Start with an early gem: Clifford Brown, New Star on the Horizon (Blue Note 5032), from the Modern Jazz Series. Brown is cropped close against the record album's left-hand border, natty in a loose-fitting houndstooth jacket. The gleaming brass trumpet pressed against his lips appears as a clean diagonal line, bisecting the scene. His first name is rendered simply in lowercase script; his last splashes out in jaunty oversize letters that sing his arrival. Everything about the cover tells you something essential: the lightly tinted duotone portrait says hip; the houndstooth jacket, style; Brown's taut face, passion.
Pulling this out of a bin at Footlight Records, an album collectors' haven in New York City's East Village, I'm transported. I can picture Brown sweating under the stage lights at the Five Spot (it was only a few blocks from here), can almost hear the hard, clear line of his trumpet. Never mind that I was born half a decade after Brown died in 1956. It's records like this that keep me prowling the aisles for whole afternoons. New Star on the Horizon is just one of thousands of meticulously preserved albums at Footlight, the best of which stare down from the walls like royal portraits in the Prado. There's Frank Sinatra, baleful under a streetlamp (In the Wee Small Hours); Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, positively regal on simple white folding chairs (Ella and Louis); Art Blakey, coiled behind a basic drum kit, his power splashing out over the cymbals (Orgy in Rhythm). After two hours, I haven't even left the jazz section.
The big music barns of today—the Virgin Megastores, HMV's, Tower Records—don't offer anywhere near this kind of romance. Their problem, besides being more like factory outlets than meccas for music lovers, is their reliance on CD's. Sure, compact discs hold a lot of "information" on their digitally encoded, stainless-steel-smooth surfaces. And true, they're more easily stored and moved. But CD's are deficient in so many other ways. They're cold. They're too small. And they never really age, never show the wear and tear of their owners' loving use.
Albums, on the other hand, are 20th-century artifacts worth preserving. For four decades, beginning in 1948, LP's flooded the marketplace by the millions. The best were more than just hit-parade product, more even than great artists' recorded statements. They were generational texts, reverently studied and deeply absorbed. (In the recent John Cusack film High Fidelity, set in a secondhand LP store in Chicago, a prospective buyer is kicked out of the shop for failing to show proper respect toward a Frank Zappa album.) The records' two sides turned them into song cycles with a natural dramatic arc: when act one ended, you had to get up and flip to act two (unless you were in heavy make-out mode, which meant putting on a stack of LP's—anathema to purists, essential to young lovers).
An album's status as an object only intensified its impact: you could stare at it for hours, appreciating its heft, its inventiveness, its beauty, while the music took you to distant places. The disc itself was precious, fragile, with those narrow grooves cut into the lustrous black vinyl. Even the elements of the average stereo unit— turntable, spindle, arm, needle— possessed a gangly charm quite unlike the anonymous click-whoosh of the CD player.
I'm biased, I know. I grew up going to mom-and-pop record shops and listening to LP's. But plenty of younger collectors are rediscovering the pleasures of LP's, whether they're DJ's "digging for beats" to be looped and sampled or just eager listeners drawn by the gravitational pull of history. New York painter Munro Galloway, who works evenings as a DJ (under the pseudonym Blueski), shares a creed with many of his peers: "If you're serious about playing music, you've got to have vinyl. It lets you get closer to the texture of the experience, to form a physical relationship with the object itself." Galloway's particular passion is French pop— Jacques Dutronc, Claude François, Serge Gainsbourg—and he spends plenty of time and money searching out the artists' recorded oeuvre. "There's a great flea market east of Paris called Montreuil, where I've bought bunches of records," he says. As for his hometown sources, he will admit to browsing through the racks at Housing Works Used Books in SoHo, where he often spots well-known musicians doing the same. "I've seen all kinds of people spend hours there, looking for stuff that nobody else has."
For me, record stores are the ultimate Saturday-afternoon diversion. But for serious collectors, they're critical stops on the way to the Holy Grail. Matthew Glass, president of a New York marketing firm, has expanded and groomed his collection for three decades. One entire room in his house is filled to overflowing with his 5,000-plus records. "I've got all the essentials," he says, pulling out a solid block of Billie Holiday recordings. "What I look for now is unusual albums— ones that stand out either for their beauty or for their offbeat quality."
