BY THE TIME Craig Moerer returned home in 1974, his Ford Galaxie was overflowing with vinyl. Six weeks and a life's savings of $1,000 earlier, the 18-year-old Moerer had embarked on a noble, if slightly misguided, mission to traverse America and establish the foundations of a serious record collection. He succeeded, but it didn't stop there. Thirty-six years later, Moerer is now the owner of some two million records. Probably more.
It's possible the soft-spoken Portland collector has the world's largest record collection. Pittsburgh's Paul Mawhinney famously laid claim to that title, but his array of three million records and various CDs is often dismissed by longtime collectors for its poor quality, duplicate titles, and Mawhinney's desperate attempt to move the entire lot via eBay (a bid for $3 million fell through, while Mawhinney claims the collection is really worth over $50 million).
What is known is that Moerer's company, recordsbymail.com, occupies a pair of warehouse spaces tucked away on an industrial block of Northwest Portland, a significantly larger location than his previous facility in Southeast Portland. One room of impeccably organized and cataloged records—stacked floor-to-ceiling at an awe-inspiring height—gives way to a second, with titles that still have yet to be properly cataloged and probably won't be for years. If there is a promised land for vinyl geeks, this monolithic wall of rare music is it.
While clearly a business—one that staffs 13 like-minded music fans to assist Moerer—recordsbymail.com feels more like a personal collection on display than an inventory. For true record enthusiasts the act of assembling a lifelong collection transcends both the need to be archived in the Guinness Book of World Records, and the compulsive act of hoarding. There is a subtle art to what Moerer does, one that became apparent on a tour of his facilities for this interview—his first in 30-odd years.
MERCURY: When you first started out in your Ford Galaxie, I imagine it was significantly easier to find rare titles than it is today.
CRAIG MOERER: Back in that time, in the mid '70s, it was all about '50s records, so we were trying to find rockabilly, blues, and group records. Even in 1975 things were a little picked over because Europeans had beat Americans to the punch. We would go to Lafayette, Louisiana, or Shreveport, and some French guy, or a bunch of British guys, had been there two years before. So it was already tough picking in '75, which is kind of hard for people to believe.
My really rough math shows that you'd need to buy over 182 records a day for 30 straight years just to get to the two million mark. How did you compile this collection? Do you buy personal collections at garage sales or estate sales?
Almost never, just because there aren't a lot of records out there; records will turn up at estate sales, but I don't have the time. I'd rather drop in on a dealer, who's been going to estate sales for 20 years, when he's liquidating. We buy private collections, sometimes we buy other people's inventory, we've bought lots of records from Britain, and we've gone to Brazil to buy records as well.
What records can you get in Brazil that you can't get here in the States?
Brazilian pressings of bossanova, and when we went to England it was all about buying American soul records. The Brits were keen on American soul records for 40-some years. A dealer was scaling back, and we bought three tractor-trailer loads of records.
As cassettes and later compact discs became the accepted medium for music, was there a downturn in vinyl? Did that make it harder to collect since it was a dying format for a few decades?
There has never really been a bad time for vinyl. What I tell people is that until the advent of the CD we sold records to record maniacs and music fans, then with the advent of CDs it was only to maniacs. It still remains the same with the newfound romance that 20-somethings have attached to vinyl. Carrying a record bag is almost a fashion accessory now.
That being the case, who are the customers that buy from you?
We sell records to audiophiles, we sell records to DJs, music fans, there's a whole mix. There are people that are really hung up on listening to their stereos, they want to have amazing sounds, then we have people who are chart collectors, they want every record that made the chart from 1958-1972. It's a wide variety of people.
What's the first record you ever owned?
It might have been the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons. I think that was the first record I ever bought. I don't have the original copy [and] I probably didn't own it two years later. I'm not a nostalgia guy.
If you have two million records at work, I imagine your collection at home is even better.
It's kind of like the cobbler's children going barefoot: I don't have a house full of music. I have a nice stereo, and my house is wired for sound, but I'm not an audiophile. My joke is that once in a while I'll find out that the right-hand speaker has been unplugged for six months.