Coveting records in an iTunes era

By Larry Rohter / New York Times News Service

Published Jul 27, 2014 at 12:03AM

“Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records” by Amanda Petrusich (Scribner, 260 pgs., $25)

“Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting” by Eilon Paz (Dust & Grooves Publications, 411 pgs., $68)

Something unexpected happened to Amanda Petrusich when she set out to explore the “oddball fraternity” of fanatical collectors of 78 rpm records, the increasingly hard-to-find shellac discs that circulated before World War II. At first she was almost repulsed by the avidity of their passion. But when she heard the music of Skip James, Charley Patton, Blind Uncle Gaspard and Geeshie Wiley played in its original format, she fell under its spell, just as the collectors had.

“Eventually, I started to want what they wanted,” she writes. “For me, the modern marketing cycle and the endless gifts of the Web had begun to feel toxic,” its surfeit of always-available music leading to a response that surprised her: “I missed pining for things. I missed the ecstasy of acquisition.”

“Do Not Sell at Any Price” is full of little epiphanies like that, as well as detailed portraits of individual collectors, their quirks and obsessions on display. They are initially suspicious of Petrusich and her motives, as they are of all outsiders and even their fellow collector-competitors, but her persistence pays off in the form of stories and observations that humanize the collectors and their pursuit.

The book’s title, for example, comes from a sticker she saw on a pair of 78s in separate collections, with a sadly ignored warning that she regards as an expression of “commitment to music as a thing to work for and revere and treasure and save, till death do you part.” She finds even more poignant examples of the collector’s worst nightmare, that of estranged or indifferent heirs ignoring these injunctions. A young collector named Nathan Salsburg rescued Don Wahle’s collection from a Dumpster in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2010, and from it compiled “Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard,” a 3-CD set nominated for a Grammy this year.

“Collectors of 78s, maybe more than any other curators of music or music memorabilia,” she writes, “are doing essential preservationist work, chasing after tiny bits of art that would otherwise be lost.”

Petrusich, who has written on culture for The Atlantic, The New York Times, Pitchfork and Spin, effectively uses the prism of her personal experience to analyze the aesthetics of collecting, consuming and enjoying music. She has done her theoretical homework too, reading works like John Elsner and Roger Cardinal’s “The Cultures of Collecting” and Jean Baudrillard’s “The System of Collecting” as a prelude to testing, and often revising, hypotheses of her own.

“Time and circumstance shape our understanding of art in substantial ways,” she concludes while on the hunt for 78s in rural Virginia with Chris King, a collector who becomes a friend. “But what I still couldn’t unpack — probably because I often caught myself conflating the two — was whether my subjective context (the fact of me, where I live now and when I was born, my understanding of heartache and what I ate for lunch) can or should be trumped or augmented by a more objective context (the fact of the song, of how and where and why it was made).”

She seems on less solid ground when she tries to explain the psychology of collecting. It’s fine for her to say that “collecting seemed, to me, to more closely resemble plain old addiction” than anything else. That’s a comparison that collectors use themselves. But when she starts to ponder possible links to autism, Asperger’s syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder and wonders about “the neurological basis for the collector’s behavior, and how those habits might be inherently gendered,” she is, as she admits, in a scientific realm less amenable to speculation.

And sometimes Petrusich’s cataloging of her growing enthusiasm goes a step too far. An account of how she learned to use scuba gear so she could dive into the murky Milwaukee River seeking ultrarare Paramount Records sides and master plates, discarded in the 1930s from a nearby plant, could easily have been described in a couple of sentences rather than an entire chapter.

Petrusich’s collectors of 78s view themselves as a breed apart from — and superior to — the people who focus on LPs and 45s, which are vastly more plentiful. For one of her collectors, she reports, “the distinction is acute, comparable to collecting pebbles versus collecting diamonds.”

For lovers of vinyl

But Eilon Paz’s “Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting” makes clear that collectors of vinyl can be just as eccentric and obsessive. His lavishly illustrated coffee-table book contains portraits of some 130 “record diggers,” as he sometimes calls them, who have often gravitated to genres as obscure as Turkish psychedelia, “Sesame Street” albums, lounge acts, sexploitation and horror film soundtracks, ’60s girl groups from France and Japan, and even colored discs.

Petrusich focuses on the East Coast of the United States, but Paz, an Israeli-born photographer who created the Dust & Grooves collectors’ website, ranges wider. He located, photographed and interviewed collectors in Britain, France, Italy, Israel, Holland, Argentina and Japan, and even traveled with Frank Gossner, “a determined, no-nonsense record collector from Germany” who specializes in Afro-Pop, on a buying expedition to Ghana.

The difference between the approaches of Petrusich and Paz can be gauged by the way they portray the one collector who appears in both books, Joe Bussard of Frederick, Maryland, whose collection of about 25,000 discs is the product of six decades of what Petrusich calls “boots-on-the-ground grunt work, pointedly removed from the estate-sale lurking most contemporary collectors indulge in.” She provides excerpts from a daylong conversation with him and tells us that “watching Joe Bussard listen to records is a spiritually rousing experience” in which he “sticks his tongue out, squeezes his eyes shut and bounces in his seat, waving his arms around like a weather vane.”

Paz’s photographs, in contrast, let the reader actually see the delight Bussard feels in listening to his collection, and instead of interpreting what Bussard says, uses a question-and-answer exchange that allows his clipped and cranky voice to be heard clearly. Here is Bussard on why he hates rock ’n’ roll: “Don’t like the sound of it, the meaning of it … doesn’t promote anything meaningful. Idiotic noise, in my opinion.”

Both methods seem valid. Paz’s is more visceral and joyous, Petrusich’s more meditative. But as Petrusich says, in a somewhat different context, “There’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual or biographical details could help crystallize a bigger, richer picture of a song.” The same applies to the people who devote their lives to collecting those songs.