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September 17, 2010 10:37 pm
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.
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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