TRADE SECRETS

Cashing in your CDs

St. Louis' history of music retailers — many of them are history — reads like a revolution. With typical corporate shortsightedness, Blockbuster Music came in like gangbusters and pretty much wiped out MusicVision, which was the biggest new nonmall chain since Streetside. Blockbuster's listening bars, at which you could hear any part of any CD, made Streetside's clunky "I Station" booths instantly obsolete. Thing is, after people auditioned their CDs at Blockbuster, they'd go down the street and buy them at Best Buy for less — or, better yet, pick them up used. Blockbuster Music became a retail Titanic thanks to the weight of its bad ideas, like selling books ... and jewelry. The iceberg it struck was the cold, hard reality that it didn't carry used CDs (doesn't its corporate brother sell used videos?).

Smart upstarts like CD Warehouse found an immediate niche. Now, in Wherehouse Music, a challenger for CD Warehouse's used-disc throne has arrived. And yes, they want to buy your used CDs. At a price.

"The more we have in stock, the less you're going to get for it," says Amy Smith of Wherehouse Music. "The computer is going to tell me how much to give somebody. Then I kind of use that as a base price and go from that. There are certain things not in my system that I'll go ahead and buy, just because I know I'll sell it." Hmm.

To give this new operation a whirl, I brought in Press to Play by Paul McCartney, Heaven Tonight by Cheap Trick, two Juliana Hatfield albums, a budget '60s-hits compilation, a Japanese import of Trevor Rabin and a British Tubes import. All were in excellent condition. (Condition is the first thing the clerk verifies; then a manager must approve the sale.) The clerk, apparently new at buying CDs, seemed a bit unsure during the process. After some jostling with the computer, she offered me $1 apiece for all but Hatfield's Become What You Are, for which she offered me $2, and the imports, which she passed on completely, because the computer failed to verify their existence. It's my belief that the Rabin album would have sold quickly — the guy was in Yes, after all, and the album was a "St. Louis Classic." And someone certainly would have bought that Tubes disc (title forgotten) sooner or later.

At the very least, the one-of-a-kind value of the rejected CDs would have added seasoning to the store, transcending their retail value. You can buy discs in bulk, but you must have a few oddball items mixed in to attract the collectors, those guided by a sort of endless treasure map of wish-list wanderlust. Incidentally, Wherehouse Music has an interesting program in which, on Tuesdays, you can trade five "undamaged full-length CDs in their original packaging" for any one brand-new CD priced at $17.99 or less.

Smith says old Blockbuster customers are happy that the store is selling used discs. "We've been telling people this was coming," she says. Wherehouse Music has the usual you'd-have-to-shovel-them-out quantities of faceless big sellers, but there are terrific buys — mainly in jazz and easy listening — such as $1.99 for Capitol Sings Rogers and Hart (24 great tracks). And despite the store's not buying many imports, you'll find a few overseas knickknacks mixed in the morass of "product." The average price is around $8.99, they say, though many CDs are $6.99. Others, like gold discs, are about twice as much. The corporate touch means they'll probably have what you're looking for, but it could be like looking for a needle — make that a laser — in a haystack.

Of course, looking can be half the fun. For his part, CD Warehouse's Carter is happy giving the people what they want — and buying what they don't. "I rely on the distributors to get my new stuff. I rely on the public to get my used stuff," he says with a just-that-simple complacency. And never quite knowing what CDs will come through the door can be as thrilling as it is frustrating. "People will bring in stuff that's been out of print for years," he relates "that you can't find anywhere, that Goldmine magazine can't get you or you can't find on eBay — somebody's setting that on your counter. There's always going to be something that you're going to see, that's like, "Wow, I don't believe I'm seeing that.' And you know that as soon as you put it out, you're going to make somebody's day."

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