There are so many different ways to buy music these days, with vinyl now available in clothes shops, supermarkets and online. Laura K Williams explores the role charity shops have to play…
There was a time when charity shops’ vinyl sections were made up largely of Andy Williams and Des O’Connor albums and some old classical records, but things have moved on. Now, charity shops should be on every vinyl addict’s radar.
Not only can charity shops offer an affordable alternative to buying new, but they also give you that warm glow of supporting people, animals or places in need. Choose the right location and you can still pick up some collectable records for mere pennies.
“Most charity shops in the metropolises have a ‘me’,” says Colin Richardson, who’s been sorting vinyl for Books For Amnesty in Bristol for almost 15 years.
“Someone who knows what records are worth and prices them accordingly – but out in the sticks, you can still pick up a bargain. Go off the beaten track and that’s where you get your diamonds.”
Colin recalls his first visit to the bookshop, when he was horrified to see a box of records plastered indiscriminately with 50p stickers. “Everything was 50p,” he says. “I whipped through them and thought, ‘Captain Beefheart, woah,’ and I said: ‘Why are you selling these for 50p? The dealers are sucking you dry, they’ll come in and buy them up and sell them on for a big profit.’”
The 80-year-old, who has been helping Amnesty since that initial encounter in 2003, spends his time – alongside fellow volunteer Richard Wallet – sorting through records and other items, such as CDs, DVD and comics, listing the more collectable items on eBay or Amazon. Vinyl is by far the biggest seller for Amnesty in terms of musical formats, and makes thousands of pounds for the human-rights charity every year.
Volunteers such as Colin are becoming more common in charity shops that stock more than the obligatory bottom shelf of vinyl, and their presence is changing the shops’ reputation. With half a century in the music business under his belt, Colin has worked with many of the artists on the covers of the records in the store – including Colosseum, Phil Collins and Uriah Heep – and certainly knows how to spot a good record.
“I bring the stock home to check it, clean it, play it, price it, sleeve it, then take it back into the shop,” reveals Colin. “It probably takes a few minutes per record. If I have to clean or repair the sleeve, then maybe it’s 15 minutes.”
It’s a similar scene in Oxfam’s Music Shop in Southampton, where manager Rob Milner and his team of 30 volunteers shift 30,000 records each year. “How clear we are with condition matters,” he says. “We might not see everything, but every single record that we sell is visually graded and every record over £10 is play graded. We listen to them on the shop floor and out back. We’re trying to be fair to the customer; it’s the kind of thing a specialist can do.”
While most charity shops have a single box of dusty old vinyl alongside the staples of old-man jumpers, a million mismatched glasses and mugs and battered board games, more and more – such as CLIC Sargent, Barnado’s, the British Heart Foundation and the aforementioned Oxfam and Amnesty – are now specialising in vinyl, riding the wave of the recent resurgence. Both Colin and Rob take a selection of the more collectable items from their respective stores along to their local record fairs as well.
Colin says they usually make a couple of hundred pounds each time, but recalls an occasion when they lucked out and took 10 times as much after a particularly fruitful house clearance. “A few years back, I was called out to a place in Bristol to see a guy clearing a house out for his brother who had gone into care; he said, ‘Do you want this vinyl?’. I looked at it and it was filthy dirty, it must have been in the attic for about 30 years or something and I thought, ‘It’s going to be rubbish, the vinyl’s gonna be hacked.’ I remember thinking it was such a shame, ’cos they were all good albums – including Kinks first pressings, Beatles records, etc – all early-60s era – but I brought them home to check and, to my surprise, when I started pulling the vinyl out, it was clean as a whistle. The first fair we did after that, we took £1,100.”
A few years ago, Oxfam in Tavistock made local headlines when they received a priceless donation of over 4,000 records.
Around the same time, their Chipping Norton counterpart attracted hundreds of vinyl lovers into their special vinyl sell-off day after receiving a generous donation of 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s records from two anonymous donors.
Rotherham’s Cancer Research UK shop saw its weekly income rise by hundreds of pounds after a donation of over 1,500 decent records and, earlier this year, one of the UK’s most prolific vinyl collectors, Gilles Peterson, reportedly donated hundreds of records from his collection to a charity shop in North London.
But Colin says that decent bulk donations of vinyl are becoming increasingly rare, as people realise what their collections are worth.
