‘Do Not Sell At Any Price’ Amanda Petrusich is a brilliant reporter, cataloguer, wonderer, and my hero
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 78 record.”
Ben hops out of bed, goes to the living room, and turns on the light. He pulls something off the shelf and I put down my book and peer through the hallway as he comes back holding what looks like vinyl. “Kind of like this?” He asks.
“Wow. I think this is it. They’re made of shellac.” I tap my finger to it, it clicks differently than vinyl. It’s thicker than vinyl, cooler to the touch, and heavier.
“I have a broken one too,” he goes back to the living room and brings me a disc with a sliver missing from one side. “Here’s the other piece.” He hands me the misshapen hunk.
“Do you have any more?”
I push my book aside and follow him to the living room. My heart starts to race, the way Amanda says hers did while sorting through stacks and chasing shellac records all over America. Ben pulls out a book and turns pages of cardboard sleeves. It’s how I know they’re 78s.
“Yeah. That’s them.” I am amazed at something I’ve probably seen before. Something that’s been sitting on his shelf, and now, our shelves, for months.
There’s nothing like an education. Now that I’ve read Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records by Amanda Petrusich (my personal hero, hopeful mentor, and genius reporter and writer) I am excited to get to the south. Ben’s parents have a box of 78s saved in their garage in Greenville, South Carolina. Whenever I can afford another visit below the line, I plan on sorting through them. Who knows what I might find! There could be Paramount Records in there, I think. Or Black Patti’s! My rational mind thinks they’re likely novelties, like the 78s Ben showed me (Johnny Guarnieri Trio’s Hot Piano and Fezz Fritsche’s Oom-Pah Style). But after Petrusich’s tales, I’ve learned you never really know until you go see for yourself.
I had been following Petrusich’s writing online. She is a contracted reporter for The New Yorker, writes for The Fork, has written for The New York Times, and elsewhere. She has a previous book I will soon be reading: It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music. She wrote the 33 1/3 edition about Nick Drake’s Pink Moon and is the new 33 1/3 series editor. Recently awarded a Guggenheim Grant, a spot at the MacDowell Colony, and because I follow her on Instagram I know she hangs out with Kent Russell (which is pretty much the greatest thing ever). (Kent Russell is the author of I Am Sorry To Think I Have Raised A Timid Son, a collection of essays that is super genius. They reported the RNC in Cleveland side-by-side and recently went roller skating in NYC together. I am aware that this is a creepy fact to know about two people I do not know, but the Internet is very real. I like to imagine their conversations. They talk about books, writing, and sentence structure, because, hey, a girl can dream.) Petrusich has a dream-career and I hope it goes on forever. (I also hope I can follow in her footsteps.)
I introduced myself to Amanda Petrusich after she moderated the talk with Rob Sheffield for his new book On Bowie at WORD Bookstore in Greenpoint. (You can read about my thoughts about On Bowie here.) I went right up to her, shook her hand, and introduced myself. I promptly told her too much about my life (that I had quit my job, was unemployed, that I had submitted a 33 1/3 pitch that was rejected), told her that I want to emulate her career, and did the We’re Not Worthy Wayne’s World hand gesture (I am who I am). She was so friendly and polite, like she wanted to talk to me for hours, too. She gave me the same advice every writer of every cannon and experience has given me, but worded in the best way I’ve heard so far, “You have to make writing the best part of your day.” Thanks Amanda. Those words mean a lot to me, especially as I’ve started writing for myself again. It’s a reminder that if I want to be a writer, I must write. And in order to keep going, I must keep writing.
Weeks later, I checked out Do Not Sell At Any Price from the Brooklyn Public Library (I am no longer unemployed, but too broke for books). I hope to soon own this book. It’s the kind you want on your shelf, so you can lend it to friends. I’ve been collecting vinyl for twelve years and carting it around with me every time I move since my sophomore year of college, but, still, 78 rpm records have never found me. I’ve been aware of them, that you need a different needle and turntable in order to play them. I had no idea how big (and small) the world of 78 records is and the way Petrusich fully immersed herself in it is spectacular.
