In Do Not Sell at Any Price, Amanda Petrusich visits the secretive, insular world of 78rpm collectors. The oldest version of the record, these 10-inch, two-song albums are increasingly hard to track down. Finding a matching turntable is a feat in itself. The scarcity has kept the number of hobbyists small, and their devotion to “the treasure hunt” fanatical. As Petrusich explains in the prologue to the book, excerpted here, her interest in 78s began as a nostalgic protest against today’s listening culture—“an antidote to the twenty-first-century deluge”—and culminates in her own self-initiation into the cult. If collecting is a project of self-definition, it is an inevitably tragic one: “If a specific part of the collection is absent, then a part of the collector is also missing.”
I was a pretty good kid with rebellious aspirations. I spent most of my adolescence listening to punk-rock bands on my plastic Sports Walkman and, like many young music fans, I self-identified via my record collection (for me, a sticker-coated trunk packed with cassettes). Because I came of age during the pinnacle of grunge, I further expressed that identity via Doc Martens, Manic Panic, and flannel shirts I pilfered from my father’s closet. As I grew older, my communion with music became more complex and less visceral, but it was still my primary method of self-expression: I was what I heard, always, and I eventually parlayed those delusions into something resembling a career as a music critic.
The crowning perk of professional music criticism—the only perk, maybe; it’s not a particularly glamorous gig—is that your mailbox is routinely crammed with dozens of padded envelopes containing CD copies of upcoming releases, shipped en masse by labels, publicists, or the artists themselves. That tottering stack of plastic can feel as much like an albatross as it does an opportunity, and practically speaking, the volume of material (at its height, I’d say I was unwrapping between sixty and seventy new CDs each week) is a curious thing to manage. I have to goad a pal into collecting my mail every time I go out of town—even just for a few nights, lest a mound of manila alert the entire neighborhood to my absence—and since my apartment can’t possibly accommodate all the CDs that come through, I’m routinely developing new ways of disposing of albums that I don’t like or can’t write about or never found the time to hear. Getting free records used to at least feel like something of a coup. These days, music fans with no critical aspirations can instantly—and freely—experience the same kind of oversaturation. If you have a computer and a modicum of Web-browsing savvy, it’s not difficult to acquire leaked versions of new records months or weeks before their street dates. An unreleased song or album can be detected, acquired, and judged in the time it takes to prepare and eat a grilled cheese sandwich.
Obviously, free promotional material is an absurd thing for anyone to grumble about, but at some point, the process did begin to skew my perception of what music looked like and how it should be valued. It’s reductive to suggest that the availability of free or nearly free music—and the concurrent switch, for most of the population, from music as object to music as code—has inexorably altered our relationship with sound, and I don’t actually believe that the emotional circuitry that allows us to love and require a bit of music is dependent on what it feels like in our hands. But I do think that the ways in which we attain art at least partially dictate the ways in which we ultimately allow ourselves to own it.
For me, the modern marketing cycle and the endless gifts of the Web had begun to feel toxic, and not necessarily because I was nostalgic for CDs, then the primary musical medium sold in my lifetime, or because I thought the music industry was a beacon of efficiency before. It was because, for the first time in my entire life, I didn’t care about any of it.
By all accounts, the first decade of the twenty-first century was a disconcerting time to be a music fan. By 2005, the ritual of consumption had been almost entirely annihilated: Acquiring and listening to music was, suddenly, a solitary exercise that involved untangling lots of little white cords. Like many people, I missed browsing record stores, buying albums based exclusively on cover art, hobnobbing with bespectacled clerks in Joy Division T-shirts. I could still do those things, but suddenly it felt like a pose: Here I am! Buying records!
Moreover, I missed pining for things. I missed the ecstasy of acquisition. (In 1993, it took me seven weeks to sniff out a copy of Dinosaur Jr.’s Where You Been, and I spent the next seven memorizing every last crooked riff.) I missed making literal investments in music, of funneling all the time and cash and heart I could manage into the chase. I had free CDs and illegally attained MP3s and lawfully purchased LPs, but unless I was being paid to professionally render my opinion, I listened to everything for three or seven or nine minutes and moved on. I was overwhelmed and underinvested. Some days, music itself seemed like a nasty postmodern experiment in which public discussion eclipsed everything else, and art was measured only by the amount of chatter it incited. Writing and publishing felt futile, like tossing a meticulously prepared pork chop to a bulldog, then watching him devour it, throw it up, and start eating something else.
