Why Record Stores Are Better Than Online Shopping #258

Much of what comes through the door of a used record store is junk.

Every Saturday I park myself on the customer side of my buddy Jim’s front counter and we talk about–well, we talk about everything: cars, old TV shows, rock star wigs, Krautrock, people walking past on the sidewalk. It’s the highlight of my week. Yes, and the highlight of the highlight is when somebody walks through the door with a box or milk crate under his or her arm. They always open with “Do you buy records?” to which Jim responds “It depends” or “I’d have to look at them” or some such.

The box is placed on the counter and the review begins. While Jim flips past the bad and scrutinizes the good, the seller lays down his or her sad story of the recently deceased parent of grandparent, the urgent need to raise funds due to sickness or unemployment, or some similar sob story guaranteed to double the value of their box of records. Meanwhile, I lean over the counter and watch the potential new inventory flip past. It’s like preview night for record geeks.

The grandparent collections are easy to spot–lots of classical, vocalists like Perry Como, the Firestone Christmas albums, and a few beat up 78s. The parent collections are pretty easy to spot, too–dense layers of ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s, copies of Rumors, Frampton Comes Alive, and Eagles Greatest Hits. And then there are the DJ collections–stacks of 12-inch singles that are obscure in the wrong way.

Regardless of whose records they were originally, the overwhelming majority are junk: vinyl warped from years of being stacked on garage shelves, dust jackets that look like they’ve been chewed on (and some that actually have), scratched records, missing album covers, records in the wrong sleeves, Kenny G albums.  After everything is sorted, a deal is struck for the good stuff and the heartbroken child or grandchild is sent home with a little cash and a box of future Goodwill donations.

Last Saturday I was greeted by records piled high on the counter and jammed into boxes crowding the store’s aisle. There had to be a thousand albums at least. “You can look, but don’t move anything around. I haven’t bought any of this yet, guy just dropped them off,” Jim said. I flipped through the stuff on the counter. It was a pretty respectable collection of ’60s through ’80s titles, though I did spot at least three copies of Rumors. I turned to thumb through the boxes jammed in the aisle. “Don’t bother,” Jim said. “That’s all garbage.” I looked anyway.

If you think man’s inhumanity to man is extreme, you should see the atrocities we commit against albums. Calling the contents of these boxes “records” was a stretch. Most of them were remnants of what might have once been records: drawn on dust jackets, album covers torn to pieces, gouged records, masking tape repairs. These were real garbage.

I came to a copy of the Beatles’ Yesterday and Today. For decades I’ve dug through dirty record bins in dirtier record stores, always pausing when I run across a copy of Yesterday and Today. I’m not the only one. Even neophyte crate diggers know that beneath that innocuous photo of the Fabs and a steamer trunk might await the most notorious album cover of all time. The legendary “butcher cover.”

Why the Beatles chose to dress in white butcher smocks (or lab coats) and drape themselves in raw meat and plastic baby doll parts remains a bit contentious, but the simplified version is that the picture was part of a larger session with a photographer whose artistic vision leaned toward the ambitious and surreal. Stories persist that this photo is a commentary on fame, Vietnam, and Capitol’s habit of “butchering” the band’s albums for the American market. Art is about catching the zeitgeist, so even if neither the band nor the photographer intended such meanings, I suppose in a way they’re present.

Anyway, finding a butcher cover is a bit like finding a four leaf clover: Neither is as rare as you think, but that’s not really the point. Go to eBay right now and you’ll find tons of butcher covers for sale. I’m not sure about four leaf clovers.

What is rare is finding one in the wild, meaning not online, in a friend’s collection, or hanging behind a record store’s counter. Those have already been found, after all. Anybody can buy a butcher cover, but finding one in the wild? I’ve wasted years in record stores and have never been so lucky.

There was no record inside of this particular Yesterday and Today sleeve, but there was no “Gold Record Award” stamped on the cover, either. That was a good sign. The “trunk” photo was pasted on, which at least marked this as not a later reprint–good sign number two. I held the album cover up to the light and looked for the telltale triangle of Ringo’s black shirt beneath his butcher’s smock.

“This is a butcher cover,” I said.

The record store buzzed with excitement similar to a casino floor when somebody hits the big jackpot. Customers crowded around and listened to my explanation like I was some kind of forensics expert, or at least one of those Pawn Stars windbags. I’d finally done it–I found a butcher in the wild.

There’s no great coda to this story. I didn’t bluff my way into keeping it since it was just garbage anyway. Jim’s my friend, after all. I couldn’t cheat him. Nor did he offer to sell me the sleeve at a steep discount. He has a business to run, and besides that he had yet to purchase these records. And my butcher cover is in much better condition anyway, so I wasn’t sweating it.

The whole point here is that I found a butcher cover in the wild. That’s the coolest thing that’s happened to me in years of record collecting, and it happened while I was hanging out with my buddy in his store. There’s just no corollary to that feeling when clicking “complete purchase” online.


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