There are many ways record stores find records. In this space, in monthly installments, I will try and go into all of the ways my store, Som Records, in particular finds new (mostly used) stock. This month I want to talk about the "house call."
Once a used record store has been open for a little while and is findable in the phone book and on-line the calls will start coming in. "Do you buy records?" "Yes, of course, we need records to sell, what do you have?" From here the store will ask further questions to try and figure out what the seller is sitting on.
"What style of music are the records? "What format are they?" (singles, LP's or 78's?) "What kind of shape are they in?" "Whose records are/were they?" "Why are you selling them?" (not always asked) "Do you want bring them by the shop or should I come to you?" If the answer is yes to the last question you get an address and set up a time to go see the collection.
As you drive to the scheduled appointment your mind races as you think about what records await. You replay the conversation you had with the seller on the phone to try and find clues. Are the "jazz records" she mentioned actually lame easy listening LP's with some horns on them? Or are they all big band LP's? Or are they in fact rows of mint Blue Note, Impulse and Prestige LP's carefully stored over the years and rarely played? You hope for the last option but most times the records you find are nowhere near as good as the ones you envisioned beforehand.
Over the years I've made house calls in the projects, mansions, garages, townhouses, places of work, the side of the road, barns, storage units, you name it. Everyone has a different reason for selling "their" records. The common ones include moving, a deceased relative who left a collection, house downsizing, or just a general need for cash.
As a buyer you try to feel out the seller. Do they have a personal attachment (or an investment) in the collection? What are they expecting to get for these LP's? Have other stores/dealers been through the collection already? Sometimes everything clicks and there are great records at cheap sales prices or even for free. Most of the time however the records are bad and the seller expects to retire from his little pile of beat up Herb Alpert albums and is upset when you offer what he thinks is an insulting amount. This is where your negotiating skills come in. "Yes it is an Elvis record but this one sold five million copies and this particular copy looks like someone put out cigarettes on it for the last 50 years so it is not worth $100."
One thing you want to is to make sure the seller doesn't feel slighted. If you're a one time buyer it wouldn't matter so much but as a brick and mortar store you like to have a good reputation. There's also a chance they might have friends with even more records to sell you. The buyer is usually at an advantage knowledge-wise but too often record stores have a bad rep (fairly or unfairly) about abusing this. Be fair yes, but don't overpay or overbuy. If you can't sell what you bought in a reasonable amount of time then your store won't be around too long.
There's no set rule as far as to what to pay for records. It all depends on your overhead, your need for new stock, your fairness, the condition of the albums, the genres in the collection (some genres sell quickly, some sit for a while), etc. Explaining this to a seller can be tough. "Yes that record sold on e-bay for thirty dollars last month but your copy is not as good as that one and that's not the price I'm going to give you for it." (More on eBay's affects on the record selling business in coming posts.)
When the records are good its easy to come up with a strong offer. It gets tricky when it's a personal collection (as opposed to a found or inherited one) where ALL of the records are terrible. What do you say? "You have no taste?" "I can't believe you bought this crap?" I try and be diplomatic - "these are all great records but they're not quite right for my shop" or something along those lines. Never buy out of guilt though.
One thing that's fairly common is that everyone thinks their records are all in "great shape." Not true unfortunately. Definitely try and find good light for inspecting the records before you buy. There's nothing worse than getting back to your shop and finding out that all those records you just bought are unsellable because you looked at them in a basement.
Here's a typical house call and one of the last ones I made: About two weeks ago I got a call at the shop from a woman in Bethesda named Selma who had some records she wanted to sell. Some were her personal folk and classical records and the others were rock records her grown up children had left behind over the years. We set up a weekday morning time for me to come out. I Mapquested her address and arrived in her suburban ranch house at 10AM on the appointed morning.
Selma is about 80 years old but is very spry and she appeared to be living alone. From the stickers on her fridge I could tell she was a passionate Democrat and an active supporter of Israel. These we're all good signs as far as I was concerned (well-travelled and liberal usually means more interesting records).
After offering me something to drink I was led into her living room where there was a cabinet with approximately 250 records. About half were classical which I don't really mess with (I like classical, it just doesn't sell in my shop). The other half were US folk and Israeli LP's from the 60's. The folk stuff was pretty standard but still good: Pete Seeger, Buffy Saint-Marie, Odetta, a few Folkways LP's, Josh White, etc. I was hoping for more blues LP's but you can't have everything.
The Israeli stuff had a few good titles and a few I'd never seen before. Out of this group I pulled out about twenty five LP's which I was interested in. Selma then showed me upstairs where there was another 100 records from her kids. These were the 60's rock records and they were pretty decent - Neil Young, Moby Grape, Gram Parsons, The Youngbloods, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and some Beatles and Stones. Nothing really rare but all good solid store stock. Most importantly they were all in great shape (rare for 60's LP's). From this box I grabbed another twenty to bring my total up to forty five. I thought I was done when I spotted two 7"s at the bottom of the box. They were both picture sleeve 60's pop EP's from Mexico in beautiful shape (one still in shrink wrap!).
The first was a four song EP by Alberto Vazquez on the Musart label. Vazquez is a well known Mexican corrido and ranchera singer with a deep resonant voice. On this 1966 release he does a great cover of "16 Tons" which is sung in English although the title has been translated to Spanish on the sleeve jacket. Two of the other tracks are pretty swinging mid-60's pop groovers. One ballad closes out the release.
The other find was a four song EP from "Los Rockin Devils" on Orfeon. Los Rockin Devils were a popular Mexican garage/pop/rock band who had/still have a long career. On this four track EP the highlight by far is the slightly fuzzed out cover of "Hanky Panky." Really groovy stuff. The only other time I've ever found a record by these guys was at the San Diego swap meet five years ago. I'm really not sure how these records ended up in Bethesda and I neglected to ask my hostess. My guess is that they were picked up on a trip to Mexico as souvenirs and from the looks of things never played afterwards. Neither is super valuable (about $20-25 each) but they're definitely not records you see much of around DC.
Some times when I'm looking at people's collections they'll hover behind me and tell me stories. I love hearing about how people got (and played) their records. Selma told me how she got Pete Seeger to sign one of her albums after a show in DC back in the 70's. At one house call in Middleburg the seller laid on his bed while I looked at his records on the floor. Pretty creepy if you ask me.
After inspecting my pile for condition, I gathered up all my finds. After two minutes of friendly negotiating I wrote Selma a check for an amount which made both of us happy. We then talked about her kids (all three are academics in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) and the election. Finally I headed back to the shop so I could open up and price the records I'd just bought. Two of the Dylan LP's sold within an hour of being put out.
My next house call is this Saturday. "60's rock" the guy said. Who knows...
Thanks go out to Stefan Glerum for use of his illustration at the top of this post which will adorn Neal's monthly crate dispatches. Check out the rest of Stefan's amazing work here - and he's even got prints for sale!