The cheap box …

Nearly every secondhand vinyl store has a 20p box. Except that they might call it the 50p box, the 30p box, or the 25p box. Some have a 20p / six for a pound box. One has a 20p each / ten for a pound box, a sign of seriously wanting to shift stock. 

Even Oxfam, given a glut, have been known to put ‘All singles 29p’ signs up, or in the next town on the same day, ‘All singles for 49p’ signs, or in a leafier more prosperous town, ‘All singles 99p.’

This will happen with seriously uncollectable LPs on budget labels too, though the bargain in the middle might just be the Top of The Pops budget cover version albums … they’re collected purely for the sleeves.

Oxfam love the nine in prices, aware that most people feel obliged to donate the change. A notable feature a decade ago was that most of the large charity shop chains changed their 20p / 25p / 29p box to 50p. It happened simultaneously too. For a lot of the singles, 50p is too much. Then within weeks, some switched to 75p or 79p. By that autumn, several were asking a pound, or 99p, for battered singles. Someone has to pay for the new polished wood and bright lighting now favoured by the major charities.

Many dealers buy from house clearances and at £5 to £10 for a cardboard box full. A standard wine box, two thirds full (therefore liftable) will be around two hundred singles or nearly one hundred LPs, so that’s around two and a half pence to five pence each. Most shops will trawl through, select out the stuff that looks collectable and put it in their main racks, the rest ends up as rubbish. One shop told me he dropped around 400 singles regularly on the local hospice, who cleared them through pretty fast at 10p to 20p each (depending on area).

The 20p box or shelf or room or in one shop, whole upstairs floor, is where the bargains are to be found. Few stores are experts on all of rock and roll, soul, Northern soul, metal, reggae, 60s, 50s, punk, two-tone, country, easy listening, psychedelia and jazz. 

In the last few years, soul, Northern soul and punk are the categories that get most attention. So other stuff will be missed. The alternative is the store owner going through two hundred singles checking each against the Rare Record Price Guide which is too time-consuming. Shops work on broad areas for investigation … Tamla, London-American, Merseybeat will get looked at to check the quality. Stuff in paper company sleeves is more likely to be of interest than stuff in later picture sleeves. But early picture sleeves are added value. 

Not much post-1982 is that interesting, except for reissues, Madonna, soul or reggae. Things end up in the 20p box for personal reasons. I picked a near-mint first Peter, Paul & Mary EP out of the 20p box in a shop I knew and liked. I already had one, so could afford to be honest.
‘You do know this is worth about a fiver mint?’
‘Yes,’ said the owner, ‘But I can’t stand Peter, Paul and Mary, so it’s in the 20p box. If you look further there are some collectable Joan Baez and Pete Seeger EPs in there too.’

And there were. I bought the lot.

After the early 80s, collectors’ interest declines. Why? Most classic soul had already been issued, punk had just passed, bands were more interested in albums? That’s all true, but more importantly there’s less reason to collect the discs. 

They were in stereo, so didn’t have a different mix to the LP, they were just a little bit shorter. By the mid-eighties many were digitally recorded in the studio, so that ephemeral whiff of analogue sound isn’t relevant any more. The CD had become the reference version.  In 1992 /3 the official charts reference the catalogue numbers for CD singles, not 45s. That’s why crisp, clean, well looked-after 45s in picture sleeves from the 1980s and 1990s are deemed less collectable. Inside the picture sleeve is yet another horrible metallic injection-moulded plastic label too.

On the other hand, New Kids on the Block (an ultimate 20p band for ten years) reunited to tour in 2008. Late twenty-somethings all over the land bought tickets. My daughter had a large box of original memorabilia in the attic (I’d told her to put it away fifteen years earlier and look at it again later in life.) She had CDs and CD singles. I soon found a clutch of pristine 20p 122 inch singles and 45s to add to them. They became collectable by people without turntables. The sleeves and centre labels are better than the CD singles.

Other things just have great covers which capture an era. Sometimes it’s just a punt. An original Da Doo Ron Ron for 20p? Yes, but it was dusty, dull and lightly scratched. Sometimes that’s a record for the bin. Sometimes it plays surprisingly well (and the Wall of Sound obscures a lot of hiss).

Then leafing through a charity shop box of Val Doonican, Englebert Humperdink and Ken Dodd singles, I found a pristine original light blue Dock of The Bay by Otis Redding on Stax. Clearly the whole lot were one donation, but this middle of the road fan had taken a fancy to just that one great hit track. In another chuck out box, there were three very clean copies of Michael Holliday’s She Was Only Seventeen / The Gay Vagabond. Why three? Did the A side inspire I Saw Her Standing There? Unlikely.

Couldn’t the singer decide between pursuing teenage girls on side A and being a gay vagabond on side B? All had immaculate original sleeves.

I watch other browsers. As the years go by, a greater percentage of every cheap box is total rubbish. You can tell by the time you’ve flicked through the first dozen. I’m not alone. We all know it after the first few.

The browser wins when you collect something that isn’t fashionable … yet. Or because you know more. While doing this book it’s been helpful to browse large numbers of singles.  Shops know I’m writing about sleeves and that I would buy crap with decent sleeves on. After a while, some started grabbing the stuff I wanted to buy from the 20p section, and saying ‘A really clean Kama Sutra sleeve on a 1980s Cliff single? That’s got to be worth a quid to you on its own.’