"How much can I get for these?" asked a woman, recently, with a presuming smirk, walking up to the counter of my store with a box of records. I struggled to smile, mustering the energy for the inevitable argument that often comes after that kind of inquiry. I saw what she was holding—some of the biggest albums of the 80s—and the overconfident look in her eyes told me this wouldn't go well.
With the resurgence of vinyl record sales and renewed attention around the format, countless people have mistakenly convinced themselves that the box of records collecting dust in their garage since the Reagan years is a veritable goldmine. One can imagine the conversations that lead to the pillaging of an attic after a short segment on a local newscast highlighting a burgeoning record store's "Record Store Day" sale.
You've seen the story: A reporter with a tight deadline interviews the droves of devoted collectors outside whatever store in wherever middle-of-nowhere town. Cue the footage of the line full of eager shoppers foaming at the mouth for over-priced "exclusive" releases. Cut to the jubilant store owner, detailing how record sales have exploded over the last few years and that this is their Christmas, the sound of the registers working overtime. The whole thing is interspersed with stock footage of money changing hands, and suddenly everyone's an American Digger.
"Did you see that honey? I bet your old Jethro Tull records are worth a fortune!" is a line I suspect has been uttered verbatim. And as a record store owner, I'm faced with the afflicted burden of having to shatter those poor souls' dreams. I see the look of anticipation slowly turn to ire as I gently tell them that their moldy crate of REO Speedwagon / Van Halen / Journey records is music that is easy to come by, commonplace filler.
Some people know this and are just hoping to free up some space, make lunch money, and help a local business out. Some are probably going through a messy divorce, and they just want to get rid of their ex's relics. True, sometimes (though very rarely), these boxes hold coveted spoils. I'll never forget the time a woman hurriedly told me to give her "whatever you want" for a box full of first-pressings: Nick Drake, Bowie, Television.
This recent visit certainly wasn't one of those times. "Are you kidding me?" the offended woman yelled when I told her I'd pay a couple of dollars each. "He died! And these are originals from the 80s." "I understand ma'am, but Thriller and Bad were two of the highest selling albums of all time, so that means there are literally thousands of these in record stores, basements, flea markets..." She interrupted me to proclaim she'd sell these in "California" for " thousands of dollars". And no, they weren't autographed. To her, I was just a greedy record store owner, waiting to capitalize on her ignorance. But believe me, there is no considerable payout involved in owning a record store in 2016.
So what should you do if you're looking to unload your deadbeat uncle's long-forgotten records and want to make sure you aren't being taken for a ride? Pack your boxes, load them up in your mom's SUV, and take them to the local record shop. But first follow these steps so you don't look like an asshole.
What are we looking for?
It's okay to call the store to ask if they buy vinyl, but please don't ask how much they pay over the phone. That's like asking a doctor to give you a colonoscopy over the phone. We need a closer look, you know?
You'll get a better idea yourself if you start by looking at the condition. A tattered sleeve and scuffed up record doesn't make it "vintage", it makes it garbage. If it looks beat up, we don't want it. Get to Pinteresting ideas so that vinyl can find a second life as jewelry, interior products, or guitar picks.
Leave the opera, classical, show-tunes, and composers at home. Your grandmother's Lawrence Welk records are never going to sell anywhere, especially not at a record store. If you ever go to thrift stores or used book stores that happen to have a record section, take a look, and you'll see rows of these these estate sale leftovers.
Every store's focus varies, but for the most part I tell people to bring us 60s and on. Psychedelic, jazz (think Hank Mobley, not Kenny G), pop, rock (all sub-genres), new wave, blues, and some country. Hip-hop full lengths are harder to come by than singles, so those are a good find.
Know what you have
Check sites like popsike.com or collectorsfrenzy.com for an up-to-date idea of what specific records are fetching. But if a copy of Houses of the Holy sold for $25 on Ebay, it doesn't mean we can pay the same. Unlike Ebay sellers, we have rent, utilities, insurance, payroll and other bills to pay. Yes our fucking business model is outdated, but let's save the argument for the importance of a physical place to congregate and buy music for another time, OK?
For us to sell the same record for $25 (because the savvy customer can check our prices against the internet, too) we need to pay substantially less for it. As a result, it makes more sense to bring us 100 records so we can buy plenty than to show up with two records and leave with maybe $5 in your hand.
You'll probably get fucked online
If you have decided you're going to get every penny's worth and sell them on Ebay yourself, good luck. But please remember that having never sold on Ebay before means no seller rating, and the chances of getting good bids on your auctions are very slim. In fact, you may end up getting next to nothing unless you're holding an original, unpeeled banana Velvet Underground and Nico (you can't peel the sticker to reveal a pink banana on a streaming file).
Don't get fucked IRL
But what about when a shady record store owner is trying to pull a fast one on you?
I've heard stories of buyers offering people ten cents a record and telling them that's just how the business works. I generally say that if I can't offer at least a dollar for it, it's not something we want to carry. If a store owner makes a low offer and tells you "well we just have no use for it really, I'm just trying to help you out here," it's a lie. They're better off in the trash than in those owners' greedy hands.
And if you're absolutely sure they're trying to rip you off, call their bluff. If we really want it, we won't let you leave. Used vinyl is our bread and butter, and we need good inventory. We'll go as high as we can. So do it. Say "thanks but I can't go that low." They'll stop you from walking out that door if there's any wiggle room.
So trust us, most of us aren't trying to fuck you over. And any reputable record store will tell you when your offerings are worth something because we want to stay reputable. And we're always happy to pay a few bucks for a copy of Thriller, because it's one of the sickest records ever made.
Lead photo by Bill Damon via Flickr
All other photos by the author
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.