The Bygone Era of Mail Order Record Sales

Back in the 80s, if you wanted a deep collection, you saw a lot of these…

Back in the 80s, if you wanted a deep collection, you saw a lot of these…

So I’ve always been obsessed with buying the round, spinning things that sounded wonderful. The first time I went into a record store specifically to buy a record, I was seven years old. By the time I was in junior high school, I could ride my bike to the local K-Mart and peruse the selections there. I began getting serious about buying music in high school. First of all, I had a budget: $1.50/day in lunch money. That bought a new LP at the decent local stores each week. Record City priced $8.98 albums at $7.50, which didn’t hurt. It was 1980 [I think] that I discovered the notion of the used record store [Retro Records], and my purchasing possibilities dramatically expanded. I could pay half price or less for everything, and it was possible to buy stuff used that I had never seen on sale new. By college, I knew where every decent record store worth browsing was. I relied on chains like Record City, Record Mart, Peaches, East-West Records + Tapes, and even more heavily on indie stores like Murmur Records, or Crunchy Armadillo Records + Tapes. Finding gold in the bins felt like a huge score, but eventually, I became aware that not everything I wanted would be filtering down to sleepy Central Florida.

In 1985, a seminal thing happened; I met my friend Mr. Ware. He was almost the older brother I never had. Of course we bonded over music, but by then, he had learned the dirty secret of record collecting; if you really wanted the vital stuff, you would have to rely on mail order. Mr. Ware did this, and he had record dealers from all over The States sending him their catalogs, from which he would duly order those Ultravox clear vinyl 7″ UK first pressing singles that you had to be johnny-on-the-spot to find in the stores!

I thought I was slick when I bought this in 1983 at Record City…I didn't know the half of it

I thought I was slick when I bought this in 1983 at Record City…I didn’t know the half of it

Back when “Visions In Blue” was their latest single, I was in Record City at just the right time, and found, to my wonderment, a gorgeous clear vinyl 7″ of this in the new release bins. When I met Mr. Ware, a few years later, he notified me that there had been clear vinyl issues of every Chrysalis Ultravox single! He had them all. How? Catalogs!

He would receive these stapled, saddle stitched missives from at least half a dozen consistent dealers. People who regularly traveled all over the world, seeking out records and selling them to guys like us. Sometimes they would be professionally typeset and printed. At other times, they could be nothing more than hastily typed sheets of photocopied paper with the occasional high-contrast xeroxed image to break up the sea of gray. Mr. Ware would offer to give me the catalogs, but for some months, I can’t say why, I resisted. I guess I felt that my stores should be enough for me. Eventually, he proposed going together on a catalog order from Jack Wolak’s Rare Necessities. I think it was the notion of all of those Mari Wilson records I never saw in stores [but knew that they were out there] that pushed me over the edge. By ganging our order, we split the mailing costs. Next thing you knew I started getting Mari Wilson singles I never thought I’d see and I was hooked. Hooked, I tell you!

Chiswick Records | UK | 7My next step was to obtain all of the Rezillos/Revillos records that I desperately needed and via catalog, this otherwise impossible task was relatively simple. For five years, I had a Dindisc compilation with two Revillos songs and they sparked the desire for more which was all but impossible in the area that I lived in. Heck, I could not find any Rezillos material, either. Via catalogs, I eventually got reasonably full collections of both in a relatively short time. CD singles were usually $8-12. A rare punk 7″ like the debut by Johnny + The Self Abusers [who would eventually morph into Simple Minds] single at the right might set me back between $10-20. Lesser items were generally under $10. Prices were relatively affordable in the mid-80s.

