I didn’t leave the record shop, it left me. In the late 1970s my weekly allowance went to video games and vinyl (my academic salary ups my allowance today). At around the ages of 8 and 9 – when Cheap Trick’s Heaven Tonight commanded my record-player, and The Knack’s “My Sharona” blasted EVERYWHERE – after school was devoted to bowling alleys, roller-skating rinks, arcades, and record shops. The promotional posters for Boston’s self-titled debut album with artist Roger Huyssen’s guitar-spaceships and Queen’s News of the World, whose Frank Kelly Freas cover depicts a giant robot annihilating the band members, decorated the walls of many shops. For me these walls exhibited what a bedroom must look like: alien but cool, refined by the luminous mystery of blacklight bulbs. Later, Debra Harry and Pat Benatar would cement sex to pop in this interior design arranged by scotch-tape, scissors, and tatty rock magazine clippings (along with a few Mad Magazine fold-ins and monsters from the new cool on the block, Fangoria).
The album sleeve for the Posh Boy compilation, Rodney on the Roq: Volume 2 (figure 1), captures my preferred era in music history: the late 1970s & early 1980s when hardcore, neo-rockabilly, psychobilly, two-tone, oi!, mod revival, synth, electro, powerpop, post-punk, garage, and new-romantic all vied for our eyes and ears. When visiting the few remaining independent record stores that specialize in “indie” (what used to be called subcultural) sounds, I love to absorb their interiors customarily adorned with rare LP and 45 sleeves. The Rough Trade Shop off Portobello Road in London is one such Technicolor delight: its walls wear the ephemeral history of punk displayed in pic sleeves. Such are my pilgrimages to the wailing walls of vinyl.
The visual is far from the only sensorial titillation had at record shops. Let’s forget the actual music housed in record sleeves. In its place, let’s consider the tactile experience of “flipping through records”. Then, like now, when I find myself in a record shop, my fingers rifle rows of delicious vinyl. The maneuver: nestle your hips and stomach closely to the beginning of a row of records. Crack your knuckles—loudly to warn others. Place the tips of your fingers on the tops of an album sleeve with your palms hanging down. Your whole hand will elevate the deeper into the row your arm stretches as your fingers propel your entire body forward. Fingertips quickly glisten with grime. My fingers don’t just “do the walking” as the Yellow Pages slogan once rang, I “see” through them. My eyes lag far behind. My fingers see something of interest, a possible “find” from the incessant “wants list”: a copy of the paisley pop band, The Three O’Clock’s Hand in Hand 12-inch single (1984) with the brilliant song, “I Go Wild” (figure 2). It’s not that rare but I don’t actually own a copy. I have the track on the Baroque Hoedown 12-inch (Frontier Records, 1982). The record is dexterously plucked from its dusty habitat – vinyl removed from sleeve and visually inspected – and tucked safely under my arm so as not to impede my ever-advancing finger-eyes. At home the vinyl is given a bath. I replace the original inner-sleeve if necessary and provide a 3mil plastic bag to protect the album cover. The album is then shelved within my collection.
Welcoming a new addition to the collection, and in particular, finding candidates, unsettles any hardened distinction between leisure and work, play and not play. Like other collectors, a great deal of pleasure is had in the leisure – work of building and maintaining a collection. The record shop proved a fascinating exception to “the everyday” (banality and routine) and everyday life (daily life) though, it should be stressed, an exception anchored within and of everyday life. In league with the “cultivated leisure activities” Lefebvre assigns to cafés in his Critique of Everyday Life Vol. 1, the record shop is a “complex of activities and passivities”. Demarcated as a place for the casual consumption of prerecorded music, for the record collector, however, such places are anything but leisurely and passive. Their walls beacon an impossible possibility: finding that record here. At the record shop, collecting obscures the semantic and temporal membrane that delimits leisure from work. “Finding”, “looking” and, of course, “buying”, present a play of acquisition that bridges the tireless work one must put into expanding a collection within a place not conventionally regarded as workspace. For the record collector the record shop is a paradoxical heterotopia where work is performed in leisure while leisure becomes a means to work.
