buying everything I could. Also, a lot of bars had jukeboxes in those days: they’d play a hit record for a while and then dump it in a warehouse, and as long as it was in mint condition, I’d go along and buy it. I fed my family and paid for my house, but everything else went on records. I never saved any money, and I never went out drinking; it was just records, records, records.

Eventually, my wife got fed up, because there were records all over the house. She told me to open a shop or get rid of them, so I opened a shop. We did well, too. I had collectors coming from all over. Eventually, I started buying the entire vinyl libraries of radio stations. This was when they began changing to CDs, so they had thousands of unwanted records. I would hire a truck and just load up. On a good day I’d leave with 5,000 records.

I got a lot of records by being creative. The music industry used to work like this: a record label pressed a record, then shipped it to a distributor, who shipped it to a record store. If the store couldn’t sell it, they returned it to the distributor, who waited for the label to write them a credit note and take the record back. But as shipping charges went up, labels stopped taking them back and the records got binned. I got hip to this and took them off their hands. Once, I opened up a box and there were a hundred copies of ZZ Top’s first record – they’re worth $200 each today.

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Even in the early years, I realised the historical importance of the music itself, and started saving an archive copy of every record I bought. If I only had one copy of something, I wouldn’t sell it. Then, in the early 1970s, I decided to create a database of everything. Back then, there were no PCs, so I had to hook it up to a mainframe bigger than my house. I did that for 20 years, until I bought my own computer. You can search the database for titles, labels, years, whatever. It would make a great iPhone app.

The US Library of Congress told me that my collection is unequalled, and that two-thirds of it is unavailable on CD or online – at any price. It wanted to buy it, but didn’t have the money. I don’t really know what the collection is worth. The last time I had it valued was in 1999, when I decided to sell to an internet outfit called CD Now. It offered me $28.5m, plus $100,000 a year to be its curator. It hired a company to appraise the collection, which valued it at $50.5m. But the sale fell through when CD Now ran into trouble. And the collection’s grown since then. I have about 35,000 singles I haven’t catalogued yet.

I closed my store in February 2008, because my health was deteriorating. Since then, I’ve had a couple of offers to sell, but nothing serious. I still work on the archive every day, though. I’d like to see the collection go somewhere the public could access it. I would happily sell to a non-profit organisation – it’s just important for me to maintain it for future generations. It’s not about the money, it’s about the history.

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