Cashing in your CDs

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.)

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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