That might mean the twisted Frankie-and-Annette vibe of Jazz for Surf-niks, a beach-scene record by the long-forgotten Australian All-Stars, or the frenzied David Stone Martin illustration on the cover of an equally frenzied Charlie Parker album.
To find such rarities, Glass checks everywhere from humble stoop sales, to Internet sites such as www.dustygroove.com and www.krause.com/records/gm, to mammoth record fairs held in former armories. Many of the people he buys from have a pronounced tendency toward the bizarre. One is known as the Count, and dresses the part, with cape, top hat, and a business card for the count's castle (actually a post-office box outside Philadelphia). Another lives in his car, which doubles as his showroom. "He'll just pull up to the curb and start stacking LP boxes on his trunk," says Glass. "For these guys, it's all about the next record— and the next sale."
Business travel allows Glass to check out record stores around the country. The seedier they are, the more hopeful he gets. "And most of the guys running these places are notoriously cranky," he says. "I guess it comes from having too many people hum a song for them, and then ask them to find that record."
The Jazz Record Center in Manhattan is one notable pilgrimage site. Currently sprawled across the eighth floor of a midtown office building, it has had a succession of homes since owner Fred Cohen took it over in 1983; not one has been on the ground floor. Still, "people manage to find us," he says with a chuckle. The store is a no-nonsense shrine to jazz, its gray metal racks holding rows of gorgeous albums (each carefully placed in a protective plastic sleeve), along with an array of signed photographs, posters, and books.
Cohen himself is surprisingly diffuse in his approach to music. He likes classical music as much as jazz, and says he's "not an audiophile by nature— you won't see me waxing poetic about the latest stereo equipment." Of even less interest to him is the thought of aggressively marketing his store: "No catalogues, no mailing lists." He knows what draws his customers. "Nothing can replace the flip-flip-flip of going through record bins and pulling out treasures," he says. "It's addictive."
Village Music in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco, is a whole other scene, more beloved junk shop than shrine. Everything—walls, ceilings, doors, countertops—is covered with album-related ephemera. "I resent when people keep this stuff locked up in vaults," says John Goddard, the owner since 1968. "My feeling is, if the sun fades it, oh, well." Goddard's clients range from "completists," who need to have every record by a particular artist ("anyone from Pink Floyd to Percy Faith"), to casual collectors. "I'm seeing a lot more kids in here now," he says. "They're experimenting, trying out fifty-cent LP's just to see what they'll discover." What they're finding is what record lovers have always sought, and found: the magic and the mystery inside the grooves.
To get your hands on some classic records, drop by the Jazz Record Center (236 W. 26th St., Room 804; 212/675-4480; jazzrecordcenter.com). The décor is somber, but the unsurpassed selection speaks for itself. Footlight Records (Now closed.) specializes in sound tracks and original cast recordings.
Across the Hudson, cutting-edge DJ's, musicians, and foreign collectors flock to Rare Records (Now closed.) for historic pop, sound tracks, R&B, and jazz. The Princeton Record Exchange (20 S. Tulane St., Princeton; 609/921-0881; prex.com) has one of the largest selections anywhere.
Crates of LP's are scattered about Mystery Train (12 N. Pleasant St., Amherst; 413/253-4776), which has a branch in Gloucester.
Bargain records are the specialty at Royal Garden Records (23812 Lorain Rd., North Olmsted; 440/779-4450).
Val's Halla Records (239 W. Harrison Street, Oak Park; 708/524-1004) is a collectors' paradise, with as many kitschy accoutrements as records themselves.
In the city where the gumbo of American music has simmered sits Jim Russell Rare Records (1837 Magazine St., New Orleans; 504/522-2602). This mammoth shop holds tens of thousands of LP's, many of them devoted to the music of the Crescent City.
One of the best in the Bay Area, Amoeba Music (1855 Haight St., San Francisco; 415/831-1200) has hundreds of bins of mint vinyl. For a trip back to a time when the record store was also the local musicians' hangout, head to Village Music (9 E. Blithedale Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-7400; villagemusic.com).
Open for nearly 30 years, Django Records (1111 S.W. Stark, Portland; 503/227-4381) is named for the brilliant Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. The shop carries a broad selection of new and used jazz titles.
Bud's Jazz Records (102 S. Jackson St., Seattle; 206/628-0445) carries thousands of jazz LP's and specializes in big-band albums by legends such as Benny Goodman and Fletcher Henderson. When it comes to jazz, Bud knows the score.