Record-Rama and the Sordid Stories of Our Stuff: Part 1 of 2

Somewhere in a suburban strip mall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania sits the largest record collection in the world. Called either “Record-Rama” or “The Archive,” the collection contains over one-million distinct LPs and one-million-and-a-half singles.  And it’s all for sale.

There’s just one catch: the owner, Paul Mawhinney, wants the collection kept intact.  In other words, he views the collection as less important in terms of individual records than as a whole; it is an artifact, a definitive “archive” (his chosen term) of both our culture and of Mawhinney’s life itself.  The former Record-Rama website makes his sense of its value clear:

The History of American music belongs in a museum or a library; a place where people who love music and have an interest in history and popular American culture can look, listen, touch, read and appreciate this legacy for future generations. It could be part of a stand-alone music museum, a major exhibit in an existing museum, or the basis of a university music library. Cleverly arranged and displayed, and surrounded by additional cultural memorabilia, the collection could even become a tourist attraction.

This, of course, narrows the field of potential buyers.  Putting aside money considerations, who has the room?  The brilliance of the vinyl record—and the reason for it current resurgence—is its physicality, both as an object and as reflected in its sound, but multiply that physicality by two-and-a-half million, and you can imagine the scope of the problem.  After officially putting the collection up for sale and getting no offers for several months, Mawhinney put the records up on Ebay in February of 2008, one gargantuan lot with a reasonable starting bid of three-million dollars and no reserve.  As chronicled in news outlets as diverse as England’s The Guardian and Wired magazine, the auction closed with the collection having been sold to a bidder in Ireland for $3,002,150.  Within days, however, this bid had been revealed as a hoax, and now, over two-and-a-half years later, the Archive remains sitting in Pittsburgh while its diabetes-suffering owner gets older, more infirm, and, by all reports, increasingly despondent.

I’ve been thinking about these records quite a bit lately.  Last month I watched the excellent short film, “The Archive,” profiling Mawhinney and his plight, and found it remarkably sad.  Ever since then, in my spare moments, I’ve repeatedly scoured the internet for new information—searching for hope, for a hint that “Greatest Record Collection in the World” might just have a future after all.

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It was while still in this state that I stumbled across an AP news article that told a radically different story involving a collection: the Library of the University of Washington has recently accepted into its Special Collections a full 12 boxes worth of mainly 70s through 90s era Marvel superhero comic books.  Such notable titles as Rom: Space Knight (bizarrely based on an unsuccessful toy) and Squadron Supreme are currently being prepared by the Library “for public consumption—placing each one in a special protective plastic cover and placing them in dark, climate-controlled rooms.”

The most notable aspect of this story, outside of the UW’s fairly surprising choice, is that it is a story at all.  I can’t help but think that the AP was simply lured in by the potential for a headline, “Comic Collector Learns Fine Art of Letting Go.”  As a collection at least, Jose Alaniz’s comics appear strikingly ordinary, the type of books often found in a comic store’s fifty-cent box, and now they reside next to rare editions of William Butler Yeats or Hans Christian Andersen.  I find this amazing for a variety of reasons, not the least of which being that, as a kid, my brother collected Rom, and let me tell you, after 1983 or so, nobody wanted those books.  Nobody.  But with the university having accepted them into their Collections, Alaniz’s comics have become transformed—voilà!—into precisely what Paul Mawhinney has always pleaded for his own life’s work to be considered: an Archive.

[Photos From Jose Alaniz’s Blog]

There are, to be clear, major differences in these two stories—let’s not forget Mawhinney is looking for millions of dollars—but both tie into an increasingly common narrative of our times.  Between the spectacle of Hoarders and the righteous lecturing of The Story of Stuff, we’ve become inundated with messages concerning the sheer weight our possessions place upon us and how we desperately need to free ourselves.  All this materialism, the accumulation of our lives…  If we don’t watch it, we could all end up like "The Collector’s Collector"!

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This simplistic narrative, however, completely ignores the fundamental pull of collecting: how our possessions can become, just through the virtue of our ownership, narratives of their own.  We look towards them as Mawhinney does—to tell the story of our lives.  Perhaps my favorite illustration of this fact is in the form of a traveling art exhibit, the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I saw in June at the St. Louis Public Library.  As conceptualized by Croatian-based artists Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, the premise of this exhibit is simple.  In the months before opening in a given city, curators put out a solicitation for donations of personal artifacts accompanied by short written explanations. All the items must relate to a relationship that has ended.  The chosen local artifacts are joined with a selection of traveling ones and put on display.  It is just that simple.

And what it illustrates is simple as well, that possessions are always invested with the weight of our lives.  If you think about it, this might be the inverse of Hoarders: our stuff isn’t weighing us down us at all.  We’re weighing down our stuff with personal associations, and it is this that creates the problem.  Paul Mawhinney is simply acting out the relationship we all share with our possessions.  He’s begging for his collection to be recognized as a life’s work, and for that life to be viewed as one which has been worth living (how many dollars would you ask?).

Ironically, by taking money out of the equation, Jose Alaniz has achieved exactly this desire with possessions much, much less exceptional.  Right now at the University of Washington library, cards are being inserted into the sleeves holding many of the comics.  They read, “A Gift from Jose Alaniz.”  Through this act, Alaniz has received the recognition Paul Mawhinney has always wanted, and his life’s collecting has been more than justified. Meanwhile, Mawhinney, that poor bastard, remains a failure in his Pittsburgh strip mall.

He’s still waiting, people.

Read Part Two


Johnny Damm has taught creative writing at Stetson University in Central Florida and Tulane University in New Orleans. He is the founding editor of A Bad Penny Review.

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