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September 29. 2012 8:13PM

Some vinyl album fans say it's all about sound quality, but for others, it's the artwork


Richard Gesner sorts albums at his record store, Music Connection in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

Bob Merrill has his hands full of memories made of vinyl.

The Doors. The Rolling Stones. Don Maclean. Nick Derringer. Merrill has a stack of records purchased at a show at the Holiday Inn in Nashua. He's just one of hundreds of collectors rifling through the sales bins looking for a lost treasure or a piece of their own past.

“These are all records I used to listen to that were my older brother's when he was a teenager, around the Vietnam era. These are replacing ones I had when I was a kid,” says Merrill, 46, of Auburn. “It's nice to see the amount of people here. More events like this would be nice. It's a fun morning.”

While digital music, iPods and CDs dominate the modern musical landscape, there still are many people who enjoy collecting and listening to vinyl records. Shows such as the one in Nashua and stores such as Music Connection on South Willow Street in Manchester and Pitchfork Records on Main Street in Concord keep collectors happy.

Some enthusiasts have modest collections of a few hundred records. Others, such as Nashua's Rodney Blais, have considerably more.

“I have around 10,000 records,” said Blais, 47. “ I've been collecting since I was around 16 years old. I used to go to Boston and go to the record basements in Cambridge back in the day when you could buy an album for a buck or 50 cents.”

Many used records can be had for as little as a dollar or two today, depending on condition and popularity. Rare or still-sealed older records can fetch considerably more. Classic rock is the most popular genre by far.

“The Beatles are number one. Pink Floyd number two. Led Zeppelin number three. Elvis is about number 15. I sell more of his 45s than LPs,” said Richard Gesner, owner or Music Connection, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in June. “Easy listening doesn't sell at all. I keep it in the back, but if you want Mantovani, I'll go get him for you.”

The nostalgia factor is a major draw for many collectors, including Merrill.

“Music has always been part of my life. (The records) add up. I just started (collecting) again a year ago, and I'm probably up to 200 now,” Merrill said. “You have them and you play them. The (ones I had as a kid) got played to death. A pop here and there is fine; you can deal with it because overall the sound is so much better than digitally re-mastered CDs.”

The sound quality of vinyl records is a major plus to many collectors. Digital music is compressed and doesn't sound as crisp and clean as vinyl.

“It's as close to the original recording as you're going to get. For me the sound quality is a lot better,” vinyl advocate Merrill said. “You've got to have a good album surface, a good needle and a good stereo to play them. You're not talking a Mickey Mouse record player anymore.”

Many collectors have older turntables that they've kept in working order, but new players are available for as little as $80 all the way up to several hundred dollars for a high-end system.

And, believe it or not, new records are still being made, as well. A thicker, higher quality vinyl is used now for re-issued older albums or limited-release editions of new music.

“They come out now on 180- and 200-gram vinyl, and the sound is even better than regular vinyl,” Gesner said. “That's what people seem to be asking for all the time. Now they even put a CD with a new album. They include it for free.”

Vinyl records also have more tangible benefits, such as liner notes, lyrics and pictures that with CDs are greatly reduced in size or not included at all.

“You don't get the full display and the lyrics ... I mean, you might get them with a CD, but even with glasses you still need a magnifying glass to read them,” Merrill said. “With (a record jacket), you can open it up and read it.”

For some collectors, the packaging is everything, and the music is an afterthought.

“I was in a place in Nashua looking through the dollar albums, and I found one by a guy who used to work around here called Dwight Davis and the Linemen. And, no offense, but it was the ugliest album cover I ever saw,” said Paddy McKillop, 47, of Milford. “I had to buy it. Based on that, I kept seeing all these (bad) album covers. They're little works of art.”

McKillop said he doesn't even listen to all the albums he buys. He just wants to collect the worst covers he can find, much to his wife's chagrin.

“The worst, the wackiest, the weirdest stuff that ever got put out — that's what I'm looking for. I take them home, I pay more for the frame than the album, I put them on the wall, and it drives the wife nuts,” he said. “There's certain artists that she hates. She hates Leo Sayer, so I have to buy every Leo Sayer album I can find.”

The collectable nature of the format also means that rare items are highly sought. Blais has a hard-to-find copy of the Beatles' 1966 “Yesterday and Today” album jacket, often referred to as the “butcher” cover for its controversial initial image that was later covered over with alternate artwork.

“When it first came out, it had the Beatles with white coats and baby mannequins and beef on them, and I guess it got recalled and they put on another cover,” Blais said. “You find people steaming the cover to get to the original one. I have that one hanging in my house.”

Record collecting isn't limited to a certain age group, either. Teenagers are collectors, as well, and often have musical tastes you might not expect.

“It's amazing how many of them want jazz LPs,” Gesner said of his teen customers. “They first started coming in, and I was blown away that 17-, 18-year-old kids want John Coltrane, Miles Davis. Now, I'm used to it.”

And the younger generation's involvement in collecting means that, though records aren't likely to return as the primary musical format, they're not going to die out, either.

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Ian Clark may be reached at iclark@unionleader.com.


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