“Donations have fizzled out a bit now, so we’re scratching around a bit more, we’re not doing as well as we used to do. I think it’s because people have realised that their vinyl is valuable. We still get lots of bags of dross donated on those budget labels, some are collectable but not very many.” – Colin Richardson, Amnesty
That said, the market changes almost annually and Colin says there has been a resurgence for classical records in recent years. “The classic albums seem to be doing quite well now – some of the early classical is beginning to become quite collectable and there are dealers who wouldn’t have bothered with classical a few years ago. They’re now stocking classical.”
The British Heart Foundation, which has five high-street stores specialising in vinyl in places including Bristol, Norwich and Harrogate, has been more fortunate in this sphere, receiving regular bulk record donations to fill their shelves, reaping big rewards.
“Vinyl sales this year will hit around half a million pounds – it’s one of the fastest-growing categories sold in our shops.” – Mike Taylor, British Heart Foundation
While the figures may not be quite as high for all charities, the vinyl resurgence is giving charity shops a much-needed boost. CLIC Sargent, a charity that supports children with cancer, has noticed a huge increase in demand for original records in its vinyl shop in Bristol. “It has increased big time,” says Emilie Debbonaire, stock management executive for CLIC Sargent. “We realised that vinyl was beginning to take off again, but really didn’t realise how much. I think there is an extra pull factor when you shop with us, because you know the money will go to a good cause, too.
“People appreciate the chance to buy originals, rather than remastered copies you can pick up in the supermarket. We cater for newcomers wanting classics to build their collection and our regulars who have been collecting for years. We stock the weird and wonderful, we have knowledgeable volunteers and we have a listening station.”
Business is booming for Oxfam’s music shops too, thanks in part to a new wave of record collectors. “The age range has definitely dipped in the last few years,” notes Rob.
“It’s fascinating. There’s so much more of a market for 80s pop music now. Many of our volunteers were around to see the near-death of vinyl and they’re staggered by this. A lot of 80s pop has doubled or tripled in value now.” – Rob Milner, Oxfam
Savvy charity shops are approaching vinyl sales in the same way a record store retailer might, making sure the new stock is signposted clearly and priced fairly. When it comes to pricing, stacks of low-cost vinyl (some as cheap as 50p) complement the higher-ticket collectable records, priced according to record-collector guides, research and advice from local music lovers, with a bit knocked off for goodwill.
Emilie says CLIC Sargent, which has a specialist volunteer who grades and prices items, aims to price below sellers on eBay, Discogs and MusicStack, with Colin revealing Amnesty’s similar approach: “We go with the Rare Record Price Guide, but we’re not slavish to it – we recognise it’s only a guide. The price in there is always on the top-grade, mint, and only about 0.01% of vinyl out there is graded ‘mint’, that is factory fresh; how often do you find an album from the 60s that’s factory fresh? The majority of records are around the 50% mark.
“We look at half of what that top figure is, then knock off a bit to be competitive, because ultimately they cost us nothing. We want to make money for Amnesty, but it doesn’t have to be top dollar.” – Emilie Debbonaire, CLIC Sargent
Rob is on the same page with his Oxfam store, saying: “I’d rather sell the records and still have respect for the stock that’s 49p, than price it high and have it sitting there. There’s still a market for some of the cheaper stuff, the older easy-listening stuff or stuff in terrible condition; 15- to 20-year-old kids are buying it and using it for sampling. We get customers on low incomes who love the 49p stuff.”
Rob recently sold a Biffy Clyro 7″ for £30 – a record that was donated along with some of The National’s albums by the dad of one of their volunteers. “People are clearly being generous,” explains Rob. “It’s not like someone’s just cleared a house. Regular customers will drop off little bits here and there, stuff they can’t be bothered to eBay. The good thing is that people come in, donate stuff and pick up new stuff, too.”
Just like independent record shops, there’s a community around record shops with thriving vinyl sections. Colin says: “There’s a small circle of followers who know the collectable stuff is upstairs; they know they can see it if they ask.”
Rob does the same with Oxfam regulars he knows might like certain records. He adds: “There are people I see like clockwork every two-to-three months in the shop, including a jazz musician from the cruise ships and a Chinese guy who comes to visit his daughter at university. We get to know our customers and, depending on genre and format, there’s a few people we know we’ll mention it to and we can get the best price in the shop. A bird in the hand and all that. As long as it’s a fair price for the charity, we try and sell things to regular customers as much as possible.”
“The more expensive it gets, the less the local market is there. If we don’t feel that we can get a fair price in the shop, that’s when it goes on eBay.”
Laura K Williams