11 Tips on Collecting Records, From a Guy Who Owns 100k of Them
Dig deep, embrace imperfections and focus on the cheap stuff
Welcome to The Collectors, a series in which we profile the men behind impressive private collections, and reveal how you, too, can become an aficionado.
A record jacket measures 12 inches by 12 inches. A perfect square. Typical crates used for storage hold 50-60 albums, which weigh around 50 pounds. Extrapolate those numbers to a decent-sized collection — say, 500 to 1,000 volumes — and it’s plain to see that record collecting is a rather cumbersome hobby.
But Chris Manak, a Los Angeles DJ who goes by Peanut Butter Wolf, doesn’t have a decent-sized record collection. He has 100,000 of them.
Which begs a very obvious follow-up question: Where the hell does he keep it?
A very meticulously organized library in his garage, for starters. But he also recently moved one percent of his collection — roughly 8,000 albums — to a wooden shelving system behind the pine at modish bar Gold Line, his new establishment in Highland Park, where we recently paid him a visit to learn everything we could about his collection, from its origins to his most memorable finds to the proper care and feeding of rare vinyl.
The bar itself was inspired by traditional vinyl bars in Japan, and the records are organized by seven genres: rock and hip-hop at the front, soul and funk closer to the middle and electronic, jazz, reggae and “world” (which includes Latin and Afro rhythms) in the back room. “By the DJ area is all miscellaneous pulled from the seven genres,” says Chris. “We switch 'em every few weeks or so.”
Most nights, a guest DJ arrives, picks records from the stacks and places them in the DJ station to have them close at hand. If a record is played too frequently, it goes back to the stacks. “Because we don’t really have a dance floor, I'd prefer that the DJ plays the whole song,” he says. “DJing has gotten to the point with computers and everything, you can really load a bunch of songs in and quick mix, and songs just don't breathe like they used to … here it's more of just playing good music, or music you want to share with people.”
Chris also owns Stones Throw, the record label upstairs that he started in the ‘90s to support local producers. Chris started spinning at 14; he says the first album that made him want to become a DJ was Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock. Much of his early soul collection of 45s is housed at the entrance of the bar in a vintage jukebox that he purchased from the Record Parlor in Hollywood.
What makes Chris’s collection interesting is its breadth, from the random prog rock of Pictures to the nonsensical scats of Ata Ka. It’s music that’s familiar but different: great stuff you can socialize over, and maybe even dance to. Which — as a collector — is what you want.
Below, some helpful tips we picked up from Manak over the course of the afternoon we spent with him. Consider it essential reading for anyone who maintains or aspires to maintain a killer, showcase-worthy vinyl collection.
1. When selecting your sound system, make it about the music, not the tricks.
“These turntables we have are the Technics 1200s,” says Chris. “An audiophile would come in here and turn their nose up right away at that. With needles, generally the rule is the sharper the diamond, the better the sound quality. But it can ruin your records more, as well. The Shure ones that I have in here (44Gs) are $40 a needle, so it's not gonna sound quite as good, but you can go like that over and over again and it'll take a while before you hear it (the rasp). My mixer is a Bozak mixer. It doesn't have a cross-fader or up and down — it's just all knobs. These are the ones they used in the ‘70s; it's a cleaner signal. When you have a cross-fader, you're losing an extra generation of the sound.”
2. Don’t be too precious with your wax
While we were interviewing him, Chris literally used his white T-shirt to wipe some dust off of a record. The he used his fingernail to gently remove some glue. “I'm not too worried about fingerprints,” he says. “Technically, yeah; they have oil and it attracts dirt and whatever, but I'm not that anal about it.”
3. For that reason, focus your sights on cheap and used
“I buy used records because I like rare, old music that I don't know about. The new records I do buy, or the new reissues, I treat 'em the same way, you know?” Chris says, “The original idea with the bar was, OK, nothing that's worth more than $5 or $10, because people can steal 'em or whatever, or they'll get ruined.” If you entertain a lot, this stance is a good position to take — although Chris does admit that his $10 rule for the bar “went out the window quickly.”
4. Imperfections should be embraced
“Most of my favorite music is imperfect,” says Chris. He holds up Rainbows by Jade 4 U. “It says 7-inch version but it’s 12. So this is a misprint. It says there's two songs on this side and one song on this side, but it's opposite.”
5. You can identify a good record store by what’s in the stacks and how it’s priced
“If they just have really common stuff and it’s in a touristy neighborhood, it’s usually overpriced,” Chris says. “I don't buy that many new records. They really vary from distributor to distributor, and from the label. When a label prices their record high to begin with as a wholesale, then the retail goes up exponentially. It used to be that people wouldn't pay more than $10 for a used record. But now that new records are, on average, $20-30, that's kind of the sweet spot for used records for people.”
6. Most of the time, you can judge a record by its cover
“Look at the back and you see the instrumentation and what year it was recorded, and you kind of get an idea [of the value]. It's a little less risky.” Using James Mason’s album as an example, he says, “This came out in the ‘70s and was reissued in 1999, and it was probably reissued several times since then. But some of these reissues go for, like, $100 now.” Be mindful of whether a store is charging for a reissue or an original pressing, and use resources on the web to check up on the value of anything you’re thinking about splurging on.
7. That said, don’t get too caught up in the condition of the cover
“I don't really get that caught up in album art, especially for the bar. That was kind of the irony: it's harder to find records that are in worse condition these days, that cost less money, because it's not worth people's time to put them up,” he says. “Most of the records I'm buying are old records that are near-mint, or VJ plus, which is pretty much no crackle or anything like that. And I'm just gonna put 'em in this bar, and people are gonna play 'em over and over and ruin 'em. I almost wanted to buy records that weren't in perfect shape, as far as the old ones.”
8. Definitely try before you buy, especially if it’s used
“I won't even buy records unless the store has a listening station. There are rare ones that don't, but that'll usually be the only record store in town. In that case, you can look it up on YouTube and hear it.”
9. Organize your music by genre
It’s like organizing by mood, and makes it easier to find the right music for the vibe.
10. Consider using Discogs to keep track of your library so you don’t duplicate
“We cataloged them all through Discogs,” says Chris. “It's this website for record collectors and record stores. Every record here is in our Discogs page. I have more records that are ready to come in here, but I have people inputting them in the Discogs and then putting these stickers on the back that say the genre.”
11. Don’t just go for the typical stuff
It’s when you branch out and leave your comfort zone that you find the real gold. While at Gold Line, we listened to Ata Ka, James Mason and Pictures, all of which were new to us. Remember: the ultimate goal of collecting records should be the discovery of something new from the past. It’s perhaps the only thing that the internet can’t find for you, music wise. And we think that’s a beautiful thing.
All photos by Neave Bozorgi for InsideHook