On Vinyl #2

By David Bottoms

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We’ve addressed the resurgence of the independent record store (through the phenomenon of Record Store Day), and maybe that’s awakened, or created, a desire in some readers to seek out a few records—maybe  dust off a turntable at a friend or parent’s house. Where to find records these days, though? The answer, happily, is right under your nose.

You don’t need to hit up eBay, Craigslist or other online resources, although those are just a couple of great places to find just about anything you’re interested in. Goodwill, Salvation Army and various regional thrifts and vintage/junk shops specific to your area often have vinyl, and their holdings can be anything from a meager stack wedged in between piles of books to entire sections of albums, properly stored upright in boxes or shelves and awaiting your perusal.

Yard and church sales can yield some finds, and even if there are no records put out you can always ask about them, something along the lines of “Y’know, I still play records. You have any?” There’s a good chance the answer is yes, especially if the hosts are older.

You’ll trawl through lots of dreck for those better scores, but that’s part of it: you pay your dues in the marginal stuff and the junk, and over time you’ve got gems gleaned from the teeming hundreds of specimens you’ve picked through. And let’s qualify the term “junk,” here…if I’m just starting out, I’ll be happy to find that cache of James Gang, Jefferson Airplane, Supertramp, Mott the Hoople and Bowie that a more seasoned collector may pass up.

As time goes by, collections have a way of growing—a lot. It can happen fairly quickly, and the more the collector swings by that Goodwill or that dusty old vintage shop, the more they’ll find. Then maybe it’s onward and outward, finding other pockets of kindred spirits and broadening the adventure…

Let’s start with the basics. When you find records, especially when rescuing them from attics and junk shops, your first priority is this: stopping the aging process. Left as they are, heat (or cold), mold and mildew and insect droppings and animals with predilections toward chewing are your foes. You must prepare your new acquisition(s) for a much more sheltered life, one that will give them longevity. After all, these were commodities that were churned out by the millions with no thought toward any long-term possession by anyone. Indeed, damage, theft, or just routine wear all necessitated replacement, something that suited the industry just fine. So let’s begin with that slab of vinyl, so named because of its composition from a long-chain, carbon-based, thermoplastic material called polyvinyl chloride. Called PVC for short, it was developed by I.G. Farben after WWI as was its sibling, polystyrene. I won’t bore you (unless you want me to!) with the steps in making a vinyl record, but suffice it to say, the stamping process leaves a little residue on the record. Couple that with poor handling, kids’ fingerprints, sitting exposed on a turntable for long enough to accumulate a lovely coat of dust, and you have a need for a proper deep cleaning.

It’s easy.

Just grab a cheap plastic bowl, a couple of cloth diapers or old t-shirts, a few drops of dish soap and some 91% alcohol. I specify 91% because most alcohol is 70%, cut with acetone, which is essentially fingernail polish remover. Get some at a drugstore.

Run some ordinary tap water into the bowl, then add a few drops of detergent and a splash of the alcohol. Stir to a froth.

Okay, holding the record carefully in one hand, saturate the cloth with your liquid solution. Turning the record in one hand, use the other—formed into a “C”—to clamp down onto the record with the wet cloth, which will clean the vinyl surface as you turn the disc within it. You’ll likely see discoloration on the cloth, and this is age and dirt and general schmutz that you’re getting off of the surface. Turn to the other side and repeat. Now, take a dry cloth and repeat the turning process, removing excess liquid and drying the disc. Not only will you restore lustre, but you’ll resolve small nagging ticks and pops, and maybe even a skip. Now it’s time to be re-sleeved for storage.

It’s not uncommon to find records without their inner sleeve. These were paper for many years, although some companies began to use plastic inner sleeves towards the end of the first vinyl era, ca. 1989-90. While the inner sleeve can be a collecting point all its own, replacements are easily obtainable, and you can choose your investment level here: do you want plain paper? Paper lined on the inside with plastic? Or maybe a polymer inner sleeve, or one of the high-end “rice-paper” sleeves? It’s up to you. The options are definitely out there.

The outer jacket will likely be of cardboard, although most import jackets were (and are) thinner and made of laminated paper. Again, humidity and so forth seeks out cardboard, so inside storage for your completed specimens is desirable. (That is to say—if you’ve got to move or something, a climate-controlled storage unit is a must while you’re in transition).

Split seams are a common nuisance, but you can often fix these with a little white glue and a fingertip. You could even use clear tape if you don’t mind, although some purists find the practice abhorrent. With defaced jackets, such as with the presence of pen or marker additions, the best thing is to leave it alone. Sadly, MARY and JANICE and RICK often felt it necessary to label their collections back in the day.

This brings us to a horrible practice indeed…that of discount stores, and even yard sales slapping huge price stickers on records. I cringe at the sight of that 1” X 4” price sticker that Goodwill affixes to their LPs. You’re at the mercy of the jacket’s paper stock, here: will the sticker relinquish its grip on this old Motown LP? Some collectors use lighter fluid to break the bind for a decent peel, but I often just take it very slow, praying that I don’t see telltale white as I lift up part of the cover image!

Now you’ve got a clean record in a nice inner (the factory inner can be tucked in alongside the new one if it’s a desirable piece), and placed carefully into its jacket. This only leaves the question of a protective outer sleeve. Again, this is a question of preference and budget. A nice plastic sleeve can be had for relatively little, in quantities of 25, 50, 100 or more, and you can get outers that reseal with a flap on the end. It’s up to you.

As far as storage, the crucial thing is climate control, but after that it’s your choice. Do you want a few pieces mounted on the wall for a display? The great thing about the LP was the things companies could do with the package, something we’ll delve into later. As far as basic storage, simply store records upright, never flat, as this leads to warping, Spines should face outward, like books. There are endless possibilities as far as shelving, including the humble milk or produce crates of old. Use your imagination. There are boxes with lids available for storage, transport, etc.

There you have it. You’ve saved that sweet old piece, and now it’s going to provide further enjoyment for you and your friends, and all thanks to a few simple steps!

Dave Bottoms