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Turn, Baby, Turn 

Obsessions, compulsions, redemption and satori in the world of record collecting

Famed author Gertrude Stein supplied dissertation topics for thousands of Ph.D. wanna-bes and set off decades of arcane debate in the bow-tie wing of academia when she insisted: "A rose is a rose is a rose."

Stein was wrong.

She'd have changed her tune pronto had she seen the episode of Antiques Roadshow where this little old lady brought in a table purchased for $25 at a garage sale. Her table turned out to be 17th-century vintage and a holy grail of American furniture collecting that sent Roadshow furniture experts Leslie and Leigh Keno into tippy-toes of hand-clasped rapture. Six months later, the table fetched over $500,000 in auction at Sotheby's.

Obviously, a table, sword, baseball card or rose is not purely or simply a table, sword, baseball card or rose -- and neither is a record album merely a record album.

Mark Twain wrote in Life Along the Mississippi about his apprenticeship as a steamboat pilot that demanded memorization of every sandbar, sunken skiff and submerged tree limb along the entire length of the Mississippi. The aspiring collector is in the same boat: No matter what the area of collecting -- stamps, coins, butterflies, buttons, Elvis/Beatles memorabilia, lunch pails, advertising posters or Zuni fetish carvings -- an object's value is hostage to a kaleidoscopic array of esoterica to which the collector must be hip.

In the world of record collecting, the chosen obsession of this piece, it takes years to master names, labels, dates, titles, market demographics, provenance, prices and arcane minutiae.

There's a big difference between a person who buys record albums because he likes them and the person who methodically inquires after, tracks down and goes to sometimes amazing lengths to acquire a record because it is rare, expensive, impossible to get and valuable to other collectors.

A record collection does not a record collector make.


Nine of the heaviest

Although the fun I have dabbling in record collecting extends a whole lot further than my expertise or financial wherewithal to do it, I'm a minor-league record collector of psychedelic records (ca. 1965-72), and to a lesser extent of classic jazz (ca. 1940-55) and Celtic music.

In my three to four years of collecting, I've gotten to know and make friends with some heavy-hitting collectors in the United States. Nine of them were interviewed for this story, and together they compose one of the most interesting groups of driven, obsessive-compulsive loonies imaginable.

Take, for example, Rich Haupt, a renowned Dallas collector who owns 30,000 records and founded the Rockadelic record label. Haupt once devoted months of research to tracking down a member of an "obscure but kickass" psychedelic band whose ultra-rare, private-press record he wanted to reissue. At the big moment of face-to-face meeting, the guy appeared at the door with a sock puppet on one hand. Haupt had to converse with the guy -- the creator of this amazing, heavy music -- via the puppet.

And then there's the time that Dave Szatmary, who has a Ph.D. in history and a collection of 25,000 records lining the basement walls of his Seattle home, drove "way the hell somewhere in the remote boonies" to check out some reputedly interesting records a guy had for sale.

"I pulled up in front of this shacklike place that had these really strange vibes," Szatmary said. "I almost didn't go in, but it was for records, so you gotta do it."

The front room of said abode was full of authentic Egyptian artifacts -- weird stuff like mummified rats and human body parts. Creeped-out, Szatmary followed his host to an adjoining room where the records were.

"Right away, I spotted some primo rare blues stuff like Skip James and Blind Blake on the pre-Yazoo label," Szatmary said. "I was really psyched and getting into it when I sensed something behind me. I turned around and there, not three feet away from where I was sitting on the floor, was this 30-foot boa constrictor. I damn near peed my pants. I grabbed the five records I'd had the chance to look to look at, paid the guy -- he charged me $20, an incredible steal -- and high-tailed it out of there with the guy trailing behind, telling me not to worry, he'd just fed the snake four rats."

Only two of my nine interviewees, who range in age from 41 to 72, make their living by collecting. The others say they deliberately keep it a hobby that brings in "just enough income," as one put it, "to support my collecting habit."

Two of the nine are Ph.D.s. Six started and run their own record label. One is director of research and development at a Fortune 500 chemical company. One -- author of a book on the social history of rock 'n' roll and another book on a conflict between farmers and merchants in 18th-century Massachusetts -- is vice provost and director of continuing education at the University of Washington. One owns a business that provides catering services to Gulf of Mexico oilfields. One is an accountant, one an insurance agent, one a retired manager of the computer system for the University of Washington dental school. One is a 56-year-old jewelry maker who happily and ably upholds the counterculture on a farm in rural Ohio. One is a trust fund millionaire.


Egos and expertise

For insight into what makes record collectors tick, you couldn't do better than a long conversation with Stan Denski.

