Thursday, May 18, 2006

Garage artifacts reveal secrets

Cleaning out my garage a few weeks ago was like an archaeological dig. But, in organizing the garage for the first time in years, I discovered a few "lost" musical artifacts including a dusty mug, a rusted pinback button and old wooden sign.

Those time-worn curios might not seem like much, but together they tell a decade-long story.

The handmade sign, constructed from an old door sawed in half, said simply "Used Records Here." My wife Sue and I posted this primitive notice at curbside when we wanted to advertise record sales in our garage during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Sue and I scoured rummage sales during this period looking for LPs to add to my record collection. Some people didn't treasure their albums as much as I did and we were able to bring home hundreds of great titles for prices as low as a quarter or 50 cents each. New albums, at department stores or record shops, cost about $6 or $7 each so this was an ideal way to collect inexpensively.

Once we carted our garage sale finds home, we examined them more closely for keepers and stored the duplicates and other unwanted titles in crates in the garage. Occasionally we'd throw open the door, put out the sign and sell gently used records to other music fans during a lazy weekend day.

Generally, we attracted enough interest and sales to finance my record collecting hobby. Where I had a few hundred discs in my college days, that had grown to several thousand just a few years later. Finally, I had to have a special storage unit constructed by Cretens Bros. Furniture just to house them.

While we were testing the retail music climate with our garage sales in those pre-compact disc days, another sales opportunity arose. I was reminded of that when I found a button in a garage drawer which said simply "Beatle Faire '80 Neenah, Wis." Sue and I had traveled to the city's Labor Temple on Sunday, April 27 to sell memorabilia at one of the country's earliest Beatle conventions.

The event featured records, tapes, books, magazines, dolls, bubble gum cards, films, video tapes, posters and picture sleeves. We displayed our merchandise, sold enough to pay for the trip, and hob nobbed with other dealers.

Among the items we brought with us was a five-foot tall cardboard stand-up of the Beatles wearing Santa hats, a Capitol Records promotional item from the 1964 or '65 Christmas season. Foolishly, I traded this item to the organizer of the event for a Beatles 45 picture sleeve. I've never seen any reference to the stand-up, which I know now was incredibly rare.

As the years passed and we built up our amateur sales skills, Sue and I decided to set up shop for real.

From my mid-teens onward I had been drawn to record shops and their exciting inventories. I visited stores in Green Bay, East Lansing, Marquette, Mt. Pleasant and other cities. The experiences were often so vivid, I can still remember which shops I bought certain albums in.

One of my favorites was Boogie Records in Mt. Pleasant, which was opened by a young man named Jeff. In those days Musicland was the largest national record store chain but even in college towns, most shops were mom and pop operations.

Those independent stores were supplied by wholesalers, known as one-stops, because the retailer could purchase his product from a single source instead of half a dozen different record companies. Jeff, the record shop owner, had grown to fill that demand. He opened Vinyl Vendors in Kalamazoo and supplied hundreds of merchandisers in Michigan and the upper Midwest, including us. Business thrived for years as the compact disc became more and more popular.

Vinyl Vendors celebrated that success by sending its retail accounts coffee mugs as Christmas gifts in 1987. One of those cups survived in our garage for the last 18 and one-half years. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Vinyl Vendors. As the music wholesale industry consolidated in the 1990s, the company went out of business, leaving only a handful of similar distributors remaining.

So, there you have the music secrets revealed by an old sign, pinback button and ceramic mug.

No comments: