Hip and In Hi-Fi: How to Build a Serious Record Collection and Have Fun Doing It

I wish I could be the one to tell you that records are back: platters again matter. But that’s old news. I think we may actually be in the cassette revival by now, I wouldn’t know.

Record collecting is not a fad that will fade away. There was a large and diverse community of collectors around when I started collecting over 25 years ago, and I think most of us record collectors will still be at it another quarter-century from now.

Why? Well, I know I am partial, but I think records are the best collectibles there are. 

What makes records such terrific collectibles?

Consider the elements collectibles have in common and how thoroughly records epitomize those characteristics: 

  • Records are made in limited editions
  • They have value, an active marketplace, and tend to retain their worth long-term 
  • They are portable, easily kept, well categorizable and visually attractive
  • There are records for all levels of collectors: affordable, entry-level collectible records; intermediate records; and tremendously rare and desirable records for which prices and competition soar.
AND
You can listen to them as much as you want! They sound great. Try listening to a stamp or a baseball card. Just sayin’.

Record collecting tips

If you are interested in jumping into the fun hobby of record collecting, or perhaps kick your collecting up a notch, I am happy to share some tips and advice as a collector.

I collect my way and would expect you to do it your way, too. But if you stick with me, I hope to show you some ways of building a collection that is both valuable and of manageable size.      

Tip 1: Define the scope of your collection

jazz record collection

I collect jazz records. That’s it. And even within that category, I limit what I collect to original-press, straight-ahead small group LP recordings from the 1950s and 60s.

Figuring out early that I wanted to learn as much as I could about mid-century jazz recordings and only really hunt for records of that type was a real boon. It’s my favorite music, and I love the visual style of that period.

Do I have other kinds of records around the house? Sure, and I listen to them too. That isn’t the collection, though. I keep those records separate: in my mind and physically so in the house.

The most practical upside to keeping your collecting focus narrow is sheer weight management.

Records are certainly flat and easy to stack, but after a year of indiscriminately raiding the dollar bins, you’ll find your shelves full and groaning under a lot of schlocky vinyl.

When it comes time to move houses or apartments, you’ll discover to your great regret what a backbreaker a box full of records can be.

The clever collector’s mantra is always this: quality over quantity.

Another reason to limit your collection’s scope is that your focus becomes very knowable. Be an expert! You have it in you. It’s a tall order, though, to expect to have thorough knowledge of profoundly disparate categories.

For example, I have learned a great deal about the various major and even minor jazz record labels of the 1950s. When I look at the yellow Prestige “Fireworks” label of a record I may buy, I know to look at the company’s address: is it New York or Bergenfield? Details matter, sometimes to the tune of hundreds of dollars in value.

Tip 2: “Store” your collection the modern way

Ok, my actual records are stacked in a 1960s credenza with sliding front doors. Nothing too modern about that. But my complete inventory of everything I’ve collected, including every bit of relevant information about the artists, label and recording, travels with me through Discogs.

Discogs is a great tool for the collector: a free app on which you may create a complete listing of your collection. If you have it, there is a good chance you’ll find it on Discogs. If you don’t find it there, you may add it. 

Tip 3: Go to record stores

Discogs has a built-in marketplace with sellers from across the world. Naturally, eBay has been a hub of the used record market for years.

When you go to buy, though, please try to do so locally. Short of coming upon a great and rare stack of lps at a sidewalk sale down the block, being the first to thumb through your nearby record seller’s new arrivals is the best way to feel a sense of discovery.

Everything is out there for a price online. But what will you pick? How will you learn and broaden your tastes if you’re choosing something you know you already like?

At the shops, you are sure to see a selection of good records you didn’t expect or perhaps didn’t even know existed. That’s where the fun begins.

Gigi Gryce The Rat Race Blues album

If I had been shopping for records on eBay one day ten years ago, I may have sprung for a Miles Davis Quintet LP or something by the Coltrane Quartet on the Impulse! label. And that’s fine.

But I wouldn’t have come across The Rat Race Blues by Gigi Gryce. I wouldn’t have known it even existed. And god damn, that’s a good record! A great buy if I do say so myself.

Go to the shops, take your time, and I promise something intriguing will present itself to you.

Tip 4: Spend the most you can afford

Did I already say “quality over quantity”? I’ll say it a hundred times if I have to.

To build a good collection, even for beginners, buy the best records you can afford

If you shop wisely and spend a fair price for what you are getting, you will not ever miss the money. You WILL miss the lost opportunities to buy something rare if you don’t capture the moment.

A word about pricing: please don’t assume a record shop will be charging you absolute top dollar for the good stuff. In my experience, record shop owners who run a good, brisk business will not wait around for months or years until someone walks in willing to pay every last penny in potential value for a rare record. They want to move it and will settle for a reasonable profit rather than a maximum price.

Be a good customer: get to know your local record shop proprietor, buy well and without needless haggling and see if you don’t soon get to a place where you are buying for prices both you and the seller find very agreeable.