It was around then—the fall of 2007, the apex of my disillusionment—that I met John Heneghan. I was researching a story about the commercial resurgence of vinyl records for Spin, and I’d been pestering Mike Lupica, then a DJ and the director of the WFMU Record Fair, for the names of a few prominent collectors who might be willing to speak—forcefully, and on the record—about the relative lowliness of digital music. I was looking for a violent retaliation. Lupica slipped me Heneghan’s phone number with a caveat: “These 78 guys are on another level.”
While vinyl has enjoyed a welcome and precipitous renaissance in the last decade, 78 rpm records—the thick, ten-inch, two-song shellac discs developed around the turn of the twentieth century, and the earliest iteration of a record as we think of it today—are still considered odd and archaic. Because there is so little popular interest in the format, even hunting down a turntable capable of playing one is a challenge. The grooves in a 78 can be two to five times wider than those in a modern LP, so a different kind of stylus is required in addition to a motor that spins at 78 revolutions per minute, rather than the standard 33./₃ or 45 rpm. Even the most ardent vinyl fans are likely to push a stack of 78s aside rather than obtain all the equipment necessary to get one to play. It’s not a medium that invites dabbling.
I already knew that 78 fanatics were part of an intense, competitive, and insular subculture with its own rules and economics—an oddball fraternity of men (and they are almost always men) obsessed with an outmoded technology and the aural rewards it could offer them. Because 78s are remarkably fragile and were sometimes produced in very limited quantities, they’re a finite resource, and the amount of time and effort required to find the coveted ones is astonishing. The maniacal pursuit of rare shellac seemed like an epic treasure hunt, a quest story—an elaborate, multipronged search for a prize that may or may not even exist.
I also understood that collecting anything was nerdy in a way that would never be fashionable. If cool has a single isolatable signifier, it’s the appearance of indifference. To seriously collect 78s, you have to give all that up: you have to admit that you want. Accordingly, 78 collectors, like the men who work at comic book stores, are something of a pop-cultural trope. There is a stereotype in place, and it is unflattering: picture, as we do, a middle-aged, balding, socially awkward, slightly plump or disconcertingly skinny basement-dwelling dude who breathes through his mouth and wears stained shorts. Obviously, this is not always true, or even predominantly true. Most collectors have challenging full-time jobs, sustained romantic partners, pleasant social lives, and functional wardrobes. Provided you ask the right questions and don’t try to touch anything, they can be charming, funny, and even sweet (at worst they’re nostalgic, a sentiment that in recent years has practically birthed its own zeitgeist). Still, the proliferation of reality shows like Hoarders—and even the amiable American Pickers, where a team of antiques buyers crawls through basements and barns overloaded with stuff—hasn’t helped to brighten the collector’s reputation. In our era of too-much-ness, minimalism is seen as something of an attribute.
Ironically, I would learn, most 78 collectors are minimalists. They’re far more persnickety about what records they allow into their homes and onto their shelves than I’ve ever been. For example, I was willing to accept a copy of Cat Scratch Fever into my LP collection because I knew I would enjoy placing it in sensitive places around the apartment—the shower, the medicine cabinet—and waiting for unsuspecting visitors to be startled anew by Ted Nugent’s giant, terrifying face. My terrible late-career Waylon Jennings LPs and three identical copies of Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain don’t bother me, even though they occupy valuable space. I’ll probably continue cramming records onto my shelves until the whole setup collapses.
Approach a 78 collector, though, with some mundane or particularly commonplace 78—“Yes! We Have No Bananas,” say—and request to store it amid his collection, and he will glower at you as if you have announced you intend to slowly disfigure his face with a fork. Just as we sweat over the minutiae of our Facebook profiles and the contents of our closets, collectors customize an identity via the serialization of objects. “It is invariably oneself that one collects,” the French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard points out in his 1968 essay “The System of Collecting.” For Baudrillard, the collection, with all its attendant pieces, is a complex, multifaceted statement of self, and the worth of each component is determined by how it interacts with and complements its neighbors. If a specific part of the collection is absent, then a part of the collector is also missing. Who wouldn’t hunt down a lost feature as though their life depended on it?
