Jul 21, 2008, 06:25AM

Digging for Deals

A primer on buying used LPs.

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Photo by Brian Sutter

Let’s talk about how to buy used records. Not everyone has the same tolerance as I do for digging through dusty crates in thrift stores or scouring Craigslist for garage sales that mention records, but anyone who loves music and acquiring a whole lot of it on the cheap will quickly find that LP’s are the way to go.

When you’re building a record collection, it helps to set a few ground rules. For a long time, I never spent more than $10 on a record. I’ve since thrown that rule out the window, but not until my shelves were overflowing and I could afford to trade in some crap for some of the more prime platters I coveted. Spending less than $10 on records, or even five, is so easy, you’ll wonder why you ever considered dropping 15 bucks on a CD. Most record stores have a dollar (or less) section, and there are plenty of treasures to be had. Thrift stores usually have a flat rate of around a dollar for LP’s and at garage sales you can expect to pay around 25 cents apiece.

Of course, if you’re buying cheap records, you might have to sacrifice condition a bit, so it’s good to know exactly what you can and can’t tolerate. Personally, I don’t mind a little bit of surface noise, but nothing that skips or repeats. I also know people who insist on mint quality. Any noise other than the unadulterated recording will drive them nuts. If you’re buying records over the Internet, this is where the vinyl grading scale comes in. Instead of boring you, go here for more.

It’s always good to listen to a record before you buying it, because just looking at a record doesn’t tell you everything. Unfortunately, many record stores, and just about everywhere else I’d advise you to go, don’t offer this luxury. So if you’re going to eyeball it (and you should always look at a record before you buy it), here’s what to look out for. First, is it warped? Hold it up; it shouldn’t be hard to tell. If it’s warped, it’s worthless and you should drop it like the trash it is. Second, is it scratched? If they don’t look too deep—i.e., you can run your fingers lightly over the grooves and not feel them—it’ll probably play with a minimum of pops and cracks. If the scratches are deep, or the thing looks scuffed, it’s probably not worth it. Also, the older the record, or the thicker the vinyl, the less impact surface scratches will have. As time goes by, you’ll start picking up on the gulf in pressing quality between, say, a 60s Blue Note and a 70s Reprise.

You’re going to pay a premium at a record store for LPs in perfect condition, so keeping your tastes in mind, you can save a lot by sacrificing a little sound. And record stores are good places to start buying vinyl too, because you’ll get a really good sense of what things are worth by scouring the racks. On the other hand, you’re not likely to score a rare album on the cheap at a commercial outlet, so that’s where the following digging spots come in handy.

First, try thrift stores and flea markets. Obscure ones are the best, but the local Salvation Army or Goodwill will do as well. There are people I know who make a living going to flea markets and thrift stores, buying records, and re-selling them. The whole scene at thrifts can be a bit maddening, because nothing is more frustrating than flipping through hundreds of dirty, moldy records and never pulling out a single thing, but the chase makes the find that much sweeter. You’ll start to see the same records over and over, a lot of classical and cheese, but you never know unless you look. There’s also the chance you could be in the right place at the right time—I once walked into Ann Arbor’s Re-Use Center right after they’d put out what appeared to be a DJ’s collection, and an hour later I walked out with two armfuls of classic 90s hip-hop 12-inches.

I’d also recommend garage and estate sales. On the same professional digging tip as before, I knew people who would scour the newspaper for estate sales in Detroit for people in a certain age range, hoping to find a stash of 60s R&B and soul. For every 10 misses, I’d hear stories about buying 45’s for 10 cents and flipping them on eBay for thousands. Of course, that takes a level of dedication and knowledge (not to mention a social disorder) that few possess. On the other hand, garage sales usually offer less record nerd competition and really low prices. The other day I hit up three garage sales that mentioned records in their craigslist ad and while two were a bust, one had a handful of records I wanted at five for a dollar, and another bunch of records I knew I could unload at Amoeba for a trade-in credit. At garage sales, people just want to get rid of their crap, so haggling is crucial, and if a record looks interesting, snatch it up even if you don’t know who it is—I’ve found some of my favorite albums this way. That’s another tip; it turns out you can usually judge a record by its cover. At the very least, it’ll look good on your wall.

In the interest of brevity, I’ll leave you with this: take care of your records. Records either belong on the turntable or in their jackets, and, at the risk of sounding obnoxious, I’ll continue to remind people about this. Every LP has its own history, each copy is unique in its condition and once they’ve been around for awhile, no copy sounds exactly like another. That soft hiss and minor crackle are like a fingerprint. Furthermore, you’re not the first owner of your records, nor should you be the last. Enjoy the medium that many artists intended their music to be released on and treasure every record like yours is the only copy.

  • I used to play in my grandmothers records, and i always treasured the classical music LPs we found in thrift stores. i loved that "hiss" and that "crackle". but now...i'm completely overtaken by the digital revolution...i buy a CD, dump it into my iTunes and then shelf it. i don't even have a CD player. makes you wonder: from eight tracks to iPod touches, how else will the way we listen to music change in, say, 15 years?

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  • Great article, as usual, from Lloyd Cargo, but man, he must go to different garage sales than me. I've NEVER paid a quarter for a used LP; the going rate in L.A. seems to be about two bucks per. Which still isn't bad, considering that a lot of the records are in really good shape. A couple of weeks ago I found The Byrds' "Sweetheart of the Rodeo," "Strange Days," a Marty Robbins compilation and The Cure's "Disintegration" and I got the four for 9 bucks.

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  • OH HOLY MOTHER I forgot the number one most important thing: ask your parents! ask all your relatives. this is how I, and i suspect many people get started, and you never know what treasures your relatives have in their closets. My aunt, for one, gave me every single Bowie album, who woulda known??

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  • Thank you for giving away your best secrets so we can all join in the glory of record snatching. I've been wanting to get into records, but haven't been motivated to until now. Thank you.

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