At the record shop, I work for no wage other than the cultural windfall of “the find”. The space remains forever social to me. The time spent – when younger this happened usually on the weekends but not exclusively – broke routine while becoming a monotonous routine unto itself. The same record shops ransacked searching for the elusive find. Upon a visit, that rare record, is all of a sudden, or as if by magic, there. We never really know who owned it, and “how” and “where” they acquired it. It’s just there. I’m isolated from the object’s social life history. And those finds that occasionally occur are heteroclitic moments[i] when the everyday temporarily splits its seams in the emancipatory cry of “holy shit”, or “fuck yeah”. Enraptured by polyvinyl chloride, silver nitrate, paper, and card stock!
The scenario shared above is this short essay’s “A-Side”. The “B-Side” plays a notably different, often peculiar, tune (e.g. “See Saw” the breezy B-Side of The Jam's splenetic The Eton Rifles single from 1979). It resounds with the question: What is the experience of record collecting at the global record shop that is eBay? The visual and tactile experiences of buying records have certainly changed since magnetic tape and optical discs shrunk the 12-inch record format and our Smartphones and MP3 players relocated our music collections to our pockets. I refuse to bemoan such changes. I’ve spent donkey’s years in dank record stores staring at legions of battered copies of Frampton Comes Alive!. If as I’ve suggested, based solely on autobiography and a penchant for Richard Hoggart’s sensibility for the textures of lived experience, the record shop was a social institution where record collecting collided leisure with work; and through such routine visits, extra-ordinary moments were entered that affectively pin-holed the humdrum of the everyday, then how is record collecting practiced in the new everyday of eBay? Here Mass-Observation becomes introspective, recording random observations of daily life at “My eBay."
The obvious difference between my old everyday life and the new one I now occupy is that I have more access to vinyl then any record shop could ever provide. The downside, of course, is that this very same availability is partly, along with MP3 players and Smartphones, to blame for the demise of the record shop.
“Visiting a store” no longer requires that I open a door, but click on hypertext to peruse a page at “eBay Stores”. The dingy shop walls covered in album covers and promo posters are replaced with a well-arranged “store categories” sidebar (figure 3). Only my well-worn wireless keyboard evidences the grime of collecting today.
Photos of album sleeves, vinyl, and inserts, replace my personal need to inspect a record. Sellers use Goldmine standards (M, NM, VG+, Vg, G, P) to grade the condition of their vinyl and sleeves so that potential bidders know what they will (hopefully) get prior to the parcel’s arrival. Negative feedback threatens the seller if I am deceived.
“Flipping through records” has grown rare. Instead, I “scroll down for images” when a search for powerpop yields “3,190 active listings” – each, more often than not, displaying a JPEG of a record cover. Click replaces flip. My fingertips now delicately massage the smooth glossy surface of my wireless Apple Magical Mouse pulling images down my screen rather than skating across rows of vinyl. The speed of my click extends the length of my arm. Carpal tunnel is the scar of record collecting nowadays.
Record collecting has transformed not only from “flipping” to “scrolling” but also from the spatiality of digging through a record shop to the lived time – collective and individual – of the bid. The dying seconds of an eBay bid are potentially euphoric should I win (agonizing if I don’t). They are “lived” unlike others moments in the routine of the everyday. How often do you “stop everything” with your finger jittering on a mouse ready to quickly click your next pre-loaded bid? Such slowing of time – breathing in every second – is now the new routine of record collecting. There was a time when this moment appeared at a bricks and mortar location, now it is had at an IP address in a computer network: 126.96.36.199.
Today my collecting is satisfied mainly through online bids and “buy now” temptations with the added perk of “free shipping”. I no longer place albums under my arm for safekeeping while shopping— they now populate my “watch” and “wish” lists. The USPS delivery person knows me by my first name. The cardboard protective mailer is a frequent sight at my front door. Anticipating delivery extends the specific duration of the moment of “the find”: its intensity is protracted, I re-enter it upon the parcel’s arrival, when its contents are swiftly (but carefully) freed to hold the record in hand.