There were at least half a dozen vendors that I came to rely on. Some of them, like Yesterday + Today Records and Vinyl Vendors are still in business. Other were lost to the ravages of time. The catalogs would come to my home and I’d order everything that I wanted; getting 7″/12″/CD singles beyond my wildest imaginings. By the late 80s I was collecting 40-60 groups and to keep up with so many artists output, catalogs were a necessity. It would happen no other way. I hummed along on catalogs for about three to four years, but by the 90s, I became primed for the harder stuff.

goldmine-ramonescover

This would arrive twice monthly; making glasses necessary in a few short years

Mr. Ware opened my eyes to catalogs and he then did the next worse thing: he would talk to me of Goldmine Magazine; the record collector’s bible. If catalogs became a money drain with new ones being issued every few months, what would it be like when every serious record vendor of note – worldwide, filled the 100-200 pages of the infamous Goldmine Magazine on a fortnightly basis?

By the early 90s, I was a Goldmine Subscriber. The magazine had begun in the mid 70s as a way of consolidating reach to record collectors all over the world in one consolidated advertising market. Sure, sure. There were stories. Sometimes, insanely long ones. Goldmine thought nothing of having 30-40 page interviews with musicians of every stripe, thought it must be said that the magazine’s editorial bias leaned heavily towards classic rock. There was also lots of discographical research that may have pointed the way for me in that area of Monastic interest. All of this was largely irrelevant. We bought Goldmine for the ads.

Every two weeks, I’d get a new issue and I’d go through each page, carefully scanning the infamous “set sale” ads for signs of Post-Punk goodness. After a while, one would get to know certain dealers who could be counted on to possibly have material of interest. The ads were legendary. I wish I could reproduce a page for you here, but I wasn’t able to find any scans on the web. Suffice to say, that tiny columns of release titles set in 6-8 point type [on relatively rough newsprint earlier on] became a blur quickly, but one could not slack off. Every listing in every Goldmine ad represented a record, and you were not the only person perusing those pages. Often was the time that I’d phone or write a dealer only to find that the disc of my dreams was long done, daddy.

Still, all of this came crashing down by the mid-late 90s when the internet was about to undercut the whole of the recording industry, much less the secondary markets surrounding it. By the late 90s, the Goldmine subscription lapsed and this new thing called eBay was the Wild West of music shopping. The web blew the power structure of retailing music wide open, and anyone on planet earth with a connection, was potentially a music vendor. This had the effect of eventually driving prices downward. 20 years later, almost any record that I dearly want, is almost dimes on the dollar compared to what I would have paid 30 years ago, but it’s the shipping that’ll kill you! These days, unless the vendor is American, I’m likely to take a pass on all but the most desirable of releases. For ten years of my life, it was catalogs and Goldmine magazine that were at the epicenter of my music collecting activity.

– 30 –

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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8 Responses to The Bygone Era of Mail Order Record Sales

  1. Tim says:

    The store that I ordered from was AB-CD in New York, a housemate in college hooked me up with their catalog.
    Goldmine is published by a place here in Wisconsin out of Iola which is a real hole in the wall, even for Wisconsin. They print a lot of ‘collectors’ newspapers, stamps, cars, etc and are involved in an annual antique car show.

    I carefully used Goldmine to order, in the late 1980’s I ordered from a vendor in the UK and never received anything. Never. I even called at one point, this was back in the day of discounted calling rates during certain times of the day and of course calling the UK was an arm and a leg. Several months after ordering and having made numerous complaints via the mail I received a couple of items and a refund for what they couldn’t fill (*items listed in pretty much every Goldmine ad*).

    Several years later at a record show here In Madison I was comparing notes with another collector and he commented on similar bad experiences. One of the vendors chimed in and asked if we were talking about “E” shall we say and we both said, well, yes we are. The guy claimed to know someone who worked there and he said the reason that our orders were such a disaster was that the people who owned and ran it hated yanks and gave us poor service because we were ordering from the states.

    About ten years later I had listed a fairly rare Isaac Hayes single on Amazon used but not set up to ship internationally. Someone emailed me and asked if I would consider that and it turned out to be a buyer from “e”. I replied and said well normally I may consider that but in two plus decades of buying and selling music in all sorts of ways I had one stand out experience of awful customer service pretty much unrivaled by anyone else and it was your company.

