[This thrilling first-person account was written for Classic Record Collector. It remains the most bizarre incident of my record-dealing career. Most of the records eventually wound up in the collection of Brigham Young University.]

The Great Record Fiasco of 2006

It sounded like a dream come true. Delusions always do, don’t they? The call came from an institution in the American midwest. Some years ago they had accepted the gift of a huge record collection. One of their trustees had engineered this transaction and assured them that the collection would be a tremendous acquisition for their institution.

But it wasn’t. It was actually irrelevant to their purpose, and they had no place to put it and no manpower to catalog it or even sort through it. The collection was kept in storage for a couple of years, then moved to another warehouse owned by a supporter of the institution. Now he needed his space back.

The man who called me, another trustee, sounded hopeful but not very cheerful. He said he had already been in touch with half a dozen local record dealers, all of whom told him they would have no interest in a collection of that size, especially since it was mostly classical music.

That’s what I sell, though.

After the trustee explained the situation to me, he did his best to describe the collection to me. By figuring out the volume of the collection and extrapolating from a few boxes, they came to the conclusion that the collection was about 197,000 records. And by now all they hoped to do was avoid paying the large amount of money it would cost them to send the records to the dump.

I’ve been in the record business for too many years, so I do know the basic questions to ask about a record collection. I asked them.

Could I come out to see it? That would be very difficult. The records were crammed into a corner of a warehouse, in wrapped pallets–wooden platforms with record boxes stacked four feet high and wrapped around with many layers of plastic to enable them to be shipped more easily.

Were these classical records? Well, not all of them, but nearly all.

Were these LPs or 78s? The trustee told me very firmly that it was basically an LP record collection, but that there were a small number of boxes of 78s included, also some record magazines. They hoped I would be willing to accept the collection intact because they simply didn’t have the time to sort it.

I set immediately to work. I did not have the storage space available for more than 1200 cartons of records, so my assistant Mark and I started calling around for inexpensive storage space. The best deal we got was a cargo container, delivered to my property (which fortunately has enough room for such things) for $250, and then rented at $70 every four weeks. We called several trucking companies and got one to offer to bring the two (!) truckloads of material to us for $1750 per load, which seemed extremely inexpensive to me. But when we tried to schedule a pickup, they were unable to commit to a date. It seems that was a standby rate and it could take a month or more before the pickup would be made.

At this point I called the warehouse owner, an affable and cooperative fellow who had already extended the deadline for removal of the records several times. I explained my problem to him and asked if he could arrange for shipping. He could indeed, and being a large volume shipper he got us a rate almost as low as the bait-and-switch rate we had been offered by the other trucking company. We arranged to have the collection picked up, and delivered to us on a Monday morning. I assembled a work crew, four guys who work at a local hot dog stand and my shipping clerk’s brother who is an experienced fork lift operator. We then arranged for rental and delivery of a fork lift and two pallet lifters.

Meanwhile, the original donor of the records had learned that they were being given away and became incensed. He got my phone number and called me. I spoke with him for quite a while, and he eventually calmed down. He told me he had bought many record collections to keep them from being discarded. I told him I was now doing pretty much the same thing, and he agreed.

Monday morning the first truck arrived almost exactly on schedule at 8 a.m., and the unloading began. The operator of one pallet lifter would move the heavy pallets (about a ton each) to the edge of the truck, where the fork lift would pick them up and lower them to the level of the entrance of the cargo container. Then a second man using a pallet lifter would move the pallets as far back in the container as possible. Meanwhile the rest of the crew was cutting apart the plastic holding some of the pallets together and unloading the individual boxes to stack on top of the pallets.Once we got going smoothly, the unloading went very quickly, and the first truck was empty by 11. The cargo container was less than half filled, so we felt we would have plenty of space.

But we were finding some things that looked very ominous. Every once in a while we opened a box and looked into it. There were small white boxes on top of some of the pallets that had LPs in them, but most of the boxes we looked into were full of 78s.

The second truck was due at noon. The crew and I had pizza and Pepsi for lunch while waiting for the second truck. As we were finishing off the pizza, the phone rang. It was someone from the trucking company, calling to tell us that the driver of the second truck had become ill a hundred miles away and wouldn’t be able to drive any further. We couldn’t get the second truckload until the next day. The crew all went home.

I couldn’t be at the office Tuesday morning because I had a class to teach, but the crew and the truck all arrived on time. Mark, the co-ordinator, kept opening boxes and looking into them. He was horrified by what he saw. They were all 78s. And the second truckload was much larger than the first. It filled the cargo container completely and there was still more to unload. The crew started loading boxes of 78s into my almost-empty small storage barn, and they rapidly filled it. There were still two pallets in the truck. After some quick phone calls, Mark arranged for a bin in a nearby self-storage facility. He had to give the truck driver $100 to get him to make an additional stop, and the truck driver and the crew rushed off down the road to finish emptying the truck.

As soon as I returned to the office, I started making telephone calls. A bleary picture began to emerge. The trustee from the organization who had told me so firmly that the collection was almost all LPs had, in fact, never seen them. The warehouse owner had never seen anything but boxes and had no idea of his own what was in them. The only people who had actually seen these records were the former trustee who had arranged the donation, the crew who had spent a solid week packing them, and the donor.

I called the donor. I told him the collection was looking more and more as though it was all 78s. “Oh, no” he assured me, “that’s not true at all. At least a third of them are LPs.” At least a third? If I hadn’t known I was in trouble already, I knew it now. Even if I’d taken his statement literally it would have meant a gargantuan effort to separate the LPs out. But I can’t help suspecting it’s an optimistic assessment.

At this point, I have had the records for two weeks. We have gone through several dozen boxes. Nearly all of them have been 78s. It’s a sad fact that, these days, most 78s are completely useless and unsaleable. I don’t know as much about 78s as someone who deals in them, but since I’m not totally ignorant–and since I was desperate for space–I have been sorting through them. After a few days of sorting, I had a pile of albums that seemed to be of some potential interest, so I called a 78 expert I know and read them off to him. He approved about half of them. Roughly speaking, this means that about 5% of the 78s are worth preserving. The rest are going into the landfill, at my expense. I am actually dumping the records out of their albums and boxing them separately. The cardboard albums are recyclable without my having to pay the transfer station to accept them. The shellac will cost me a lot of money just to get rid of.

I did have one surprising and startling experience while sorting. I opened one box of 78s and found several quite interesting early albums. One of them was a blue shellac Columbia pressing of the early Beethoven Eighth Symphony with Felix Weingartner conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. I had reissued that set as part of one of my Parnassus LPs in the early 1970s. On the front of the album was a sticker with the words “No scratch,” written in my handwriting! It was the same copy I had used for my reissue. I had sold it off soon after the LP was produced. You might have expected, as I did, that it would be surrounded with other 78s that had come from my collection, but it wasn’t.

This triage will continue until I have emptied the storage barn and can move the contents of the self-store unit into it. By then winter will have set in here in the Catskill Mountains, and the collection will probably remain dormant until spring. Once that time arrives, we will have to go back to sorting 78s, disposing of most of them, and hoping to run into a few decent LPs that will help make this acquisition less of a fiasco. The other day I actually found a box filled half with 78s and half with pretty decent LPs, including some nice early Westminsters in very good condition. So there must be some treasures buried in this collection somewhere. I hope I find them before I give out.

–Leslie Gerber

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