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Queasy Sick Wonderful 

What it means to love records

Wednesday, Feb 13 2002
Photographs by Max S. Gerber

One day at Amoeba: Record buyers photographed January 3, 2002. Interviews by Vanessa Silverton-Peel and Christine Pelisek.

RECORDS: the burden, the commitment. Even as props behind dark, gloomy curtains in airless subbasements, they’re essential the way all designated essentials are: the universe would topple without them (but it all depends how strongly you designate).

—Richard Meltzer, 1999


Rick Frystak gives the impression of being tan. His sandy, neck-length hair frames a face with several lines in it, but he bounces with a youthful, puppy-tail energy. He has the free and generous appearance of a surfer. Only Frystak’s pleasures do not involve chasing waves. He is one of the buyers at the new Amoeba Music Hollywood. If he’s learned one thing on the job, it is this: “People will lie through their teeth to get you to see their trash.”

Sean Johnson (left), 18, high school student,and Jessi McFarland, 21, part-time clerk at Tower Records in Torrance. Sean collects anything by The Who or Pete Townshend. “I’m a drummer and Keith Moon is my inspiration. I like mad drummers who show off a lot.” Jessi, who collects everything from Janis Joplin to Glenn Gould’s classical piano recordings, says she loves the sound of vinyl. “I like the crackle. It’s comforting.”

Still, Frystak remains committed to the quest. “We will go anywhere in the States for a collection — we went to Hawaii — but first we have to determine its worth. First I’ll ask you how many you have. And people will always exaggerate. Eight thousand records? Okay. Then I’ll say, What kind of music? If they say ’80s pop-rock, I’ll be less excited than if they say ’40s blues or ’50s jazz. Then you get a feeling for how they feel about their records. Do they organize them? If they say, ‘No, I just have my records in a roofless shack in my back yard’ — it happens — then you know it’s bad. If they have ’em in order, alphabetized and chronological, then you know they care. How long have they had them? Did they buy them in bulk or one by one over the years? By talking to them you discover how legitimate they are.”

At Amoeba’s front counter, a collector — a balding, walruslike man with a handlebar mustache and a gray, thickly cabled cardigan — shows off a selection of his 7-inch singles. He has four long cardboard boxes containing an alphabetized selection of artists, letters M through Q, along with one box of D. He wants to sell them off.

“My collection’s been sitting for a while, and I don’t want to sink any more money into it,” says the collector. “I’m proud to say I don’t have any Huey Lewis, period.”

Chad Hemus, a used buyer and vinyl pricer, flips through “M” — the Mamas and the Papas, Manhattan Transfer, John Cougar Mellencamp. With his pencil-thin mustache and slicked hair, Hemus looks both tricky and fastidious, a bit like a villain from a low-budget ’50s horror film. He takes the singles out of the box one at a time, slides them halfway out of their sleeves and angles them carefully. The collector looks at Hemus looking at his records, at all of the hairline fractures and imperfections revealed by the light. The collector’s eyes shift from affection to concern, paranoia, resignation and affection. I loved that one. Will I get anything for that? What is this joker with the mustache thinking about? One way or the other I’m committed to giving these records up.

Amador Calvo, 46, bilingual assistant teacher in the Palmdale School District. Originally from Jaen, Spain. He started collecting at age 12 and later became a DJ. He has more than 2,000 records here, and 1,000 in Spain. “I hardly have any space in my house. My family thinks I’m crazy, but they like to hear the music. I play records two hours a day.”

As with most buys, the transaction is charged with desperation and mutual torment. Sellers are looking for quick cash. Or they’re getting rid of the collection owned by their dead brother. Sometimes the records are stolen. Or else they’re just fussy collectors, and they’re getting rid of a lifetime of their own stuff. At its best, selling part of a collection — honing it — is a rigorous form of self-analysis and self-improvement. (How many old indie-rock 7-inches will it take to get one copy of Neil Young’s On the Beach LP — out of print and as yet unavailable on compact disc?) For the buyers, these transactions demand that they be therapists, pawnbrokers, parents and security guards all at once. And they have to make the transaction work for both sides.

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