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The mystery of the rare vinyl

21 April 08 23:06 GMT

By Bob Chaundy

It used to be the collector's dream - charity shops where ill-informed staff sold first editions and rare records for pennies. But one lucky Oxfam shop's handling of a major donation shows how things have changed.

It was a quiet afternoon in the Oxfam Shop in Great Yarmouth in the autumn of 2005. Most days are quiet in Great Yarmouth out of season.

This day, however, was to prove a rare exception. In walked a man, in his 50s, with boxes containing between two and three hundred vinyl records.

He explained that he had come up to Norfolk from London to clear the house of his brother who had lived locally but had just died. The man was too upset to go through his brother's record collection in detail and wanted Oxfam to take it off his hands. The shop duly obliged.

Normally, with such a large donation, charity shops like to write to the donor to thank them formally for their gift. However, the man in question wouldn't give his name.

There was wild speculation - later established to be totally unfounded - that part of John Peel's vast record collection had begun seeping into the open market. He'd died the previous year and lived nearby.

The records were mainly of '60s and '70s rock - The Who, Stones, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Medicine Head, The Moody Blues and so on. Many were in mint condition.

Rural backwater

There is not much call for such fare in Yarmouth. It just so happened that a volunteer there, Jenny Newton, was about to take over as manager of the Oxfam shop in nearby Stowmarket.

Stowmarket is a small, sleepy rural Suffolk backwater. Judging by comments on some of the websites devoted to it, its charity shops are better than its regular ones - and there are four in its main street. But the town's on the commuter route to London and has lots of people on dual incomes.

Local record dealer Mark Copeland finds the area a rich source of material.

"A lot of professional people who bought records in the '60s and '70s moved to Suffolk from London and the south-east because it was cheap. Now many of them have replaced their old LPs with CDs."

But Copeland finds fewer collectibles in charity shops these days. Things have changed.

One of the reasons Newton took the new record collection with her to Stowmarket was because it had an internet connection, something that has stopped charity shops having their treasures carted off for nearly nothing by wily collectors.

"We had an internet connection here which Yarmouth didn't have", she said. "It meant we could research the value of certain of the records more quickly and efficiently. Few Oxfam shops did this then. In a way, we were trailblazing."

While she specialises mainly in books, Jenny Newton's partner and fellow volunteer, Terry Cushion, took it upon himself to look after the new record donation.

Cushion has built up an enviable personal collection of 20th Century classical music and knows where to research rarity and value.

Vinyl collectors are on the look out for all manner of features aside from the music itself. There are the first pressings or "white labels", textured sleeves, inserts, posters, signed copies, early stereo or rare mono recordings. In days gone by few charity shop staff would have been switched on to this.

Cushion understood the importance of the matrix numbers cut on to the vinyl run-out at the end of the record. These can offer clues as to rarity. One record in the collection, by Mott the Hoople, caught his eye.

"I first noticed it didn't have any banding - that is the spaces you normally get between the tracks.

"Then I discovered it was what they call a 'mispressing', in that the tracks didn't correspond with what the sleeve said they should be. Later I found out that some of the songs had alternative mixes. I sold it on eBay for £160."

Theft problem

Using internet auction sites to sell rarer items has become the way of doing business for modern charity shops.

In Stowmarket, only 2% of the records are sold online, but they provide 30% of the takings. The same goes for books. A first edition Dick Francis novel recently fetched £700 after being advertised on the web.

"You don't get the fantastic bargains you used to at Oxfam," says Jenny Newton. "We've got much cleverer at spotting valuable things before the dealers get them and this batch of records got us going."

If any record or book is suspected of having a rarity value, they're not put on show - theft is one of the biggest headaches, even in a charity shop.

Stowmarket is a good example of how such a shop can raise its game.

"We like to give individual shop managers the autonomy to develop sales in the best way they can for their area," says Stuart Foulkes, from Oxfam head office.

"Stowmarket is a good example of how things have changed. We've been working with eBay for a number of years now, especially when we're donated unusual items such as overseas holidays, cars, even speedboats."

Last year Oxfam became the first charity to launch an online shop, on which individual stores can upload photographs of unusual items for sale to a wider market.

