A Prayer for a Flooded Record Collection

My friend Mark Pisani lost tons of records while he was on vacation.  His loss affected me as well.

Spin back to college.  Mark and I attended Hamilton College, and graduated together.  We were both part of the “Young Turks” who changed the college radio station, WHCL, from an afterthought to a broadcast powerhouse.

Mark’s musical tastes differed from mine – he was an aficionado of ska and reggae and rock steady and new wave; I preferred R&B and modern hits and imported stuff that could sound like it came off of a Top 40 station in Toronto or Melbourne or Auckland.  Still, there was mutual respect between us, he had his “Dead at the Controls” radio slot on Saturday nights, while I took care of the “Nightowl Radio Show” on Friday nights.

After graduation, we kept in touch once in a while, saw each other at college reunions and record shows and such, and even recently re-connected via Facebook.

But here’s what happend, and here’s where the tragedy occurred.  Mark was on vacation overseas.  His records were stored in a basement.  While he was gone, a torrential rainstorm dumped four inches of rain in one hour in his neighborhood.  His basement sump pumps were overwhelmed and essentially gave up.  Making matters worse – Mark’s house was next to a culvert, which essentially overflowed as well, with the runoff pouring into his basement.

When he returned from his vacation, a horrifying sight greeted him – hundreds of flood-damaged records, now being attacked by mold and mildew and rot.  His collection of rare vinyl – which apparently included a first edition Velvet Underground and Nico LP with an unpeeled banana sticker – were sadly relegated to a dumpster.

And somewhere in that dark night, all the record collectors who read this post are cringing in terror, thinking oh my God that could have been me.

You know what, it can happen to all of us.  Mark did nothing wrong or neglectful with his record collection; he just had a very unfortunate circumstance.  How many of us have lost our own treasures to a flooded basement?  It happens.

At one point in my life, my record collection numbered maybe 7,000 45’s and 2,000 LP’s.  Not to mention 78’s and Edison Diamond Discs and a whole slew of other musical formats.  And that does include 8-track tapes.

Several years ago, I started thinning out the herd, so to speak.  I wasn’t writing for Goldmine any more, and after two successful record collector’s guides, I wasn’t planning on authoring a third edition.  So as far as I was concerned, it was time to let the collection go.

Well, not everything.  But enough of it.

Some of my rare records, including my World War II V-Discs and my Edison Diamond Discs, were donated to Hamilton College’s music library.  I even gave the library my working Edison Diamond Disc phonograph.  Many of my vocal harmony records were shipped off to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Pa.  I’ve held yard sales to thin out some more of the herd.  I’ve shipped some off through eBay.  And at least twice a month, I take a box of LP’s and/or 45’s over to Goodwill, so that the sale of those records can benefit Goodwill’s charity programs.

See… what happened to Mark almost happened to me.

It’s around 1997 or 1998, and I’m visiting my grandmother in Boston.  At the time, she lived near the VFW Parkway, in a nice sunny section of West Roxbury.  At the time my wife and I visited her, we took her to a nice restaurant and ran some errands for her.  While we were gone, a coastal storm tore through Massachusetts, dumping rain in sheets.

The VFW Parkway and its surrounding neighborhoods are on a flood plain.  Most of the homes have sump pumps and dehumidifiers to keep flooding at bay, but when a gully-washer tears through, well there’s nothing you can really do.

And we found that out quickly upon returning to my grandmother’s house.  The basement looked like an inground swimming pool.  I actually risked life and limb (and electrocution) trying to get to the dehumidifier and unplug it.  Dozens of antiques and collectibles that were stored in my grandmother’s basement – including boxes and boxes of my old sports trading cards – were destroyed.  Family carousel slides of photographs my grandmother took when she visited Europe were destroyed as well.  Insurance covered a lot of the damage, but you just can’t replace memories or collectibles with a check.

Let me say this.  The reason I’m clearing out my record collection – a collection that actually began in the 1970’s and continued up to today – is that I would rather that the treasures I held onto for so many years will eventually provide enjoyment for a new generation of music fans.

That, and I don’t want to go through the emotional wrench of taking the collection that I worked so hard to assemble, end up in a soggy dumpster.