Vinyl Value

I recently bought a turntable, the first I've owned in about 15 years. I had sold my vinyl collection—a mix of classic rock, early 1980s pop, and the odd jazz or classical LP—when I was in grad school, for economic reasons: I needed the money for rent, or food, or beer, or something. Nor do I know what happened to my old plastic turntable; more than likely, I left it curbside for anyone strolling by who was able to appreciate its value.

Returning to vinyl was, for me, no less an economic decision than getting out of it had been 15 years before. I was drawn back to vinyl not, as many audiophiles are, by a desire for the best possible sound, but by the flood of used classical LPs out there waiting to be bought at bargain prices.

The first indication I had of this was at an independent record store in Camden, Maine. My family and I had taken a winter weekend trip up the coast to visit a resort that's popular and expensive in summer. The store was selling classic used vinyl for half off their regular bargain prices. Unmarked LPs—including a box of Beethoven symphonies conducted by Toscanini—were going for 50 cents an item.

I asked the proprietor why he was selling them so cheap. "I've got loads of classical vinyl," he said. "Thousands in boxes out back. And there's no shelf space for them." I came away with 31 discs for $26. I did not yet own a turntable.

A couple of weeks later I was in New York, where I visited a used-record shop that was stuffed with classical vinyl—thousands and thousands of LPs. The condition varied, but the quality of the artists was uniformly high. Vinyl filled every inch of wall space in that store, from floor to ceiling—some shelves were packed so tight that there was little hope of pulling out an album. Disordered waist-high stacks blocked the aisles, and much of the stock was inaccessible without a ladder—or a shovel. I wanted to see if they had anything by the Végh Quartet, but I just could not work out how to get to the V section. (The store is organized by performer, not composer.)

I was in the shop for about half an hour, killing time before attending my first opera at the Met. While I was there, the phone rang twice. Judging by the half of each conversation I overheard, both callers had large collections to sell. The owner of the store wasn't buying. "We've got no room for it," he said. He was right.

That store is an anachronism, of the sort rarely seen outside of major metropolises. It somehow manages to stay afloat in a tiny space in a high-rent district at the edge of one of the world's more expensive cities. It's right next door to an Urban Outfitters, and the contrast in styles between the two businesses—old-world passion vs new corporate profit—could hardly be more vivid. The LPs' prices are low considering the quality of the experiences on offer, but despite the glut, that shop asks real money for most of their records. Given that they're located just a few blocks from Lincoln Center, maybe they can get it.

Up here in Maine, far from the big city, the used-classical-vinyl industry is so small that it's profoundly influenced by consumer demand; indeed, I seem to have influenced it, for the better, all by myself. Ever since I became a regular customer, my local used-vinyl emporium has begun to stock a lot more classical: Several hundred prime LPs from a private collector. A dozen tightly packed boxes from a classical radio station in Rochester. Several linear feet from the collection of a local college's music library. The proprietor calls me whenever he gets a new batch in and I'm there within a day or two, buying 30 or 40 new discs, almost always in great condition.

How these discs sound on my new rig is a mixed bag, but they mostly sound very good. It takes a while to adjust to the surface noise on some (not all) LPs. But I've had my new 'table for about three months now; during that time I've purchased maybe one or two new CDs and hundreds of used LPs—cheap. I'm cautious about proclaiming the universal superiority of one component or medium, but my wife—who generally regards my audiophile obsessions with tolerant bemusement—has no such qualms. She has never enjoyed our evening listening so much.

I appreciate good sound, and spend a great deal of time—and not a little money—pursuing it. But sonic superiority is not much more than a bonus. The real value in my discovery of classical vinyl is in, er, real value. It's not merely a question of economic value; social values also enter in. I've never been one to frequent garage sales or pick through the neighbors' trash, but my weekly visit to the used-vinyl store has become a pleasurable part of my routine. It feels good shopping at a local business that manifests someone's passion, instead of at a mega-chain where the underpaid, oblivious staff doesn't know the difference between a sonata and a concerto. It's fun, I meet interesting people, and I rarely leave empty-handed.

The value in classical vinyl is of a sort that is not uncommon to those who have chosen to go against society's grain in one way or another. At least until the vast reservoir of used LPs is exhausted, and until the joys of classical music are rediscovered by the masses—that is, until hell freezes over—there will continue to be classical music available on vinyl at bargain prices. For vinylphiles and music lovers—anyone whose tastes are individual enough to resist the lure of the mass market and to appreciate the value of things left curbside—it's a rich harvest.