Though Oxfam's policy is to accept everything, the likes of Manuel and his Music of the Mountains or The James Last Orchestra are now consigned to the rubbish bin in Stowmarket.

Nowadays, Oxfam's national bill for waste disposal for its 850 outlets exceeds £1 million. The Stowmarket shop's improved quality merchandise has resulted in like attracting like.

Magic

It recently received another gift of 200 rock discs from the 1970s that included an original issue of The Who's My Generation worth £100. It currently has 500 LPs in the shop, with another 200 held back to be researched.

These records, when sold, are now being enjoyed not only by the good burghers of Suffolk, but also by collectors all over the world.

And while charity shops have become a little less magical for those same collectors, the good causes are benefiting from an increase in knowledge.


Send us your comments using the form below.

I used to go charity shopping for records around Chelsea and the Kings Road when I lived in London. One day I found a massive stash of classic 70s roots reggae, including Burning Spear and U-Roy amongst others. At 50p per vinyl record I snaffled the lot. I was delighted to discover that my Jamaican imprint of Burning Spear's 'Marcus Garvey' - complete with side a sticker on side b and vice versa - is worth between £75 and £120! There's gems to be had and no mistake.
Rob Shaw, Hebden Bridge, UK

I find this sort of thing really interesting! My Dad moved to New Zealand a couple of years ago and left behind some of his LP's from the 70's. Lots of Rock like the music talked about above. Reading this article has spurred me on to get them looked at to see if there is any value!
Alex, Sowerby Bridge, Halifax, West Yorkshire

I hate to say this but as a lifelong record collector I feel that Oxfam have along with eBay helped destroyed the record collecting market, removing the fun and thrill of the chase.

Their biggest problem is overpricing. It appears each shop has a Record collectors price guide and whenever a record comes in they mark it to whatever price is given in the guide. What they fail to remember is the price in the guide is given for records in mint condition...

Unfortunately, a lot of vinyl in not very good condition is being marked up at the price of mint items. A classic example I saw once was the Rolling Stones first album. It was for sale at £100. It was in terrible condition and unplayable. It is worth that price in perfect condition but in that state its only worth about a fiver. It was in the shop for well over a year because nobody was stupid enough to waste money on it. Right now in Oxfam on Penny Lane is a copy of a Joe Cocker album priced at £30. Yes, original copies are worth that, but this copy in question is a budget price reissue not even worth a fiver... The whole fun of record collecting was rummaging through piles and discovering something unique and rare. Not any more because these are spotted and segregated immediately and dumb price tags attached.
Baz Garrod, Liverpool

I have an Elvis 78 which I bought to play on one of my wind up gramophones. I had no intention of it being an investment, but out of curiosity I looked on eBay to see how much it might be worth. Answer: Not very much at all!
Richard Bagnall, Cambridge, UK

I've noticed that charity shops have become better at spotting the more valuable items in recent years, but they still throw away some of the things which I would find interesting, as I know from volunteering in them.
G Matthews, Spalding, UK

I don't bother with charity shops any more, they used to be places you could find a bargain but now they sell rubbish for more than you could buy it new. On the other hand the skip outside our BHF charity shop sometimes has some really good stuff in it. I sold a book out of there on eBay for £12 to an Australian who also paid £12 postage. And found a photograph that is now in a museum.
Nik, Exeter

I congratulate Oxfam (& other charities) on their fund raising through eBay etc and their wise use of internet to obtain best value, but am saddened to hear that some items are consigned straight to the dump. If not Oxfam where would someone go to get a second hand James Last record (not that I would want one), Surely, if even Oxfam are dumping them in the bin, in time even this middle of the road, mass produced, vinyl shall be collectors items or perhaps extinct?
KM, Northampton

Unfortunately, Oxfam have upset a lot of people by some of their selling methods in their High Street bookshops. They sometimes charge excessive amounts for donated goods (who is going to pay £3 for a video?) but often fail to check even the superficial quality (OK we don't expect them to play each video but a quick look will at least reveal that the right item is in the correct box and has a tape inside!) I've sometimes bought old books which then turn out to have pages missing or are defaced in some way. Am I expected to physically inspect each item all the way through before I buy it? I've never had this problem with a real bookshop!
Patricia, Chelmsford

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