    While it’s nice to come home to a package I am more and more content with buying mp3 for a lot of newer releases. So hassle free, if they could only make a pdf of liner notes standard issue!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – You simply must be referring to Espirit, the 500 lb. gorilla of UK music dealers! I have bought from them on three occasions. Each time I paid what was clearly a premium price… For which I received both premium service and goods. I might use them for a $75 record once in a blue moon, but by gar, that record, after it arrives, will be a flawless record! The first time I called them in the late 80s for a rare JPN 2xCD copy of the “12” Collection,” and phone service was not truculent. I had to call early in the morning, and it was weird dialing internationally for the first time, but the sale was without incident. The other two times were for a rare German only Ultravox 7″, “The Frozen Ones.” Back when that disc was the ONLY way to hear the remix of “The Man Who Dies Every Day.” A decade later and it was on the “Ha! Ha! Ha!” DLX RM, but the $65 was worth having that track back in 1996. The final purchase was in 2004 for the 12″ promo of Claudia Brücken’s “Absolut[e]” with a rare remix about 8 years before the DLX RM of “Love; And A Million Other Things.” Both of these costly records were in immaculate condition. I can’t complain about Espirit. They are a ” break glass in emergency” vendor for me.

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  2. Mr. Ware says:

    After many years of successful purchases from dealers all over the world, I was only screwed once in the late 90s. A UK dealer called The Vault in Bournemouth took my money and ran. Goldmine aggressively tried to follow up on my behalf, but failed to produce any results. Those were the good old days of a lot more expendable cash and a hell of a lot more spare time to peruse those ads often with a magnifying glass!

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    • Tim says:

      Yup that was Esprit. Will never, ever do business with them again. I didn’t even look at their ads, just a total write off.

      At one point I took out an ad in Goldmine and sold a ton of stuff. I listed a Japanese laserdisc by Dead or Alive and someone snatched it up. With a return address in my old hometown. The guy sent a money order and a letter explaining that I had to send the disk to his friend at this other address because he was in the county jail for rape and would be out in a few months and didn’t want his disk sitting around the pokey.

      Again, there’s something to be said for being a vendor on Amazon used. There’s some je ne sais quoi that I just can’t put my finger on, anonymity, I dunno, it’s just different, and not in an entirely bad way.

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  3. Six to eight point type?! You must have been subscribed to the “Large Print” edition, me bucko! I **ruined my eyes** on that rag scanning the TWO POINT type in some ads without a magnifying glass! I only occasionally ordered from it, but it was a pleasure seeing so many “exotic” records for sale around the world, and each issue I would faithfully pull out a marker and put a dot next to those I was interested in.

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    • Jordan says:

      I never even thought of mail order in the 80s for some reason. I remember seeing the ads in the back of magazines but was never tempted. Such as Trouser Press I think. We had a store called Dutchies that had stellar buyers. You wanted the latest Factory or 4AD or Clock DVA, they had it. Ask them to order something forget it. Then I met a buyer at Cargo Distribution also in Montreal that imported for the country from all over the world and that was it.

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      • Tim says:

        My experience was a lot similar to Jordan’s, I did mail order in the 1980’s and moved to a larger city with indie record stores in 1990. At first the people were reluctant to order for me at all, then they took deposits because too many people were ordering esoteric imports, never paying for them and then the store had to try to sell them After about a year of this I earned some credentials of being trustworthy and the whole deposit thing went away and I could order pretty much whatever I wanted. At one store the buyer knew my tastes well enough that if the item was, say, a new Pet Shop Boys single, he would just order it for me without asking.

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      • postpunkmonk says:

        Jordan – When you don’t live in a major metropolitan city [like Orlando], mail order was a more than valid response to the marketplace. And I remember those Trouser Press ads! It makes me weep at the records I never ordered from those august pages!

        One thing to note, was that as I aged, and the notion of what constituted hip music had shifted to newer bands/styles, the music that I truly wanted to purchase became exceptionally thin on the ground in brick + mortar stores. In the last two decades, finding anything off of my want list [it’s very large, too] is a rare event. Only a trip to an Amoeba or some other fine store out of town yields multiple hits on the want list. This makes mail order a necessity, unless I want to “settle” for the music I buy; always a source of displeasure to me.

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