Queasy Sick Wonderful 

What it means to love records

Wednesday, Feb 13 2002

Page 3 of 5

“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories,” the cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his most famous essay, “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting.” “More than that: The chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” Benjamin argued that an assemblage of individual pieces of art, though it might aspire to logic, is more akin to a catalog of the individual collector’s madness.

Jessica Mirmak, weekday Amoeba shopper. What’s in the bag remains a secret.

“Things we’ve saved and saved and SAVED. For all the stupid reasons you or I or anybody saves things,” wrote rock critic Richard Meltzer in his 1999 essay “Vinyl Reckoning,” an opening statement that smacks as much of disgust as affection. Meltzer circles in on the tragic fact at the heart of any collection: “You can’t take them ‘with you,’ not all, not any, but chances are what’s left is but a microfraction of the total heap o’ shit that in the course of life has passed through your prehensile puppy paws.”

“I’d cherry-pick that collection,” Chad Hemus says of the singles brought in by the collector in the cardigan with the walruslike face. “By the late ’70s, early ’80s, the record companies were pressing way more singles than they could sell. For example, I already have a shitload of his Queen. He did have good Dylan, good Presley, though. A Presley EP that books for $40, I’d put out for $40, and he’d get half of that.

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“But then he had stuff like Manhattan Transfer.” Hemus gently winces. “I wouldn’t pay on that. A customer coming in here looking for Manhattan Transfer is going to want a CD of greatest hits.”

In a room upstairs, Hemus sits alone and prices records, between 1,000 and 1,500 a day. He’s been doing this for years, and his appreciation for vinyl goes beyond the music, extending to the objects themselves.

“This is an overpressing,” he says, pulling an obscure jazz LP from its sleeve. “I believe it happens when the presses get too hot. I’m not exactly sure what causes it, and I can’t describe what it sounds like, but I can tell it when I see it. There’s an oily rainbow look like you’d see on the sidewalk on a hot day. It’s halfway between a pigeon’s feather and the fog . . .

“The most rewarding part of this job is finding little pockets of other people’s reality,” Hemus says. These can be found both in an individual record — Hemus plays a 7-inch by The Ron, a vanity single of a helium-voiced man singing over karaoke-quality rock & roll — or in the entirety of a collection.

“The strangest collection I ever bought happened while I was still a buyer for a store in San Diego,” Hemus recalls. “Half of it was old Korla Pandit records on Fantasy. Pandit was that turbaned organ player who had a television show during the ’50s that aired in Southern California. It was exotica, like Esquivel, Martin Denny, that kind of stuff. Anyway, this guy brought in one stack of that — lots of colored vinyl — and one stack of Nazi records. Hitler’s speeches. Recordings of World War II rallies. Mostly private pressings. The guy who brought them in said they were his mother’s! It was one of those collections where I could not figure out who this person was.”

DJ Surge, 29, urban buyer at Amoeba. Has more than 2,000 records. “I just sold 3,000 of them to friends. Vinyl comes and vinyl goes.”

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