The Metronome Diary 

Notes from the counter culture

I used to have these fantasies that someday I would finally make something useful of my music obsession, and run away to join a record store. There, amid the rows and rows of jewel cases and box sets, I could finally live out my dreams of being a used-record buyer. And things being what they are in the freelance world lately, I've found myself revisiting those old dreams, walking up and down Telegraph and eyeballing the "Sell Your CDs Here" counters with longing.

So I called up Marc Weinstein, owner of Amoeba Records. Weinstein has over 22 years of experience on the front lines of used-record buying, and I knew if anyone could help me figure out if I had a place in the industry, it would be him.

It turns out, of course, that everything is more complicated than I thought. Buyers aren't employees so much as hired hosts for a Telegraph Avenue party running almost twelve hours a day, seven days a week. It's a party where the favors are usually wrapped in moldering cardboard and cat piss-soaked digipacks. And it's a party to which everyone is invited.

"You just have to be really social," Weinstein says, explaining the most important survival skill for his buyers. "One of the main things about buying is that people either trust you or they don't. And you need to establish that in a matter of moments. A lot of the gig has to do with establishing a degree of rapport right off the bat. Otherwise you're in trouble."

By Weinstein's account, used-record buyers, despite their title, are actually more like sellers. And what they're selling is themselves. It sounds kind of cheesy, like something you'd hear at a motivational meeting on a used-car lot. But as Weinstein implied, without that trust, things can get ugly.

"A lot of people just walk in expecting that you're ripping them off," he says, resignation creeping into his voice. Confrontations between angry sellers and buyers are a daily occurrence. It makes sense, explains Weinstein, when you realize that people selling their crates of records are also selling parts of their pasts.

"A lot of time you're handling or fondling someone's really personal history," he explains. "Some people are really seeing it that way.... You wouldn't believe how many people have an incredibly clean collection of Olivia Newton- John, Neil Sedaka, and Chicago--all this pop stuff that really no one cares about at all anymore. For thirty years someone's been hanging onto this stuff, waiting, and finally they get the nerve to bring it in, and the whole thing is worth twenty bucks. Not easy. Not easy."

For buyers, the act of procuring these devalued souvenirs from strangers' pasts ends up taking them far beyond the usual buyer/seller roles. Used-record buyers are part consumer advocate, part calculator, and part therapist. While they neutrally sort through crates of proffered records, they're also listening to life stories and favorite personal anecdotes ("I did acid for the first time listening to that album") of their customers.

Often, the albums themselves end up revealing more than their owners intended. "People love to hide things in records," Weinstein laughs. "A lot of times they've long since forgotten about it, and we find money, we find photos, we find drugs. You know, like twenty-year-old packets of coke. Or pot. There's always a lot of seeds in certain records. Like Allman Brothers records. You always find stems and seeds."

Finding the occasional ossified stash or nudie picture, though, isn't the only pick-me-up on the job. For every cantankerous seller looking to haggle over the sentimental value of his Moody Blues collection, there is someone who comes to Amoeba to get clean.

"We have people coming in just absolutely happy that they can finally get rid of all this psychological weight," says Weinstein. I ask him if the record collector in him isn't a little saddened at seeing fellow collectors throw in the towel and sell out the items they've sometimes spent a lifetime accumulating.

"People change a lot over their lives," he answers philosophically. "And that person who that collection represents isn't necessarily there anymore."

And then Weinstein says something that ends up temporarily solving my financial woes by igniting a drastic trimming of my own CD collection. "A lot of times," he says casually, "people's ability to sell stuff is a measure of how much they're kind of moving along in their lives."


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