At any given point, you might find an album titled Russian Gypsy Music on my record player. The cover features a mustachioed cartoon man spreading an accordion wide, a jovial smile across his lips. When friends come over and peruse my vinyl collection, it seldom escapes notice.
“Where’d you even find this?” they ask.
I got the album the same place where I found most of my vinyl collection: the thrift store.
When you’re broke, you make do with what you can. Since I started collecting records at a time when I didn’t have much money, I listened to what I could afford — which wasn’t much and certainly nothing new or popular. Most of what I bought were records priced at 50 cents or a dollar a piece.
The experience of shopping for vinyl as cheaply as possible made me try things I wouldn’t normally give a second thought to. It’s easier to say “Why the hell not?” to a record you’re unsure about when it’s such a low-risk investment.
Sure, there is some risk involved to this. Once I found an album that was emblematic of the ’60s — lime green and highlighter yellow egg-yolk looking shapes patterned the cover. It was titled Rhythms for Modern Dance, so I figured it was some hippie dance album. I imagined making a flower crown and putting on a flowy dress and swaying around the living room.
Instead, it ended up being children’s songs with such hits as “the cow says moo, the horse says neigh, the dog says woof,” and other songs that make adults, particularly the childless, want to puncture their eardrums. The children’s album was, blessedly, only 50 cents.
Aside from a few memorable instances of buyer’s remorse, more often than not, my impulse purchase albums tended to be enjoyable and my willingness to take the risks expanded my taste in music. Against the odds, I learned that the music I now love most was shaped by what was available to me at the time.
Fortunately for other broke vinyl lovers, there are plenty of places to find fun, cheap albums.
I used to worry all the vinyl at the thrift store would be broken or scratched beyond listening. Instead what I found is a treasure trove I probably wouldn’t have found anywhere else. Mixed in with Elvis’ Greatest Hits and every Christmas album known to man, I found things like Irish Songs of Rebellion, an abundance of polka albums, and my beloved Russian Gypsy Music.
In the same way I’d wonder who would’ve owned a particularly funky thrift store sweater, I wondered about the people who previously loved these records. Whoever they are, the presence of their off-the-beaten-path vinyl at the thrift store showed they contained multitudes and, in broadening my taste in music, I found that I did too.
There is a tendency among the young, naive and cash-strapped to think everything you could possibly need would be at a thrift store. I’d imagined — wrongly — there being whole walls of vintage turntables at any given thrift shop, but there were none. Perhaps they were bought up by other nascent vinyl collectors, were too broken to be worth donating or were still in use.
However, my estate sale-connoisseur of a dad pulled through. He surprised me with the gift of a record player — a boxy, wood-paneled TEAC Nostalgia with a turntable, CD player, cassette player and radio all built into one. With it, he gave me my first record: Billy Joel’s The Stranger.
As someone whose chief weekend hobby includes going to estate sale auctions, I trust my dad’s recommendation when he says there’s no shortage of vinyl for low, low prices.
Having lamented my woes about wanting to build our record collection on a budget to my partner’s parents, they suggested we take a look at their vinyl shelf. This shelf, which was shoved into the darkest, dustiest corner of their basement, hadn’t been touched in decades aside from a handful of nostalgic Christmas albums.
My partner’s parents, lovely as they are, aren’t exactly the bastions of coolness. The thought of digging through spider webs only to find a couple of Yanni records didn’t thrill me, but my partner convinced me it was worth a look.
I may not have given my future in-laws enough credit. Spiderwebs notwithstanding, we came out of the basement with armfuls of albums — nearly every pre-1990 James Bond movie soundtrack, the Star Wars movie soundtrack, Bruce Springsteen and a few general albums with titles like The Roaring ’20s and Hits of the ’50s.
It wasn’t quite what we had in mind, but it was a start — and they were all free. These days, I like to casually ask older people if they’ve got any records lying around in their basements they’re not listening to because I’d be happy to take them off their hands.
To fuel our habit, we next tried the music section of our local Half Price Books, which had a clearance vinyl area. I thought the clearance section would be full of reject records — after all, the stuff everyone wanted would never make it to the clearance section, right?
Wrong! There we found albums from bands like The Eagles and The J. Geils Band for $1 each, as well as some unexpected records for 50 cents apiece. After a particularly good outing to Half Price, it’s not uncommon to come home with a massive tote bag of albums for $10 or less.
Similarly, most record stores have clearance sections too and that can be a great way to discover new music while helping the store clear out some of that inventory that’s been hanging around awhile.
By building my collection around what was accessible rather than stridently seeking out specific albums, I learned there’s merit to every genre. Prior to owning vinyl, if you’d asked me if I liked polka music or Irish protest songs, I’d have said no. Nowadays, they’re never far from the turntable.
In the intervening years my financial situation changed and I can afford to seek out the specific records I want. But even with a more free-flowing entertainment budget, I still find myself gravitating to the bargain bin. It’s the thrill of the hunt, the hope of finding something I might not have otherwise known I liked.
Mandy Shunnarah is a creative nonfiction writer and poet based in Columbus, Ohio. When she’s not shopping for cheap vinyl, you can find her reading, cuddling with her three mischievous cats and posting on her book blog, offthebeatenshelf.com.