Many sellers – especially original owners who have finally decided to sell their collection – provide biographies for their records, something we don’t typically obtain from the record shop experience. For example, I recently lost a bid for Orange Juice’s Falling and Laughing e.p. (the first release on the Scottish label, Postcard Records from 1980, Figure 4). It sold for $360. The seller wrote the following in the item description: “This record has been in my collection since its release in 1980, and hasn’t been played since.” Winning this record would’ve been more meaningful to me than happening upon it at a record shop. Knowing that this record has been “in good hands” for 33 years passes it into additional hands that will keep it for even longer. It’s a passage into posterity. But also an experience rarely had in the leisure – work act of consumption, the shared affection for a thing, a social relation had between strangers, “buyers” and “sellers”, a feint to estrangement (the slightest possibility of Lefebvre’s “de-alienation” within alienation?).
I can no longer locate my “work” of collecting firmly at the record shop. That is, I’ve gone from “part time” to “fulltime”. I wake up to eBay, when insomnia strikes I search via my iPhone, or, I “dip into” my iPad throughout the day. Headers like, “Watch item ends soon: Mod Revival 7" SMALL WORLD Love Is Dead/Liberty Whaam! Rare HEAR”, clog my Inbox. If alerts are set via my iPhone I even become an “on-call” collector: my car, the street, airports, and my University office become spaces for bidding. Leisure – work, if an “amorphous muddled” at the record shop via collecting, is virtually impossible to delineate whatsoever when bidding walking to class. Or, when writing this essay (which caused me to lose a bid for the Kursaal Flyer’s Television Generation single). eBay bleeds across both temporalities, increasingly dissolving any clear distinction.
Lastly, eBay is the eternal return of lost, never owned, forgotten, or missed-out-on records. It’s like the ocean in a perpetual violent storm: all the shit from the bottom of the sea is unsettled and spewed forth. I spent over 20 years searching for Chardon Square’s 65 Film Show (Curtain Call, 1984). This 7-inch has eluded me since 1989 when I saw it at a record store in San Diego but didn’t buy it! It’s one of the rarest Southern California mod-revival records – only 300 pressed but many were damaged – and one of the best (a real sizzler right alongside Start’s No Direction). I was starting to grow tired of the search—tired of typing the words “Chardon Square” into eBay’s search engine each morning to see the same damn pillows with search words of “Chardon Pink” in their description. Then one day it happened: the record appeared on eBay. It was posted on March 18, 2012. Bids started flying in as the end time approached, each one increasing the starting bid of $75. I waited anxiously in the background. I always strike on the 10-second mark and then “load” (as in a revolver not upload) my final bid at 2-seconds. I won: Winning bid: $565 on March 23, 2012 at 17:41:24 PDT (figure 5).
According to Popsike.com – an archival site for record auctions on eBay – this was the first time that the record had ever appeared on eBay (figure 6). Since then 4 other copies have surfaced. The storm churns deeper daily.
Hurry! Your items are ending in a few hours…
Henri Lefebvre. Critique of Everyday Life Volume 1. London: Verso, 1991.
Henri Lefebvre. Critique of Everyday Life Volume 2. London: Verso, 2002.
Rob Shields. Lefebvre, Love & Struggle: Spatial Dialectics. London: Routledge, 1999.
[i] When Lefebvre (2002) writes of moments one criterion is their “certain specific duration” that “wants to endure”. Moments “weave” themselves into the “fabric” of the everyday. “Love”, “play”, “rest”, “knowledge”, are a few moments that make Lefebvre’s list. “All the content of moments,” Lefebvre explains, “comes from everyday life and yet every moment emerges from the everyday life in which it gathers its materials or the material it needs” (p. 346). Moments possess the potential to transform the everyday to, as Rob Shields (1999) offers in his writing on Lefebvre, “redeem everyday life” (p. 61). When writing on leisure activities in the immediate post-war era, Lefebvre (1991) refused to dismiss the “escapist” and “entertainment” characteristics of leisure to, instead, suggest that such qualities can serve as a “spontaneous critique of the everyday”. He writes, “They are that critique in so far as they are other than everyday life, and yet they are in everyday life, they are alienation” (p. 40). Lefebvre wished to “unite the Festival with everyday life”, seek the extra-ordinary not outside of, but within the ordinary (the “impossible possibility” located precisely within the triviality of everyday life).