Perhaps record shows are close kin to Star Trek conventions. But instead of rattling off the name of the character that Kim Darby played in episode 12, record show enthusiasts (let’s call them Rekkers instead of Trekkers) can tell you all of the New Zealand bands that spun out of The Clean. Plus, they can list all the titles of Roy Orbison’s Sun recordings. In order. And though the uniforms are different–Feelies T-shirts and Chuck Taylors rather than space-age V-necks and Spock ears–record convention denizens are not all that different than their science-fiction brethren. When it comes right down to it, there’s probably a decent bit of overlap between the Klingon language and record geek-speak.
OK, you can argue with generalizations, but you have to respect observations. (And just so you know, I’m somewhat fluent in the latter. And I have low-top Chucks.) Two years ago, when I stepped into the enormous record show that coincided with the annual South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, I knew instantly that I was wandering among “The Serious.” A 30-something man next to me glanced at an LP and then pulled out a hand-held computer to check his record-collection database. Apparently, he already owned the item because he moved on. His bit of clerical bookkeeping turned out to be child’s play compared to the guy who carried around his own small turntable so he could test drive the 45s and LPs before taking the plunge.
The concept of toting a portable turntable was startlingly new to me, but not to Gerry Williams, former record-store owner and veteran record show dealer. He’s the man behind the record show set for this Sunday, April 6, which will bring vendors from all over the Carolinas to the Century Center in Carrboro.
Williams, who owned the now-closed Roots record store in downtown Carrboro, is no newcomer to record conventions. He remembers taking some LPs from his former Washington D.C. shop–LPs in pristine condition, mind you–to a convention in the late ’80s. “A guy came up, he was a hip-hop DJ looking for beats,” a chuckling Williams recounts. “I had a James Brown record that was rare at that point, worth probably 100 or 150 bucks. And he wants to take my record and put it on that little turntable and go to it with a needle. I was like ‘I can’t do that, sorry. Here take this $5 record or this $1 record, but not that one.’”
Williams caught the vinyl bug early and has never considered looking for a cure. He can’t recall anything in particular about the first record show he ever attended, not even his purchases, but he does remember the first record he ever bought, period: Johnny Horton’s Greatest Hits in 1960. Some 17 years later, Williams opened Orpheus Records in the Georgetown area, which became one of the biggest vinyl stores on the East Coast, and he ran it with a partner until he moved to Carrboro in 1995. (Orpheus is still in operation, being run by Williams’ ex-partner in a new location in Arlington, Va., just down the road from the Iota Club, and it remains almost exclusively vinyl.)
It was, in fact, a record show that brought Williams to the Triangle from D.C. He traveled to Hillsborough for a show at the Big Barn and ended up having his most successful weekend ever. “I thought, ‘These people are eating this stuff up. I can bring my stuff down here and get rich,’” says Williams with a somewhat wistful laugh. He went back to D.C., looked up all the Triangle record stores in the Yellow Pages, and returned to central North Carolina on a fact-finding mission of sorts. When he and his wife (musician Janet Place of the Brown Mountain Lights) stopped for lunch in Carrboro, they saw the ArtsCenter calendar. “It was full of great shows that summer,” Williams recalls. “I thought, ‘Man, we could live in this little town.’”
It must have been a helluva schedule. Williams and Place soon moved to Carrboro, and Williams opened Roots across from Carr Mill Mall. Lack of foot traffic on the Roots’ side of the street and the typical indie-store woes conspired to keep the store from being the success that Williams had hoped, and he closed up shop a couple of years ago. Since then, he’s booked shows for the ArtsCenter, sold some records on eBay and used his organizing skills to coordinate a variety of music-related events, including last year’s Carrboro Music Festival.
And after at least 25 years of attending record shows as both a vendor and a civilian, Williams now finds himself as the coordinator of a show. He’s taken two steps to make this record show special. First, the table rental fees will go in the kitty for next fall’s Carrboro Music Festival. Second, admission is free. You can expect 40 tables of new and used CDs and vinyl records as well as all sorts of music-related memorabilia. Williams, of course, will have a table, and he’ll even be selling a vintage Johnny Horton LP–although not that original Greatest Hits purchase.
When speaking with Williams, I wondered aloud about the availability of bootlegs, or imports, or É what is the correct term? “Illegal,” offers Williams. OK, but will there be any at the show? “The official word is no,” says Williams. “The table reservation form that we have, as is pretty much the custom these days, you sign it and agree not to sell bootlegs. That sort of frees the promoter of the CD and LP show from responsibility in case someone is there with bootlegs. Most shows these days prohibit the sale of bootlegs, although you generally will still see some, especially old bootleg vinyl records. É I don’t think the industry cares about a vinyl copy of (the seminal Dylan bootleg) The Great White Wonder.”
I press Williams for stories of strange occurrences at shows, but his response is “Nothing strikes me as being really that odd.” Keep in mind, though, that this is coming from a veteran of the heavy-metal-heavy record shows around Baltimore and a guy who’s seen Beatles cuff links, in their original package, offered up for $150 or $200 a pop. He finally relents. “OK, I’m sure things would seem odd for someone who doesn’t normally attend these shows. É Record and CD fanatics are a weird group anyway, especially the vinyl collectors. And I guess with all these years doing it, I’m as weird as the next one.”
With help from Gerry Williams, I’ve put together these five tips for record show rookies
1. Don’t spend all your time, and money, at the first table. Hit ’em all. (And it’s quite gracious for Williams to offer this tip because he’ll be manning the first table inside the main entrance.)
2. Pack a shoulder bag with a few LPs and CDs that you are willing to part with. Most of the dealers are interested in trading or even buying from you, if you have something they want.
3. Check the label to make sure the right album is in the jacket or case. This may seem painfully obvious, but it’s easy to get so caught up in looking at the condition of an album that you forget to verify the title. (I once went home with the A Very Special Christmas record in a Soul Christmas sleeve.)
4. Keep in mind that just because the copy of Sgt. Pepper’s you see at a show is priced at over $50, that doesn’t mean that your copy at home is automatically worth a similar amount. Many factors go into the price of a classic LP: mono or stereo issue, the label design and, of course, the condition.
5. If you have an idea about the value of your rare LP or CD, keep in mind that a dealer is not necessarily ripping you off by offering you only a small portion of that figure. Again, many factors come into play, including how many copies the dealer might already have, how quickly the item will sell, and what sort of consumer spending climate currently exists. Try taking your copy to a couple of different tables for offers.