While others around me are transitioning from CD to iPod, I'm just now going from cassettes to CDs. Since the millennium, many friends of mine have made soft-yet-pointed jabs at me for my large collection of Brit-pop and indie-rock tapes. But I held onto the format for a couple of reasons: They were cheaper than CDs, and I only had a cassette player in my car.
My reluctance to accept the more modern formats may seem foolish, but I had two strong reasons:
1. I had a shitload of records and tapes.
2. I was scarred by the memory of Beta, i.e., I knew that CDs would come along and then be replaced by something and then that would be replaced by something else and so on—it was a scam by the entertainment industry to get us to spend more money.
On top of all that, you could say I'm a nostalgic sap, looking back on the days when we'd make mix TAPES for our crushes.
Recently, however, I gave myself a present and had a CD player (AM/FM/CD!) put into my Toyota Tercel. Now, instead of reliving the '90s (Superchunk, Spinanes, Pavement) or the '80s (Go-Betweens, Robyn Hitchcock, the Fall), I can listen to current bands! No longer must I feel like a dweeb—parked in the 7-Eleven parking lot, Slurpee in my hand, mouthful of corn dog—as I rummaged through the cracked, dusty tape cases in my glove box looking for that Human League EP-on-cassette. No one can mistake me for an out-of-touch thirtysomething anymore.
So I decided this: I'm going to pull out my boxes of cassettes and sell them all. But who buys these things anymore? Poor saps with tape players in their cars? Old street punks still getting drunk to Black Flag (I admit, I had five of their tapes)? Single moms who never get sick of Cameo and Prince (OK, I had those, too. Shut up.)? I lurked around a few of the many Portland record—I mean, CD stores. Some didn't even sell cassettes. One had them marked down to a dollar each.
I eventually went to Ozone UK, which specialized in Brit-pop and indie rock. I left the treasure chest of about 100 tapes in my car while I cased their existing stock. I wanted to make sure my selection was superior, enticing, original.
I was hoping to see one of the two managers I know. I was prepared to give them my rehearsed spiel: "Hey, do you guys buy cassettes any more? Because uh, well, this is sort of embarrassing, but I finally got a CD player in my car and I've decided to sell all my tapes. It's actually a really good selection. If you don't buy them anymore, that's cool. Please excuse me for being a dork."
They weren't there. I wasn't about to get laughed at by record-store workers I didn't know. Instead, I pretended to look for something. There were only three other customers in the store. I started to worry that they'd ask me what I was looking for.
As happens so often in record stores, my mind went blank trying to think of something I wanted to look at. Like someone escaping a sniper, I zig-zagged around the store aimlessly until I found the cassettes, buried in some corner like an erotica section at a bookstore. There I found the usual suspects: the Outfield, Kate Bush, the Hothouse Flowers. They were priced from one to four dollars. A small selection, no more than 50. My stash kicked ass over this one. I tried to decipher which of the two male employees was the less jaded one to approach. But just as the strains of the last Blur album came over the speakers, something came over me and I left the store sheepishly.
I awoke the next morning determined to face the Ozone UK employees. If I went in shortly after they opened the store, before they'd had their second lattes, maybe they'd still be sleepy and not as judgmental as I feared them to be. Again, I kept my box in the car and went in first. Damn—the same two employees. "Can I help you find something?" the one behind the counter asked.
The spiel came out, clean and smooth like a salesman. He seemed nice enough, but looked a little puzzled. "Hey, Derek, do we still buy cassettes?" he yelled over to the guy putting out CDs. There were two other customers at this time, and I felt like the guy at the grocery when the cashier says over the intercom, "Price check on Rid shampoo, that's a price check on Rid crab shampoo." I stepped a little to the side and pretended to look at 7-inch singles so the other customers wouldn't mock me.
"It depends on what they are," was Derek's answer.
"It's good stuff," I stammered like a desperate drug dealer. "Mostly Brit-pop and indie rock."
"Mostly Brit-pop and indie rock," the counter guy yelled over to his partner.
"Bring them in. Let's look," Derek said.
I went outside and quickly surveyed the box in the passenger seat of my car. I wrangled out a few glaring embarrassments (The Teletubbies Album, Best of John Denver) and threw them in the trunk. I nonchalantly took them in, holding the box high so other customers wouldn't see the contents. The counter guy actually looked impressed. "Good stuff," he sniffed. At that moment, I earned the right to know his name. "I'm Stephen, by the way," he said.