Over the corse of this book, she talks about music and records with such a loving detail. She overcomes a fear of claustrophobia to become a certified SCUBA diver in order to dig in the Milwaukee River for Paramount Records masters. She travels everywhere: from Key West to Germany, from the Blue Ridge Mountains to Frederick, Maryland to Joe Bussard’s basement (a famous, private haven of records with an enormous, rare, fantastic LP and 78 collection). Petrusich befriends men, and one woman, who spend an inordinate amount of time (their whole lives) and money (enough that an amount for purchases is rarely revealed) to collect 78s. The most compelling scenes are when she’s exploring record collectors of the past, or collectors who have passed, and what happened to their treasure troves (nine times out of ten, they end up in public archives or university libraries). She also explores what it means to collect, the mind of a collector, and the personality of the people who spend their life organizing shelves of wax and shellac. There is a difference between collectors, autism, and OCD, she explained, and even why they are 99% men. Her reporting doesn’t stop at shellac, it goes into and beyond the brain, making you wonder if you’re one of them too?
Her prose is gorgeous. There is no other way to describe it (OK, maybe perfect, innovative, surprising, charming, and funny). She has the voice of someone who has studied her craft (shout out MFA Nonfiction Programs!!!!) and who has spent a lifetime putting words in order. I am in awe of her reporting skills. I wonder what it was like to sit politely among these older white men and their records, to get them to open up in the right way. The chapters and stories are seamless, alternating between long periods of quoted material from interviews, researched material, and first hand accounts. There’s always a mention of what genre of food they were eating (sandwiches, Indian food, scrambled eggs, hash browns, sweat tea, pho, hummus and crackers, and the beverage of choice: usually bourbon). Petrusich not only has the ability to get people to open up to her (also, I guess people do love talking about their record collection. I know I do.) but she can organize it on the page, flowing clearly from thought to thought into story and scene, with humor and wonder. She is always asking questions, not only to her subjects, but to herself. What does this mean? Do I even care anymore? Petrusich sums up the end of her chapter, or story, with one great line that not only shines a light on what we just learned, but it also moves the reader forward.
On the page, Petrusich is exploring what it means to be a super-fan of something that will never love you back. She wonders (and often times finds out) what it’s like to love records in such a specific manner. She explores what it’s like to live on the outside edge of the world, finding that collectors of the past had nothing else in their life other than records–no lovers, hardly any family, friends, or anything else in their homes (but filth).
Most of the collectors she travels with, interviews, and befriends listen to modern music. (79 rpm records were stopped being made in 1960, so their genres are anything but modern.) It’s a book that makes me think about how large the world is, how large the world of music is, and how there is never enough time to listen to everything. The idea that humans are a) alive and b) on earth for such a small fraction of Earth’s existence is still something I’m trying to wrap my head around. But this book allows you to see it in real time, to interact with people who spend their entire life doing one thing. They are happy in their own world, don’t care how crazy it may seem to outsiders, and they are willing (usually) to share their shellac and success with others.
The way Petrusich writes about listening to music is unlike any other thing I’ve read about music (and “tbqh” I have spent my fractal short life reading, likely, 80% about music and everything attached to its idea). She makes me want to listen to things found by other people, to explore genres I didn’t know existed, and to continue to challenge my sonic obsessions in new ways. Like, what if I spent a predetermined amount of time listening to music selected by other people? Petrusich makes me want to rent a car and drive all over America and talk to people to find out what their stories are, what are their favorite songs, what do those songs mean to them? (And maybe face my fear of fish and become SCUBA certified with Ben, an amateur marine biologist dying to afford a SCUBA license).
The best part about Do Not Sell At Any Price (there are many “best parts” to this book) is Petrusich’s ability to question and to change her mind. At first she wonders whether or not what she’s doing is crazy, what other people might think of her, and then in the end, doesn’t care what anyone else sees in it. She wonders whether or not what other people do is valuable. Petrusich asks and talks about what music is on another level, one that is free of all rules and regulations. The page allows her to fly above us all, with startling prose and a inventory of life and music I didn’t know possible.
Do Not Sell At Any Price is also completely unlike any other music book I’ve found or read. It’s about something that is completely unlike anything else in the world–78 rpm records! Do Not Sell At Any Price is an interesting read for music freaks, for people interested in American History, in collecting, or in trivia. The depth at which it’s reported, cataloged, and personalized inspires me to try and write something that could maybe one day sit on the shelf next to it.
Amanda Petrusich, I wish I could ask you a million questions about how and why you wrote this book. I want to know everything it took you, every way it spirals out of and into control in person and on the page. If you’re reading this, it’s not too late (to be my mentor). Also, I might have some cool 78s, when I finally get to South Carolina, to ask you about because God knows I need an expert and you are exactly that.