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When Mark Carter examines a used CD, he does so with the flaw-detecting acumen of a jeweler. His thumb and forefinger clasp the disc's rim, and he tilts the mirror side of the CD back and forth so that it reflects a revealing sea of light. It's literally held to the highest scrutiny. CD Warehouse, whose West County location Carter manages, only buys discs that are in flawless condition, then sells them for less than the overinflated price of new CDs. If you pay list price, five CDs could set you back a nasty $100. Compare that with five used, at maybe $60, tops, and it's little wonder that used CDs have caught on like a hit song.
"I think that most people, if they can get the new Smash Mouth for $8.99 vs. $12.99 or $13.99," says Carter, "most people are going to do that."
Although used vinyl has been sold for many years, the idea of used CDs has been a touchy one for the big record labels. Here they thought they had the perfect new format, and they almost did. They could sell us our favorite albums all over again, at twice the price. But the format's perfection had a built-in paradox, a sleeping serpent ready to recoil and bite the record companies: CDs, forever virginal in their spinning lives because they remain untouched, suffer no audible wear. Despite snooty controversy about the format's sound and resilience, if treated well, CDs at least theoretically retain their sonic value indefinitely. Therefore a secondary market was inevitable. Didn't the labels think ahead?
Initially, some played rough with retailers who sold used discs, often refusing to sell them new ones. But with public demand being the loudest song of all, used CDs have not only survived but flourished. "I've talked to a lot of record labels," says Carter, "and most of them really aren't concerned. I know a couple of the major labels who don't really like it but they'll service the stores, to a degree."
Occasionally, though, it's the customer who shows a distrust of used discs. "There's like a fear," acknowledges Carter. ""Ooh, it's pre-owned CD!' They wouldn't think twice about buying a used car, but there's a real reluctance in buying a used CD." He pauses. "If the place is worth its salt, it's going to guarantee that used CD."
Some salt may counteract the blandness out there, where too many Hootie and Alanis Morissette albums have come back to haunt the bins. But apart from even the Internet revolution, this is a new era of music retailing, one in which used and new CDs share retail turf. Some stores, such as Streetside and the newly opened Wherehouse Music, keep their used and new CDs in separate sections, as if by religious denomination. Others, like Vintage Vinyl, have an alluring assemblage wherein new and used CDs are shuffled on the racks like a deck of cards. They're alphabetically filed, but that's it.
When it's time to trade or sell your unwanted CDs, most retailers will offer more in store credit than cash (or, sometimes, credit only). Carter doesn't believe in assigning dual values to a disc, insisting it's worth what it's worth. "You can bring your CD to a pawn shop," he points out. "You're not going to get anything for it, hardly, but you can take it there. Or you can take it to, let's say, Store A, and get a minor amount of cash value, maybe 50 cents more in trade. Or you can bring it to somebody who has the lock on this, who knows how to handle this, and get what your CD's actually worth."
As a longtime music collector, I've visited the buying counters of most local record stores on many occasions. Vintage Vinyl and Sound Warehouse pay an average of $3 or $4 for decent titles, sometimes more. They consult the computer, but they don't let it push them around. The employees are music fans; their passion and knowledge intertwine like dancers in an erotic ballet. Selling at Streetside can be a little trickier, because any sign of your CD's being a promo (stamped or punched through) entails automatic rejection.
This means, however, that instead of their used-CD section's being a junkyard of done-hit wonders, where copies of Green Day's Dookie sit rotting in the racks like yesterday's chart meat, there's a leanness and a serendipitous variety in Streetside's used section. It's like picking strawberries.
A new operation in town has some fresh produce of its own. The California chain Wherehouse Music (employees of CD Warehouse grumble that the similar name has confused customers) has bought out the remaining Blockbuster Music stores. For the first time ever, St. Louis has a music retailer whose airport-gate roominess devotes about half its space solely to used CDs. Will it fly? Nostalgic shoppers can trace the Hampton Avenue location of Wherehouse Music back to its days as Peaches, the store whose name was a fuzzy analogy for vinyl. (Albums could be neatly stored in the faux peach crates that the old chain sold by the truckload they'd even hammer one together for you.)