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Shopping for Vinyl Records at Estate Sales

No one gets sentimental over a CD.

Eight-tracks are a nostalgic novelty.

But records, man. People feel ways about records.

I’m no exception. From borrowing albums from the library and listening to them with giant padded headphones on the shag carpet of our spare room, to playing Canasta with my grandmother while my grandfather blasted Johnny Horton so loud his neighbors could hear “North to Alaska,” records were omnipresent in my youth, even though I grew up in the era of cassette tapes and, by my teens, CDs.

All of this is to say that records shaped many of our formative years. And some who may not have been raised on the medium are now finding appreciation for it. The sound quality, though imperfect—or perhaps because it’s imperfect—seems more authentic, less digitally mastered and / or remastered.

And because so much of our music is now accessed digitally, the act of carefully pulling out a record, placing it gently on the turntable, setting the needle within the record grooves, and letting the music play is special. It's done with intention. 

So, as with listening itself, shopping for vinyl also has to be done with intention, especially if you’re doing so secondhand. Here are a few tips for navigating the vinyl-filled milk crates at your local estate sales, with some help from Patrick Prince, editor of Goldmine magazine, a print publication serving music collectors of all types since 1974.

Patrick has plenty of experience scouring estate sales for records. “. . .Estate sales are a great place to find bargains on not just various individual records but full COLLECTIONS of records,” he said. “I’ve gotten some of my best vinyl bargains at estate sales over the years.”

But unlike used record stores and other secondhand shops, the vinyl at estate sales may not have been thoroughly checked for quality and playability beforehand. So it’s important to know what to look for, since chances are good you won’t be able to play them ahead of time.

Warps. This one seems the most obvious, so let’s get it out of the way first. A warped record is a bad record. Unless you want to own it simply for the album cover art, or because you want to toss it in the oven and mold it into a bowl-shape so you can have your very own funky chip n’ dip, you should avoid warped records.

 

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Scratches. Another obvious one, but with a little more nuance. A well-loved or even kind-of-liked record is going to have some scratches. Deep gouges will render the record unplayable. Diagonal scratches—those that span multiple tracks—are the most vicious. But smaller scratches may not be a dealbreaker.

Pay close attention to the edges, since that’s where the needle hits most solidly and most often. A general rule of thumb is: If you can feel it, you can hear it. Now, this might go against many a collector’s rules against touching a record, but you, or whoever brings them home, will want to clean them before rocking-out commences. So if you’re sincere in your interest and your intention, go ahead and make sure the scratch isn’t anything more than surface-deep.

Water damage. “You can notice water damage on the actual vinyl album—it looks like a smear and lacks any gloss,” Patrick says.

Heat damage. Wavy edges are a sign of heat damage, as is pitting on the surface of the record, both of which will affect the sound quality (usually creating a "whooshing" sound). It’s not a common vinyl malady, but depending on how the original owner stored the records, it is a possibility.

Mold. On your records, the inner sleeves, and the outer covers. “Just like water damage, I would avoid any records that have mold on them,” Patrick said. Not only can it affect the playability of the record, it can spread to other records in your collection.

When casually shopping, these are the most important factors. When it comes to collecting for value and resale, however, there’s a bit more to consider, particularly the overall quality of the inner and outer sleeves. Watch for ringwear, which is when the record jacket shows wear around the record itself. The jackets of frequently-played records are particularly prone to split seams, either from enthusiastic extraction, or returning the record a little too roughly. The good news is that visible wear and tear like this may affect the asking price. So if you’re not concerned about the minty-ness of your vinyl and its cover, you can get a good deal. And then those seams can always be mended with some acid-free tape.

But what if you are concerned with finding the most valuable vinyl?

If you’re not already, get familiar with the concept of grading. The value of a record depends on quality and rarity, and grading scales are used to measure the quality of any given record. “Goldmine created a grading guide for record quality years ago and it has become a staple of the industry,” Patrick said Goldmine’s scale ranges from Mint (absolutely perfect) to Poor (cracked, warped and basically unusable). In between are a range of scores for playable records, from those that have seen better days but still make good music, to those what are just under the bar as far as perfection is concerned. (The grading scale notes that Mint is a very uncommon score, because, frankly, “no record or sleeve is ever truly perfect.”)

