In any collecting community, there are objects of desire everyone dreams of acquiring — holy grails, if you will — but the ones that haunt you are more intimate, personal. Call them the white whales, those frustratingly elusive items that become unshakeable obsessions. My first white whale was a test-pressing of De La Soul’s “Say No Go” (1989), which included “The Baby Huey Skit,” a song left off the commercial release because of sample-clearance issues. Anytime I stepped into a record store, I’d rifle through the “D” section of the rap vinyl, searching for it, but always to no avail. The ironic denouement is that after so many years of hunting for it on my own, I caved in and bought a copy off of eBay, only to walk into my local record store a few months later to see a copy up on the wall. In my mind’s eye, I probably shook my fist at the sky and cursed the gods (but that didn’t stop me from buying that copy too).
In Amanda Petrusich’s new Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt For the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, she delves into a community afflicted with a similar mesmerism for prewar blues and folk records. The book is partially an ethnography of this clique of mostly middle-aged men who scour rural flea markets and abandoned basements for fragile pieces of shellac which, in some cases, may constitute the world’s only known, extant copy of a recording. However, Petrusichwisely and insightfully goes beyond just documenting these collectors’ peculiarities, as she also traces the history of early American recordings and their legacy in contemporary music. Perhaps most powerfully, the book serves as a treatise on the act of collecting itself, probing the psychological, social, and cultural implications arising from these pursuits of passion.