Forty-seven years old with a Ph.D. in mass communication, Denksi was a professor of media studies at the University of Indiana/Indianapolis until 1997. Besides being one of the world's foremost collectors of psychedelia, he founded and owns his own record label, Aether Records, his own mail-order retail record business and his own wholesale distribution record company.

Articulate and introspective, Denski recently presented a paper on the psychology of record collecting -- "Collectors, Collecting and the Search for the Impossible Object" -- at the American Culture Association Conference in Philadelphia.

Denski has come to view record collecting as a kind of moral tableau centered on an inward-looking activity that leads, ultimately, to self-discovery. "To the collector," he explains, "music matters. He thinks about music, he reads about it, he seeks out fellow enthusiasts to argue about it. It doesn't take long for someone who thinks and really listens to reject the schlock that passes for music on commercial radio and start looking for stuff of more substance and interest. As often as not, that means out-of-the-way, hard-to-find records.

"That's the scenario that creates the record collector. Typically at this point, he enters a journeyman phase of acquiring knowledge and gaining expertise, studying record guides and price guides, trying to figure out how this whole collecting thing works."

It's usually at this juncture that the nascent collector discovers Goldmine, the bimonthly publication used by established collectors to sell out-of-print and difficult-to-find records. Careful study of these offerings is a way for collector wanna-bes to acquire a more sophisticated sense of what's out there, how much collectible LPs cost and by what criteria they are valued.

Another traditional learning tool is the classifieds section in the back of Goldmine where collectors offer catalogs of their sometimes massive inventories. Many a neophyte's progression from record-buyer to record-collector is kicked into higher gear by close perusal of those catalogs.

"I sent in for a bunch one day back in the mid-'80s," observed Paul Tescher, who permanently joined the counterculture in the wake of a 1965-1967 tour of duty in Vietnam and makes a third of his income from collecting. "I'd been buying records for 20 years and considered myself pretty hip in that regard, but two-thirds of the bands in those catalogs were new to me. I studied the lists carefully and kind of memorized them. The next time I hit the thrifts and used-record stores, I found gobs and gobs of the records those guys were talking up -- and for 50 cents apiece, as compared to the $15 to $20 apiece they were asking in the catalogs."

A collector was born.

"Knowledge is the essence of collecting," explains Szatmary. "You have to gain the respect of other collectors if you want to collect, and that means knowing who the New Tweedy Brothers are, when Prestige went from a New York to a New Jersey label, all the Blue Note permutations, the color label on original Jimi Hendrix pressings. Without that expertise, you have only the vaguest idea of whether a given record is valuable. You're pretty much wasting your time."

"A lot of collecting is ego-driven," Denski adds. "If I have to ask you if my copy of Morly Grey (a '69 psychedelic trio renown for its wasted fuzz leads) is an original or a reissue, I'm admitting that I'm less knowledgeable than you. Collectors are keenly aware of these hierarchies."


Thrill of the hunt

The experienced collector rejoices in the hunt -- the sheer act of looking for records and the planning, maneuvering and research that precedes that search.

Every weekend, holiday and day off becomes an opportunity to get out and hunt for treasures. Szatmary waxes nostalgic relating how, for years, he made record-search trips every Saturday with collecting buddy Al Pease, himself owner of 30,000 albums, 10,000 of them movie soundtracks.

"We'd drive to every thrift store and garage sale within a hundred-mile radius," he said. "We developed this regular route and got to know all the clerks. We talked the workers at this Salvation Army into keeping each week's new arrivals under wraps until we showed up."

Gene Wentela, 72 years old with a collection of 25,000 records, says that he and his wife used to plan their vacations and map out their routes to optimize record searching. "We'd take the so-called blue highways instead of the interstates because those thrift stores were less likely to be picked over by other collectors," he said.

The frequenter of thrift stores, flea markets and garage sales must be prepared to wade through records of stultifying and execrable schlockiness by the tens of thousands. Mormon Tabernacle Choirs, Tennessee Ernie Fords, Pat (and Debbie) Boones, religious records and Christmas schmaltz abound.

"That's a drag, but it's still exciting because you never know what box, pile or stack of records might have that record you've been looking for for years, or some legendary rarity you've heard about but never seen," Szatmary insists. "That's happened to me plenty of times in places you'd never expect."

"You go through tons and tons of garbage," Peace agreed, "and then suddenly there it is! Something you'd kill for. Then there's that awful moment of truth -- what's its condition? Often as not, it's gonna be trashed. But when you take it out of the cover and see it's practically mint, you almost pee your pants."