When it comes to rarity, there are a variety of factors that make a record rare. Records, naturally, can fall prey to time and wear, making older albums harder to come by. Then there are limited runs, numbered albums, and recalls.

“There are also records that are signed on the sleeve, and autographs do increase the value of a record even more,” Patrick said. “However, autographs are increasingly hard to authenticate and should be taken to an expert.”

But when it comes to white whales of vinyl, avid collectors know what to look for.

They know only about 300 copies of “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols were printed before the band was kicked off their label (how very punk), and if they happen to see a copy hidden behind “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass well, they’re going to snatch it up faster than you can say “oi.”

 

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They know David Bowie’s 1974 album “Diamond Dogs,” which features a colorful image of Bowie as a half man / half dog creature on a gate-fold cover, was quickly airbrushed (or should we say “ch-ch-changed?”) to be less anatomically correct after the label got cold feet. But there are reportedly a few original copies floating around, thanks to some intrepid employees of the label.

They know that on the 1996 three-record edition of “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness,” the Smashing Pumpkins include two songs not featured on the original cassette or CD, or the 2012 vinyl reissue, making this a particularly valuable item to fans of angsty alterna-rock.

Your best bet is to first collect what you love, and then determine where to go from there. If you collect only in the hopes of finding the most valuable records, will you really, truly enjoy your collection?

But you can have it both ways. If you’re a fan of The Boss, collecting his entire discography would be a rewarding and time consuming effort, not only due to his long and prolific career, but also because only some of his albums have been re-released, so you’ll be seeking out original printings whether you want to or not. Records by iconic but recently deceased musicians, like Prince or the aforementioned Bowie, will always be enjoyable to listen to, but aren’t going to get any easier to find. And if you’re a Beatles fan, you’re in luck, because while there are accessible albums floating around, as there are several valuable albums to be found in the wild, from a “Love Me Do / P.S. I Love You” demo with Paul McCartney’s name spelled incorrectly, to the infamous “Yesterday and Today” album otherwise known as the “Butcher Cover.”

 

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Featuring the Fab Four smiling cheekily, wearing white coats and holding dismembered doll parts and raw meat, the original album was recalled, “then sent out to retail stores again with a new image pasted over the old one.” Patrick said “Many fans tried to then peel off the paste over, and most of the time it was not a pretty sight.”

Patrick said Heritage Auctions recently sold a ‘first state,’ sealed original Butcher Cover for $42,000.

“I have a friend who came across several Butcher Cover Beatles albums at an estate sale and bought them relatively cheap,” he said. They were, however, “third state” covers. “They are of less value. The album is more valuable if it is not peeled and the paste over is kept pristine. . .mostly because there are less and less of them around (most people can’t resist to peel them).”

The way it breaks down: “First state” refers to the original record, as it was initially released. “Second state” records are those with the new image (featuring John, George, and Ringo standing around a trunk, with Paul inside) affixed over the original cover. “Third state” are those with the stickers removed by curious Beatles fans. And “fourth state” are the reissued editions, without the controversial cover printed on it at all.

Needless to say, many record collectors consider a first state Butcher Cover a “holy grail” album. Patrick included.

There are stories like this for records of all genres, and for bands all across the fame / obscurity spectrum, which is all the more reason to collect what you love, and then find your own white whale. Learn about the folklore and stories behind the albums as you find them. “Collect for the joy and passion of collecting vinyl records, not just for the treasure hunt of finding one worth thousands,” Patrick said. And don’t pass up the albums that may not meet your ultimate standard for quality, he said—less-than-perfect copies can serve as placeholders until a Near Mint comes into your life.

“It becomes a fun endeavor because you can collect by genre, artist, era. and so on,” Patrick said. “In other words, collect like an enthusiast—have fun!”

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