"Yeah, you know, I just never listen to tapes at home or anything, so I figure why keep them," I said. "There're actually a few newer things in there. Before I got a CD player in my car, I still listened to a lot of my cassettes."
"Wow. Do you drive a lot?" he asked seriously.
I wasn't sure how to answer him. Do I look like a trucker or something? I pictured myself driving my Tercel around the Pacific Northwest endlessly, listening to Uncle Tupelo and selling something from my trunk. Firewood? Magazine subscriptions? Strawberries?
Derek came over and offered a quick, approving nod at the box before grabbing another armload of CDs to stock. "What's this Quasi thing?" Stephen asked.
"Oh yeah, that might be worth something. It's a demo they made when they first started. I think it was just sold at shows," I said proudly. "There's probably some long-lost Quasi songs on there."
He fished out a Butterglory cassette. "I once drove four hours to see these guys," he said, and I sensed that unmistakable pull of musical bonding happening between the two of us.
"Yeah, I saw them once at the Blackbird," I countered. I failed to mention that I also wrote a set list for them that night, half as a joke and half as a way to "request" my favorite Butterglory hits. But the singer looked at me weird when I gave it to him before their set. The whole awkward exchange made for an uncomfortable evening, and I resented the band for not following my lead.
"Have you heard any of the guy's solo stuff? It really blows," Stephen said.
"Yeah. I've heard mixed reviews."
He was unsure about what to offer me. "I think I'll just offer you something for the whole box," he said. I was surprised, but pleased. Usually places will only be interested in about half of what you bring in. Again, I patted myself on the back for the musical taste I had 10 years ago. "How about $26?" Oof. Way too low, I thought. My face showed my disappointment. "Well, what were you hoping for?" he asked. "I mean, I don't want to rip you off or anything." I could tell he was honestly stumped, so I offered to leave the box there so the manager, a woman named Janel, could see them when she came in later. I left my name and number.
The phone rang around 3:30 that afternoon. It was Janel. In case she hadn't heard it, I gave her the whole spiel over the phone: CD player in the car, blah blah blah. She thought the Quasi tape might be worth more than the usual obscure demo, but she couldn't find it on eBay. She started out saying 50 dollars for the box, but I must've sounded apprehensive, because she quickly went up to 60. I bit and told her I'd drive over within the hour.
When I walked into the store, I could tell Janel understood the deeper implications of selling my tapes. She talked to me like I was going through a sad breakup—"You just have to let go after a while," she said.
I reluctantly agreed with her, looking down and kicking at the carpet. "Yeah, I'm trying to think of it like food. You pay for it and you enjoy it for a time and you move on. I mean, I've probably listened to those Wedding Present tapes a thousand times. And what did they cost? Less than a movie these days. I'm sure I got my money's worth out of them."
She told me that even though they don't sell many tapes, she and the other manager, Christine, call cassettes "the superior format." She admitted that she still had a tape player in her car. She gave me the 60 bucks. I told her I'd brought my camera to take a few last photos. I hinted that I might write something about this. All the memories that I won't have around anymore: I didn't even make copies of them. Besides photographic evidence and this story, they'll most likely become distant memories. I'm almost positive that, at a future party, I'll regret selling my Stone Roses tape. In fact, that was one of the reasons I'd convinced myself to keep the tapes for so long—I'd planned on hosting a New Year's Eve bash, and I may just have wanted to play that Negativland tape, the one with "Time Zones" on it.
Instead, I had to rely on fate. Sitting in a cafe, I'll eventually hear some song I used to listen to in my car or on my bike. I'll remember cruising around on a sunny day singing along, or maybe using it for makeout music. I'll sit in that cafe, listening closely and sipping coffee, and I'll think to myself: I used to have that on cassette.
Who Buys Tapes?
Crossroads Music 3130-B SE Hawthorne Blvd., 232-1767
Buys for: 50 cents each, unless it's something incredibly rare
Sells for: About $2 each
In stock: About 4,000
For What It's Worth Records and Tapes 5924 SE 47th Ave., 777-3900
Buys for: 10 cents to $1 each—only blues, bluegrass, folk, some rock and heavy metal, reggae and "old twangy country."
Sells for: 4 for $10
In stock: 2,000 to 3,000
Kevin Sampsell owns and operates Future Tense Publishing.
Ozone Records UK is located at 2 NW 10th Ave., 227-1981.