Listening #100 Page 3
Of the Moon
I buy new LPs from a number of different specialty retailersElusiveDisc.com and MusicDirect.com are my two favoritesand used LPs from a variety of sources, ranging from Academy Records on West 18th Street, in New York City, to the always-providential Salvation Army thrift store on Main Street in Oneonta, New York. (I probably shouldn't have said that.)
But then I heard that Amazon.com sells vinyl. Not only that: They've devoted an entire little corner of their website to the stuff. What could be cooler?
As it turns out, a whole trainload of things could be cooler. Setting aside humanity's enduring need for peace, justice, clean water, and an end to the media's effort to brainwash everyone into thinking that Sarah Jessica Parker is attractive, record lovers could do with a consistently friendly, well-informed, fairly priced dealer that understands the basic premise that a damaged record is an unplayable record, and an unplayable record is a worthless record. And that is so not Amazon.com.
But back in October, when I still had Amazon-has-noticed-our-hobby! stars in my eyes, I didn't know any better. There was an LP I wanted (the reissue of McCoy Tyner's The Real McCoy), so I decided to give Amazon the business. They gave it right back.
Things went smoothly at first. I placed the order on October 26, they shipped it on October 27, and I received it on October 29. Not bad! But when our local Postmaster handed me the carton, I knew in an instant there was something wrong: The carton was oblong, and was larger than 12" in only one dimension.
The McCoy Tyner albumwhat was left of itwas folded, Houdini-like, into a box too small for it. It was bent and clearly unusableclear, at least, to anyone who knows what an LP is. But, this being 2011 and all, I guess I can't really blame the person who shipped my album: He probably glanced at the shrink-wrapped cover, assumed it was one of those rare calendars that isn't decorated with scenes from Garfield, Twilight, or the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and rammed it into a rectangular box with his fist. Happens all the time.
I assumed there would be a handy Returns form in the carton: a sheet on which I could check a box or two, scribble a complaint, peel off a new mailing label, then hand the box back to the Postmaster. But no: There was just a slip of paper saying I had to do the click-and-wait thing online and fill out a complaint form there. Then I would have to wait for a return form to download, which I would also have to fill out, by which time I would be mildly pissed off. And I was. But I contained my rage, and when prompted for the reason for my return I wrote, in the space provided for Return Details:
This is a vinyl LP, and whoever packed it did so by mashing it into a box that was too small for it. The jacket is now bent, and the disc inside is obviously warped. Please send a replacement.
Later that evening I received a polite response, apologizing for the damage and saying that an order for a replacement LP was already flowing through the Amazon bloodstream: All I had to do was make sure to return the bent, useless LP within 30 days, or I'd have to pay for two records.
I'll skip ahead, since you probably already know which rock this ship is headed for: On November 2 I received a replacement copy. And while it was shipped in a carton that was slightly larger than the first, this LP, too, was bent and obviously unplayable. As it turned out, John Atkinson happened to drop by the next day, and when I told him the story and showed him the second LP, he sorrily shook his head. He's very good at that.
So once again I downloaded, waited, filled out, waited, downloaded, and filled out. By the time I'd printed the new return form I was in a slightly worse mood than I'd been for the old return form, so the comments I added were a little less sweet:
Please do notI repeat, DO NOT!!send me another bent, damaged LP. If your shipping dept. isn't capable of mailing an LP, please just issue a refund!!
I received another reply with another mild apology, but this time they requested a fuller explanation: They wanted me to describe the damage in detail, and they seemed especially interested in whether or not I'd actually listened to either of the records I'd received. Maybe they suspected this whole thing was my fault all along, or that I was just being picky. So even though I'd already killed an hour or more trying to make a simple purchase from Amazon.com, I spent another 15 minutes writing this:
The damage to the replacement LP (and the one from the original order) was that the cover was severely bent and creased on one edge, indicating that the record inside was probably not flat. I did not try to play the record (or the one from the previous order). The original LP was bent on its upper edge; the replacement was bent on one of its side edges. The packaging on the original didn't look damaged, but it was flimsily taped, and it was obvious before opening it that the record had to have been damaged. (LPs measure 12 inches x 12 inches; the box was considerably smaller in width and depth.) The second box was barely big enough to contain an LP; it appeared as though the replacement record was itself a returned itemone that had probably been damaged in the same mannerthat had been rejected.
After a while I received another return form, which I duly filled out and placed inside the box with LP No.2. Later that week I drove it back to the Post Office. And I made a mental calculation: Even if my time were worth a mere $20 an hour, this $15 LP had already cost more than 50 bucksand I hadn't heard so much as a single note. I was beginning to regret having taken my business to Amazon.com.
That regret was about to deepen: On November 18 I received a response from Amazon.com that said, in part:
We'll investigate further and make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else. In the meantime, the item may temporarily be unavailable to purchase from Amazon.com, though it may be available from other Marketplace sellers on the Amazon.com website.
I felt like a hunter who'd wasted an entire day tramping through the woods without finding any game and then, on the way back to his car, blundered onto a frozen pond, fell through the ice, and was bit by a hibernating weasel. I was most irate (footnote 2). So I replied:
"The item MAY temporarily be unavailable"?! You don't even KNOW?! What the hell does that mean? Am I getting a refund? Or do I have to waste more of my time in an effort to correct YOUR errors? Weeks ago I ordered, and paid for, an LP record, presumably in usable shape. I still don't have it, and in the meantime I've had to fill out a bunch of forms and return two parcels. And now my item "MAY be unavailable"?! What's wrong with you people, anyway?
In the days that followed my last message to Amazon.com, while I waited for a responsewhich never came, although a refund was eventually credited to my AmEx accountit occurred to me: All along, I had wished for an LP retailer that was consistently friendly, well informed, fairly priced, and knowledgeable. Sufficiently knowledgeable, at least, to pack and ship records in such a way that they stand a chance of being playable on arrival. And all along, that description fit my favorite LP specialists, ElusiveDisc.com and MusicDirect.com (and maybe a bunch of others). Amazon.com was right after all: The whole sorry mess was my fault. From now on, I decided, I would bring my business only to people who have earned it.
Footnote 2 During this same week, the major American news organizations dropped their 24/7 coverage of Sarah Palin's tweets long enough to break the news that Amazon.com had entered the child-pornography market with The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, a book by one Philip R. Greaves. Initially, Amazon defended their sale of the book (the electronic version made it to their top 100) as an act of free speech; by November 20, they had apparently changed their corporate mind and, uh, yanked it.