How To Shop For Records At Goodwill

Originally posted on MadeLoud, April 29, 2011

Once upon a time, thrift stores were treasure troves for retro music lovers. The onset of cassettes and CDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s convinced a lot of people that their vinyl albums were worthless relics, and the record bins of the nation’s secondhand stores teemed with desirable titles retailing for a fraction of their musical value. Sure, the hardcore collectors kept the prices high for certain primo LPs, but by and large retailers could scarcely give the damn things away. These days, the situation is a bit different. As professional crate-diggers picked the shelves clean and internet reselling gave the public the idea that they could make a few bucks on their dusty vinyl, the thrift store cupboards grew increasingly bare.

That isn’t to say that budget-minded record shoppers should give up entirely on their local Goodwill. To the contrary, there’s still plenty to be gleaned from a trip to a thrift shop music aisle. You just have to think realistically and know what to look for. Let’s parse the pickings at your average Goodwill by taking a look at some of the most commonly occurring record categories.

Regional Favorites

One of the eternally endearing facets of Goodwill is its lack of homogenization. Just as the clothing racks are filled with giveaway shirts from area merchants and high school fundraisers, so too do the record racks abound with local flavor. This is an especially nice feature for traveling disc junkies, as what’s old hat in a particular region might be new and exotic to outsiders. Visitors to Minnesota can stock up on kick-ass polkas, Texas sojourners can grab a stack of Tejano standards, Tennessee tourists can gobble up forgotten country crooners, and so on.


Nondescript Compilations

It appears that there was a period somewhere between 1960 and 1975 when every American was legally required to own several of these scattershot proto-mixtapes. They’re often tied in to some corporate promotion and usually sport nondescript titles like Super Sounds or Golden Memories. They’re the musical equivalent of those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books collections that have clogged rummage sale dollar bins since time immemorial – unchallenging, unremarkable and thoroughly undesirable. Unless you spot one with a specific song you’ve been looking for, don’t waste your time wading through this vanilla hokum.


Genre Standbys

The Goodwill record bins offer curiosity-seekers a fantastic chance to bust some boundaries. Due largely to sketchy record label contracts, many artists from the ‘60s through the ‘80s saw their best-known tunes endlessly repackaged on cheesy Greatest Hits discs. These collections turn up on secondhand racks all the time. If you’ve been meaning to dig a little deeper into, say, classic country, this is a fine place to start. While zeitgeist-grabbers like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings might be hard to come by, ten bucks can get you a priceless primer full of artists like Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold, Tom T. Hall, Skeeter Davis, Kitty Wells and more. The same principle applies to classical, Easy Listening, mainstream jazz and a host of other genres.


Church and Christmas Music

Even in the age of resurgent vinyl, certain genres find themselves left by the wayside. There was a solid audience for undistinguished renditions of classic hymns and Christmas carols long ago, but that target market generally hasn’t purchased new music in a many a year. If for some reason you feel the urge to drop the needle on a staid performance of “How Great Thou Art” or “Away in a Manger” sung by a random men’s choir, your local Goodwill more than likely has your hookup several times over.


Occasional Gems

Like we said before, the days of finding super-rare, out-of-print treasures on the Goodwill shelves are pretty much over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some choice cuts every now and then if you’re willing to settle for sirloin rather than filet mignon. You probably won’t snag a spotless first edition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, for instance, but a weathered copy of his Live at the London Palladium? Well worth the 49-cent investment. You’ll probably have to head to a real record store for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but the right Goodwill at the right time might yield Smiley Smile for a mere buck. Be forewarned, though: you won’t score anything quite so desirable on every visit. Patience is a virtue, here as everywhere.


Just Plain Weirdness

Now we reach what’s possibly the number one selling point for music shopping at Goodwill: When all the records are less than a dollar, you can afford to do a little gambling. That’s an especially good thing considering the endlessly weird selection at most Goodwills. Take, for example, I Will Not Forget You, a mysterious Christian album whose cover features a terrifying, androgynous demon child nestling into the palm of a severed hand. That freaky scene might not be worth five bucks to you, but for 49 cents, how can you not welcome that into your home? The same goes for Deanna Edwards’ Peacebird, a vaguely religious, thoroughly ‘70s collection of uplifting pop ballads about death. Any album whose titles include “Teach Me to Die” and “Folks Don’t Kiss Old People Anymore” is worth a bit of pocket change.


Barbra Streisand

There might be some Goodwill stores in America with no Streisand records on their shelves, but they’re few and far between. Barbra is to Goodwill what “Law & Order” reruns are to basic cable. Why is the Divine Miss S such a thrift store staple? Well, she was massively popular for an inexplicably long time, especially with folks who might be classified as casual music fans. Many of those people probably donated their scant record collections once their kids gave them CD players for Christmas. A significant portion of them probably also, well, died. In either case, their Streisand LPs joined their kin in the queasy limbo of resale dust-collection. At this point, their only hope for release from this purgatory is an ironic purchase by some stoned hipster or club DJ. A sad fate to be sure, but in the case of Barbra Streisand, the punishment might just fit the crime.


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