Baudrillard also posits that collectors devote energy to their collections rather than to other human beings (it’s easier, cleaner, and requires less negotiation), which inadvertently figures collecting as an inherently selfish and self-obsessed pursuit. “The object thus emerges as the ideal mirror: for the images it reflects succeed one another while never contradicting one another . . . this is why one invests in objects all that one finds impossible to invest in human relationships,” he writes. (He later goes so far as to compare the collection itself to “a harem” and the collector to “the sultan of a secret seraglio.”) Ultimately, Baudrillard finds collecting both pathological and dangerous. He ends his essay with a chilling little barb: “He who does collect can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity.”
Baudrillard was right, at least, about how particular and protective 78 collectors can be. They recognize their trade as tremendously fragile. Only a select few are capable of understanding and appraising the contents or condition of a given 78, and that exclusivity both insulates their economy and allows it to survive. Value being a relative function, it’s vital that the demand remains low, because the supply is inherently nonrenewable. There is even a vague fear that rare-record collecting could one day become analogous to fine-art collecting—the obligation of wealthy aristocrats whose consumption of art is more a statement of status than a function of love or even understanding. Collectors find that possibility legitimately horrifying, although it’s also extremely unlikely it could ever be realized, primarily because there aren’t enough records left, and the collectors who have them will probably never sell. For now, though, public ambivalence is both a source of nagging rage for collectors—Why doesn’t anyone else care?—and the financial linchpin of their entire trade. It is also something they take pride in, insomuch as it feeds their self-identification as outsiders and underdogs.
Accordingly, information-gathering questions that might seem relatively innocuous—if a bit meddlesome—to a layman (Where’d you get that record? How much did it cost? How much is it worth? How’d you hear about it?) can be deeply offensive to a 78 collector. At first, my conversational interest in the minutiae of collecting was reportorial, almost businesslike: I wanted collectors to reveal their desires and methodologies so I could dissect their work and devise grand statements about our cultural moment. In response, collectors sneered, chortled, or told me to fuck off. They were frequently unwilling to share what records they were looking for, what records they’d recently found,what the rarest record in their collection was (on occasion, they’d pull out a bullshit record and try to sell me on its magnitude), where they looked for records, who had which records, how many copies there were of a given record, or how much they’d be willing to pay for it. They already thought too many people were interested in 78s. Consequently, interviewing a 78 fanatic could sometimes feel a little like boxing: bob, weave, duck. Wait till you wear ’em down, wait for one good shot.
What I’d hoped for, at least at first, was to tell the story of a strange, misunderstood community: why the work collectors did mattered so much, what was at stake, how it got done. After a while, though, they were right to evade me. Eventually, I started to want what they wanted.
Like anyone who’s ever spent a bright Sunday morning trawling through a crate of old records in someone’s driveway (carefully pulling a vinyl disc from its crinkled sleeve, inhaling the damp-dog mustiness of a mottled cardboard cover, squinting for scratches), I understood the rapture of discovery. I wasn’t immune to the lure of objects. As a kid, I’d lined up paperback installments of The Baby-Sitters Club in numerical order and hovered for hours, gazing at the spines, running my little fingertips along their titles, mesmerized by all that order. My collections made me feel safe and focused; they lent my life purpose and form. They still do: my apartment is loaded with useless sundries, with tottering stacks of books and records, a shelf of globes, a mason jar crammed full of antique wedding-cake toppers (grooms only). On a good day, even writing can feel like a form of collecting—of gathering words, images, and ideas and arranging them in an order that feels right.
Mostly, though, 78 collecting felt small, personal—an antidote to twenty-first-century deluge. The more time I spent among collectors, the more a quote from the travel writer Jonathan Raban, regarding the perennially turbulent Mississippi River and the people who live on its shores, kept pinging through my brain: I have it in me to do that. I know how it feels.
From Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World's Rarest 78rpm Records, published by Scribner.