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Just Call Them the Basement Albums
By KEVIN COYNE
I STOOD in the aisle at Home Depot where the storage units were displayed, shaking the steel supports of the shelves I was eyeing, measuring in my memory the weight of what I planned to put on them, and wondering if they would hold. A store worker happened by, and from the way he looked at the way I was looking I could tell that I wasn’t the first person to stand before these shelves wondering the same thing.
“Moving your vinyl?” he asked in a tone both sympathetic and knowing.
He was somewhere around my own age, from an era when music came as a record — a plastic disc encased in a colorful cardboard sleeve — not a rattly cassette, or a mirror-bright CD, or a notional digital file; an era when music had weight and density and took up space in your life, and in wherever you were living.
“I moved mine, too,” he said, as if it were a somber rite of passage we all must face one day.
Our homes are the private museums of our lives, and we are the curators. The older you grow, the longer you stay in one place, the more decisions you need to make: what to show, what to store, what — if you can bear it — to de-accession by way of yard sale or trash day. The accumulation of goods and time eventually forces you to rank what you value.
I’ve spent 16 years with my family in one old, drafty house, where the dorm-room posters and sprung couches have gradually given way to more grown-up furnishings, but where the vinyl — all the way back to those first Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones albums bought with lawn-mowing wages — remained stubbornly in place, as fixed and immovable as an anchor, on four sagging shelves in the corner of the living room.
The vinyl had followed me everywhere since high school, hauled up long flights of stairs in scavenged boxes and milk crates to whatever room was home that year. My children, with their weightless and invisible collections of songs, have no idea how much work it once was to keep the music you loved with you. When I finally began paying a mortgage rather than rent, I thought I had moved it for the last time.
But then two things happened at once that made me rethink its place in my house, and my life. The living room needed painting, which meant the vinyl needed moving, at least temporarily. And a friend of mine was retiring, moving to a smaller place that didn’t have enough room for his own collection of vinyl, which he bequeathed to me. His went back even further — to the pristine original Beatles sides on Capitol, Lightning Hopkins, the Velvet Underground, whom he had seen live on his honeymoon — and it more than doubled the amount of vinyl I now had to house, to a volume the living room could no longer accommodate.
Ditching it was not an option. Many of my friends parted with their vinyl long ago, or dispatched it to gather dust in the attic. Some have even mothballed their CDs, after compressing them into digital files. But I still play my records, easing them out of the sleeves and gently dropping the needle, and scanning the liner notes to see who’s singing harmony. They needed to be within reach — maybe not in the living room anymore, but someplace where I could tilt my head to scan their titles, and bump my finger along the corrugated picket-row of their spines, and let their names turn on the radio in my head, one riff after another.
So I bought the shelving units, two of them, set them up in the corner of the basement farthest from where the water steals in during the heaviest rains, and started hauling boxfuls of records out of one room in my life, and down into another. My friend is a librarian, and his collection was ordered by genre, but I prefer the capricious democracy of straight alphabetization, and set about merging my records with his: James Brown shouting beside Jackson Browne, Prince a neighbor to John Prine, Paul Simon looking up to Frank Sinatra, Dusty Springfield flirting with Bruce Springsteen.
It’s been a few months since I moved them, and they seem safe down there, raised up enough above the level any water has ever reached, but they also seem a little lonesome. They’re a destination now, not a daily presence. I have to make special trips down to see them, carrying a few at a time up to visit their old home, and take a spin around the turntable.
Books have since colonized the corner of the living room, each one taking the place of seven or eight records, and that has inevitably diminished the number of worlds waiting to be entered through the shelves there. I miss the density of possibility the vinyl represented, each slender spine the gateway to a new place, always ready to welcome visitors on the slimmest of whims.
When my children were younger, we had a before-school ritual we called “song of the day.” They would pick a record they hadn’t heard before, and we would play it. One day when my middle daughter was 4, her eye was caught by the red spine of “Elvis’ Golden Records.” She heard the first few bars of “Hound Dog,” and she looked at the come-hither cover photo — that curled lip, that glossy black hair — and she was, instantly and for years later, in love, the way a whole nation was once, back in 1956.
The new shelves have proved as sturdy as my Home Depot compatriot predicted, and I’ve grown used to the idea of the records in their new home. They’ve started to feel as inevitable and permanent in the basement as they once did in the living room, and I don’t want to imagine yet a time when I might have to move them again. I don’t see them as much anymore, but I can feel them, all that reassuring weight sitting down there at the bottom of the house, like ballast in a ship, helping keep the course steady through whatever seas wait ahead.