My single best buy wasn’t a something-for-nothing deal. I paid good money to a knowledgeable record seller. He made a nice profit and I made a nice investment. Win-Win.

Tip 5: Protecting the property

Condition matters when it comes to collectible records, but it isn’t as strict as with cards, comics and stamps.

As I mentioned, buy the best you can afford, then do your best not to make the record you acquire any worse.

Every collectible record should be kept in a plastic sleeve. Most records you buy in a shop will come this way. If not, you can buy a bunch of sleeves online.

Taking records in and out of old cardboard covers will often result in splits along the seams.

To preserve your prized collection, do as I do and store your records outside of their cardboard covers. Tuck your records (in the paper sleeve) between the cover and the outer plastic sleeve. Everything is accessible; everything is protected.

Keep the record outside of the album cover.
Tuck the record between the cover and plastic sleeve.
The record and the album cover are both protected.

Tip 6: Caring for vinyl

Invest in a good record cleaner to make your albums sound their best. I have a manual Spin-Clean unit and think it works great.

How about playing them? Well, I suppose the best way to protect a vinyl record is to never play it. If you aren’t going to play your records, though, I can’t recommend this hobby to you.

The greatest joy out of all this is to listen to the music. Buy a nice turntable with a manual-balance arm. Keep that needle light on the surface and listen to your heart’s content.

Tip 7: How to listen to your records

It’s easy to pick up an inexpensive plug-and-play record player. I think you may even find them at Target now. Your records deserve better, though. You deserve better.

While an article on receivers and players must be left for a different day, I will gladly share this advice before you begin to invest in a worthy rig:

Shop vintage for the receiver, shop new for the turntable (and you figure out the speakers). 🙂

I consider myself lucky to have inherited a Sansui 1000A tube receiver. It’s a powerhouse that nonetheless produces a beautiful, mellow sound. Explore what vintage gear is available, set your budget and do your research.

Sansui 1000A receiver
Sansui 1000A

When you do buy vintage, consider that you may have to spend an additional few hundred dollars having the unit refurbished. For turntables, I heartbreakingly retired the nifty old United Audio Dual 1218 that came with the Sansui and invested in a new Rega RP3.

It’s the picture of simplicity: a one-switch, one-speed, manual-arm player. It may be too plain for the hardcore gearheads, but it is perfect for me.

Rega RP3 turntable

Record Q & As and Fun Facts

Q: So why are they called 45s? Why 78s?

A: It’s ok if you don’t know. The numbers don’t refer to size. They stand for RPMs: revolutions per minute. 45 are singles (one song per side, usually) because they are small (7 inches in diameter) and spin around relatively quickly. 78s – the old “wax” ones- spin around tremendously quickly. Even at 10 inches in diameter, that needle moves up the record so fast it was only possible to fit one or two singles per side. 

Q: Ever wonder why they’re called “albums” when the whole thing – record sleeve and cover – is really only a single “page”?

A: It’s because albums once actually resembled picture albums with hard covers and multiple “pages” within that held all of the 78s necessary for an album’s-worth of music.

Q: What does LP stand for?

A: Long-playing. Your concept of an album is probably a single disc with multiple songs in a set order on either side. These exist thanks to the development of the “LP”, which stands for “long-playing” record. LPs spin at 33 1/3 RPMs. Slower speed = more music per side. And you have seen these by the thousands in a standard large 12” diameter.

But did you know that most of the first LPs were the same 10 inches across as the 78s they replaced? From the late 1940s through the mid 1950s, many labels issued their lps in the 10 inch format. 

By 1955, the 10-inch LP had largely gone the way of the dodo. A quirky addition to my collection is what I describe as a true “transitional” LP: Ahmad Jamal Plays by the Ahmad Jamal Trio. The Chicago-based Parrot label clearly commissioned the cover art for a 10-inch record but changed over to the more popular 12-inch format prior to release!

Cover art is a big part of this hobby, naturally. Some records look great but sound lousy (looking at you, Mambo for Cats), while some absolute classics look like plain Janes in the record bin (Kind of Blue? Kind of Boring).

You’ll have to weigh visual appeal against musical quality when spending your money on what you want. Not to fear, though: most records are doubly appealing. You will find it pleasurable looking at them and listening to them. And why not do both at the same time? Alice gave me an ipad stand I use to display the cover of whatever is playing right next to the receiver. It’s become an essential part of the whole display.

You will discover that many record labels developed their own signature “look” and that the art design was often as sophisticated as found in any other commercial medium. Behold some examples of the modern and artistic East Coast Blue Note look. Note the different candy-colored look of the West Coast Contemporary label. I love them both.    

Colored wax? Sure, and it’s nothing new. The West Coast Fantasy label released their earliest LPs from the 1950s on colored vinyl. I’m one collector who thinks they sound a bit worse than standard. Some would say it’s only in my head.

Richard Cervantes is an expert in Asian antiques who appears on the Antiques Roadshow and in his home tiki bar, which he shares with his wife, Alice, in Philadelphia.


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