- Do Not Sell at Any Price
- Amanda Petrusich
- 272 pages
Most books about a small but dedicated subculture double as welcome publicity for same: join them, the subtext goes, or the thing these people love might not survive. Amanda Petrusich's Do Not Sell at Any Price, which ventures into the world of those who collect the thick, two-song 78 RPM records popular in the early-to-mid 20th century, has the opposite problem. The more successful her book becomes, the more likely it is that her sources will regret co-operating in the first place.
Petrusich, author of two previous books and a writer for Pitchfork, Spin, and the New York Times, discovers this for herself early on. She makes the mistake of asking the collector John Heneghan where he finds his records. "You don't expect me to answer that question, do you? I'm not sure I should answer any of these questions," he scoffs. "Do you realize how limited … These aren't LPs! All it takes is a dozen more people interested and…" The market for 78s, in other words, is already too crowded.
They needn't worry, at least in my case. Because Petrusich is an ongoing presence in the book, there's plenty of room for her editorial asides about the unpleasant conditions in which most new 78 discoveries are made. When she and the collector Chris King take a road trip to Virginia's Hillsville VFW Flea Market and Gun Show, Petrusich describes it as "an unqualified Mecca" for those seeking "the world's most comprehensive collection of sweat-soaked t-shirts." (Among King's list of suggested things to pack are a pair of comfortable shoes that can be set on fire afterwards.)
Where Petrusich's book shines is in its cast. She touches on a surprisingly broad constellation of people involved in the 78 subculture . Most likable of all is Los Angeles-based Jonathan Ward, who has no illusions about the heterogeneous profile of most of his peers, as well as the uncomfortable truths about why the blues has become by far the most valuable and sought-after genre of 78s: "Oh, there's music all over the world that's equally as rare," he says. "Let's not say more rare, because those [blues] records are incredible, they're rare, and they represent a very interesting piece of Americana in a very finite period of time. But that same thing exists in many other places. It's just: does it captivate white dudes?"
The question of white dudes hangs over much of the book, and raises a number of larger questions (though the issue of race itself is not always at the foreground). Because private collectors tend to be the experts on the music they specialize in, they're the ones who inevitably get recruited to select and annotate the themed compilations that some modern record labels specialize in. What trickles down to the average listener, then, is often one person's take on a huge swath of music, but which carries with it an illusion of objectivity.
Less successful is when Petrusich broadens her lens too far, indulging in chapter-long detours that shine less direct light on her subject than she thinks they do. A 10-page discussion of collecting-as-mental-illness comes and goes, but Petrusich is hesitant – for good reason – to give 78 collectors a blanket autism diagnosis, instead settling for a correlation between the two that's vague and unsatisfying. And the lengthy subplot in which she learns to scuba dive, in order to scour the bottom of a river in Wisconsin for some hypothetical lost records, feels less like genuine quixotic pursuit than workable grist for a book-in-progress.
At other times, however, Petrusich openly acknowledges and undercuts her larger aspirations, which suits the book's tone much better. When she learns that a long-lost record by Blind Blake – now the only known copy in the world – was discovered at the very same flea market she and King had just travelled to, she writes that she "felt a palpable sense of loss." The veteran collector, however, spends most of their ensuing phone call laughing at Petrusich's real anguish. "You were within days of witnessing something that would have been beautiful in your book, and it was done stole from you," King says. "Sort of like being on the road to witness the landing of the Hindenburg and seeing the smoke a mile away."
Petrusich privately acknowledges that King is being "annoying reasonable about everything." Out loud, she says, "Chris. Shut up."
Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.