The answer: America’s Thrift Store, on Highway 78 at the eastern edge of town. The used-record section’s donated inventory is never the same two days in a row. Randomness and chaos reign, just as in life itself. But that doesn’t stop the majority of shoppers (between 600 and 700 a day) from stopping by at some point to see what’s new.
Robin Tidwell, who’s in charge of the book and record displays, says there’s a certain fascination to watching the mysterious vinyl tides go in and out from day to day and week to week. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a music lover and collector herself.
“I’ve always gravitated to classic rock,” says Tidwell, of Curry, who’s worked at the store for exactly three years this month. “I love the stuff my dad listened to when I was growing up: Bon Jovi, Pink Floyd. Some metal, too. The music of the 1970s and 80s. I don’t care for country, but my husband does. So it makes for some interesting choices, at our house,” she says with a laugh.
Ironically, not a lot of records from the Tidwells’ favorite categories are donated to the store. “Rock is very popular with collectors, so people tend to hold on to it because of the sentimental value,” she says. “People from my generation grew up with their parents listening to it, so they hold on to it, maybe to pass along to their own kids.
“Or, the albums are in such demand by collectors that people try to resell it for the best price rather than bringing it to us. The same goes for some of the older country records, too. People hate to let go of them.”
On the other hand, a large percentage of albums on the store’s shelves are 30 to 40 years old, or more. Why would somebody hold on to a record for decades, only to suddenly give it away?
“A lot of our material comes from estate sales. Sometimes when there’s a death in the family, and stuff like records is already boxed up, they don’t have time to go through it so they just donate it.
Which is great, for us.” But another reason for the LP cleanout, Tidwell says, is the current revolution in audio technology:
“A lot of people tell me they have a CD copy of a favorite record, so they don’t need the vinyl any more. And a whole lot of people are converting their vinyl records to digital format, on their computer. The MP3 files are blowing everything else—records, tapes—out of the water right now. But there are always others who hang on to the vinyl because of the nostalgia, because ‘I like this sound. It’s what I had as a kid.’
“Personally, while I do listen to MP3s, I still hold on to a lot of CDs. When you’re listening to, say, Pink Floyd’s The Wall,’ of course you want to hear it straight through. You don’t want to be skipping around. So I do hold on to those CDs. But I listen to my MP3 player a lot, too, when I’m out and about.”
Record shoppers at America’s Thrift don’t have to bring along a bundle of money. Most of the merchandise is priced around a couple of bucks for LPs, less for 45s. There’s no formula for arriving at the price, Tidwell says, just intuition:
“Generally, it’s based on what I see go out the door. If Lawrence Welk has set there in the same spot for three months, then I might mark him to $1.50, or even 99 cents. On the other hand, if it’s Def Leppard, Johnny Cash, or Elvis—Elvis is always really in demand—then I put a higher price on it. Overall, I try to stay in a range where the record is affordable, but we’re not just giving it away.”
For every hot-seller in a book or record rack, there’s a cold-seller. Here, Tidwell says, classical music is the category that’s slowest to move off the shelves.
“If it’s classical music played by somebody who’s well-known, like Jim Brickman on piano, it sells OK. But by an orchestra that somebody’s never heard of? You can just forget it.”
The shelves usually have an especially rich variety of old-time Southern gospel music. Today, in addition to Naomi & the Sego Brothers, there’s Wally Fowler’s “A Tribute to Mother,” “Gospel Singing from the Partridge Family” (no, not THAT Partridge Family; this quintet is from Cullman), The Henson Quartet & Ilean’s “Spreading God’s Love,” the Soul Seekers’ “I’m Glad,” and several more.
And the anonymous folks who donated these LPs take the “old-time” part of Southern gospel literally. The early 1970s seem to be a golden age for recordings by Alabama groups, and Naomi and the Segos started their career in Macon, Ga., in 1958.
Another category with a good selection is children’s records—sing-alongs ranging from Disney favorites to Christian music such as “Kids Praise! Volume 6.” There’s even a kids’ sing-along by Ray Heatherton with the distinctive title “The Sow Took the Measles.”
“After somebody’s raised their kids on these albums and the kids grow up and leave home,” Tidwell says, “it’s not surprising they’d give the albums away, as many times as they’ve heard them.” She laughs. “They’ve been driven crazy, by that point.”
Occasionally a neophyte collector will get over-excited about the dates of the vintage LPs, she says. “Sometimes I overhear people say, ‘These are so old, they must be worth a lot. I bet I could get several hundred dollars for these!’ And meanwhile I’m thinking, ‘Uh, not really. I keep track online of what particular records are selling for. If these were worth that much, they wouldn’t be here marked for a dollar or two.’
“But our turnover rate is really good, as far as people buying. So there’s always new material coming through.”
Tidwell’s own musical sphere got a surprise boost not long ago. “One of my husband’s friends bought a house,” she says, “and it had a huge old console phonograph in it. And he calls us and says, ‘Do you know of anybody who’d want this thing? I don’t even know if it works.’ And immediately I shouted, ‘Yes! Please! Don’t let it get away. We’ll come get it, right now!’”
Dale Short’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org