Denski tells in "Search for the Impossible Object" of "[searching] through 5,000 records stacked flat in six-foot piles at the back of a Goodwill thrift store for the better part of three hours one Saturday afternoon, determined to look through every record." He tediously filed through a banal array of Christmas, religious, easy listening and related records, most out of the jackets and unplayable. But at the bottom of the very last pile, second from the bottom, he writes, "I found a near perfect copy of the original UK mono pressing of Traffic's first album, Mr. Fantasy -- an album with a value of about $125."

Collectors go to incredible lengths in quest of that moment -- as when Haupt joined his brother and a collecting buddy for a 10-hour drive from Dallas to a used-record store outside New Orleans.

"This particular store," Haupt said, "was this huge, 16-room house crammed with records. Every square inch of the floor in some rooms was piled six feet high so that you had to shimmy your way across the tops of records to get to the other side of the room and burrow tunnels to get to the ones lower down.

"This was the middle of the summer with no air conditioning," he said. "It was hot, sweaty going, but we put in two 16-hour days going through every record we could. As much an ordeal as that was, it was one of the funnest things I've ever done. It's a pretty big deal for me to find a record I don't have, and I walked out of there with 200 or so."

Tescher echoed Haupt's jubilance in relating what a "hoot" he had on a three-day road trip to buy records with a collecting buddy last summer. Beginning in Columbus, Ohio, the pair drove to Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Mich., to London, Ontario, to "two great record stores in Detroit," and then to Pittsburgh "where there's this really great store called Jerry's with over 2 million records."

Last stop on the itinerary was Plan 9, a record store in Richmond, Va. where they made "some mind-blowing scores, including a copy of this really rare album by a Chilean psych band called Arica that I'd spent the past two years looking for."

A tip from a Plan 9 clerk sent them on an impromptu visit to a flea market outside town that also yielded "some really amazing, rare stuff for a buck a pop. I returned home with 100 new records, some of them incredible finds," Tescher crowed. "My friend came home with 600."


From expertise to obsession

Denski holds that there comes a time in every collector's career -- sooner more often than later -- when he crosses the line between enthusiasm and obsession, between buying records he likes and buying every record possible.

Armed with his burgeoning expertise and straining at the leash to apply it, the neophyte hits the thrift stores, flea markets, garage sales and used-record shops with his sights raised and expectations high. Sure enough, his scores -- his discovery and acquisition of coveted rarities -- increase dramatically, sending his already-pinwheeling acquisition lust into full-bore hyperdrive.

"By now you're learning how much truly amazing stuff there is out there," Denski explains, "and you're truly psyched. Your impulse is to acquire it all. That was certainly true of me. If I had 5,000 records, I wanted 10,000. If I had 10,000, I wanted 20,000. It takes you over. It consumes you."

Swept along by that rising tidal wave, the pleasure to be had from listening to a record becomes secondary to the prestige of owning it. You lust for an album less because of the music -- the music could be obtained in more-crystaline form via a CD -- but because it's a Charlie Parker Blue Note or because you'd be one of only a half-dozen collectors to own one. What's more, sealed issues are of higher value than unsealed copies, and the rarer the record, the less likely it is to be played.

"It got so crazy with me," Denski related by way of anecdote, "that I had seven copies of Zappa's Freakout. A friend visiting me from out of state was going through my collection -- something we all do in visiting each other -- and asked to buy one. I told him no because then I'd only have six."

Szatmary says he's purchased as many as 800 records in a single outing and that he rarely goes more than three to four days without going out looking.

Ashley Johnson, another specialist in psychedelic records, has a legendary collection of 80,000 LPs and 45,000 45s -- reputedly worth more than $2.5 million -- for which he had a 50-foot concrete and steel bunker built that could withstand earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, fire or any other occurrence hazardous to records short of a nuclear blast. Records in his collection have sold for as high as $10,000 apiece and his current catalog lists at least 92 records that sell for $1,000 or more.


Playing the game

The Denskian cosmology has it, however, that the progress of the pilgrim collector eventually brings him to an existential crossroads, a Siddharthian moment of crisis wherein he realizes the "madness" of owning 30,010 records instead of 30,000.

"It slowly dawns on you that life is finite, that there's a limit to how many records it's possible to listen to," Denski explains. "Even if you could own everything, it would be meaningless. Pick any hundred records out of my collection and odds are good that I haven't listened to a single one of them in 10 years, and I think that's true of most collectors."

This epiphany significantly alters one's collecting worldview. The compulsion to amass modulates into the more nuanced and sophisticated pleasure of "playing the game" -- the virtuosic employment of strategy, expertise and wiles to procure delectable rarities at minimal cost to oneself.

"The true measure of collecting isn't acquisition of rare records per se," explains Wentela, whose jazz collection is valued at a half-million bucks. "Anyone can get a thousand-dollar record for a thousand dollars. The real test, the real kick of collecting, is getting something truly rare at a ridiculously low price. I've never paid more than $10 for a record, and only then if it was really and truly rare."

This isn't always true, however. Johnson reports that he's spent as much as $3,500 for a record -- "several times" -- usually in outbidding another collector for a private press ultra-rarity on auction. "I did it each time, though," he added, "with an eye toward re-sale."

Bubrig, meanwhile, who is a 41-year-old bachelor, estimates he spends $20,000 to $25,000 a year buying records.

Tescher's three-day road trip is a textbook example of playing the collecting game with virtuosity. He scored 200 highly sought-after records worth at least $5,000 to $6,000 while spending a grand total of $150 out of his own pocket. His considerable expertise in the demographics of collecting (what's sought after in New York might not be in New Mexico) makes him a master at purchasing records at one store -- classical, country and western, jazz, rock -- with an eye toward selling them at a store up ahead. His knowledge is usually right-on, and a skilled combination of sales and trades often enables him to walk out of the latter store with an armful of delectably primo records with more cash in his pocket than he had walking in -- and with all parties delighted at the outcome.

"A guy with a checkbook," as Szatmary puts it, "can buy all the records he wants, but that's no fun. If you get a record because you paid a thousand dollars for it, so what? Where's the fun?"


Achieving satori

"A big part of the pleasure of collecting," reminisces Denski, "[is] sitting on the couch with a record on the turntable and the album cover on your lap and the memory of all the crap you went through to get that record -- the thrift stores you spent your Saturdays in, all the trades you had to make, and so on. If all you have in that moment is the memory of writing a check, it's not the same."

One of the estimable side effects of playing the collecting game is the network of friendships with other collectors it tends to foster. Tescher, for example, figures significantly in what Denski describes as one of the most satisfying moments of his collecting career. Having found a copy of Creation of Sunlight -- an ultra-rare, West Coast psychedelic stoner album (ca. 1968) worth $500 -- for 50 cents in a thrift store, Tescher traded it to Denski for a $200 album that Denski had acquired in an earlier trade that ended up costing him a grand total of $20, leaving both collectors delighted.

Denski then made that Creation of Sunlight album the centerpiece of transaction with a millionaire collector in Madrid wherein he traded $1,200 worth of his personal collection for a long-coveted and rare copy of an album by a British band called Forever Amber.

Denski recalls that transaction as one of the most satisfying of his career. For one, it "gained him possession of an object that less than a dozen collectors have ever seen before." Adding further spice to the deal is "knowing that this was a $2,000 object that I managed to acquire for an actual cash investment of $20." Denski basks in "the pleasure of having played the 'collecting game' -- the object of which is to acquire the object for a small fraction of its actual value -- extremely well this time."

And playing the collector game with integrity, good will and sincerity ultimately leads, according to Denski, to Zenlike self-knowledge.

"You've matured as a collector when you arrive at that moment of self-confrontation where, instead of asking yourself how you can gain possession of a certain record, you ask yourself, 'Is this record for me?' That's a pivotal moment because, in answering that question, you have to give some thought to who 'me' is. Collecting at that moment becomes a mode of self-discovery."

Discrimination displaces the sheer thrill of acquisition. The inclination at this point is less to amass than to hone down. Denski says he still revels in the hunt, but he's worked hard in recent years to pare down his collection from 30,000 to his present 7,000 to 8,000. He'll know he's returned to sanity when he gets it down to "around 1,000 or so."

In progressing to this stage of one's collecting career, he says, "Your collection becomes an autobiography of sorts. It reveals who you are, what you love. That constitutes a mode of ownership that is much different than, much more satisfying and meaningful than, mass acquisition.

"That," he said, "is the mark of a true collector."

Szatmary, vice-provost of the University of Washington, concluded his interview with a story about the mother of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.

"I've had a number of meetings with Allen because his mother used to be a librarian at the University of Washington and she's a major contributor to the library," Szatmary relates. "He told me in one of those meetings that his mother is a book collector, and we talked about collecting a little. Given that Allen is worth $36 billion, I opined as to how she must have an amazing collection.

"'No, not really,' he said. 'I gave her a limousine and a driver who regularly takes her to all the Salvation Armies and Goodwills. He drops her off so she can cruise the shelves and look for good deals on books.'

"That," said Szatmary, a Zen master approving his pupil's comportment, "is collecting."

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