How to move 5,000 records halfway across the country

Written By: 
Randall Roberts
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May the spirit of Hamilton Bohannan bless your move.

tl;dr: It’s not fun.

Do it very carefully. It’s going to be expensive. Your back will ache and your legs will throb – even if you use a dolly. If, on average, each album weighs about 150 grams, you’ll be tasked with shipping 750,000 grams – roughly 1650 pounds. At some point you’ll wonder why you didn’t take up birdwatching instead.

But we both know why: They’re your records and they carry you on journeys otherwise unimaginable. 

Scene: Pasadena, early-July. After deciding to relocate to Columbia, Missouri to take a job with the university, me, my wife Jenny and our first-grader Liza started packing. Across a lifetime of buying – I spent much of the 1990s as a first-dibs used and new vinyl buyer at a St. Louis record store – my enthusiasms have never really waned. I scour bins, new release lists, Discogs and eBay in pursuit of vinyl, CDs, cassettes and the occasional thumb drive. I’v been in music journalism for just as long, and experienced the bountiful era in which each weekday meant postal bins filled with promo CDs, tapes and records. 

I’ve invested a lot of time, energy and emotion into this endeavor. For better or worse, the sounds and stories within these objects and grooves are major ingredients in the end product that is me. Like my book collection and the countless remarkable stories within them, this one-ton beast constitutes and has informed a major part of my identity. Were it to vanish or, god forbid, irreparably warp during the move, I would be crushed.

Basically, this so-called vibe shift meant I’d have to pack and ship more than 5,000 of my darlings – including rarities by Sun Ra, Lee Perry, Kraftwerk, Aphex Twin, and a few thousand CDs and tapes. That actually wasn’t the hardest part. Rather, relinquishing control of this grand compilation into the hands of presumably ambivalent grunt-workers made me ponder the nature and necessity of collecting.

It also provided experience that allowed me to convey a few guidelines. Here are some of them.

Rent a dolly. Humans invented wheels for a reason, so why not harness the miracle? Seriously, you can rent a dolly for under $10 a day. You’re already going to be anxious. Why cause unnecessary physical duress?

Buy the right box. If you ask record dealers what packaging best suits the project most will tell you that U-Haul’s small-sized boxes are virtually unsurpassed, especially after a cost-benefit analysis. Inexpensive and durable enough, they’re sized so that LPs fit snugly but not too, and that when the flaps are folded and taped your precious wax feels protected (enough).

Are they indestructible? Hells no. Could an errant pole, corner or ill-advised loading maneuver damage your sleeves? It’s possible. One box of books arrived at our destination with a gash so pronounced that it would have wounded a wolverine — or scratched a dozen records. Fortunately that fate befell a hard-cover copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which are a dime a dozen. Had it damaged my Stereolab/Sun Ra/Sun City Girls box with equal force I’d be holding back the tears right now.

If possible, don’t ship in the summer. Records, as you are keenly aware, warp. Except for the cabin, tractor-trailers aren’t climate controlled. On a hot day of desert driving, your beloved music could be exposed to temperatures exceeding 140 degrees.

Pull out your 25 most valuable or beloved records. If you’re turning your shipment over to strangers who don’t care about your remarkable Dance Mania 12-inches, you certainly should carry the best of the best on your person just in case a worst-case-scenario situation arises.

Buy and activate four Apple AirTags, those button-like location trackers. 

Use extra strong filament tape to secure the bottom box-flaps. The heavy duty packing tape will ensure boxes don’t bust if mishandled. Be on the safe side: double-tape it.

Tightly pack your albums into each box, but not too tightly as to stress the cardboard. For extra cushion, use a record mailer at each end. The idea is to create a single brick-like object, one with the weight evenly distributed. Each brick is heavy: Each of mine weighed about 55 pounds.

Pick four boxes at random. Tuck an AirTag in an unexposed corner of each. This way, if they get stolen or otherwise misplaced, you’ll be able to spend the coming months involved in a hot-pursuit Raising Arizona scenario involving AirTags, vinyl and thieving miscreants.

Close the flaps and tape all seams. Then – and this is crucial – wrap the middle of the box from side to side, end to end to make one unbroken loop of tape. That way if the box rips, the filament tape will keep it from falling apart. When in doubt, use more tape.

Double box your records? Depending on how valuable your records or how persnickety you are, at this juncture you can decide whether to double-box your records. This will add a whole other layer of protection, but you will need to invest in boxes that are a half-inch bigger than your U-Hauls.

Decide how to ship them. When traveling record merchants set up pop-up shops in faraway places, many rely on commercial shipping companies. They serve as the hub between truckers and shippers. Some can provide palettes, which, stacked with a dozen boxes each and wrapped in blankets and cellophane, can be forklifted directly onto and off of trucks.

Media mail is a great deal. The cheapest and easiest way is to start shipping via USPS media mail a few a days before you depart. But that entails transporting 50 boxes to the post office and annoying the postal clerks. This approach also requires lots of sweat equity; in return, you can ship each box for about $35 apiece.

Moving companies are less hassle but more expensive. We hired a moving company, NorthStar, to transport our furniture and belongings. Before including the collection, I noted the USPS media mail price and asked NorthStar for a separate quote for just the records, CDs, tapes, and books. The salesperson promised that the company could match that $35-per-box price. It did, for the most part.

Your moving guys are your new best friends. As move-day commences, don’t just greet the guys handling your stuff, treat them as you would saints, royalty or Madlib — and certainly don’t dismiss them as “grunt-workers.” These heroes, after all, have been tasked with guarding your beloveds. Tell them that these are your babies. Confess as to how inordinately important they are to you. If need be, flash your boxcutter at them (no, actually, don’t). Feel free to (politely, deferentially) inquire on how many times the boxes will be loaded and unloaded — most companies first route stuff to a warehouse, where they’re housed while competing trucking companies bid on cargo loads.

Practice mindfulness as the truck leaves your old house for a new home. You’ve done all you can do. Let go. All you’ve got is hope now. Contemplate a life without your collection. You’d survive. You really would. What’s a record, in the scheme of things? Your collection does not, will not, define you. Which is to say, your stuff’s cool but whatever dude it’s just records. Transcend the need to quantify your fandom and realize that few but you care about your collection. In fact, maybe this whole pursuit is more of an albatross than a necessity. If these objects end up in a San Antonio meth-head pawnshop, you are still a whole person worthy of love and respect.

Mindfulness schmindfulness. Track those fuckers. These records are YOURS. Make those AirTags work for their money. Be paranoid. Envision the worst-case scenario. ID each tag with a unique emoji so you can distinguish the four devices. Know that when — err, if — your records get stolen, you’ve got a bead on them. You are not a helpless bystander. Rather, you are a dormant bounty hunter aching to sniff out and retrieve what is rightfully yours. These are not just records, “dude.” They are your lifeblood.

Watch your records travel across the country. Were this your ex-lover, you’d be arrested for this type of behavior. But since these are inanimate objects, you’re more than welcome to stalk them as they travel. When the trucker parks next to a seedy motel, you’ll know which one. When he makes a detour for amphetamines in Boulder, you’ll know the dealer’s address. You’ll also be able to track the weather as your collection travels through the desert — not that there’s much you can do about extreme heat at this juncture. You’re helpless, but only temporarily.

Greet your records with fanfare worthy of returning warriors. When they arrive, you will have already set up your system and rented another $10 dolly. With the 50 boxes surrounding you, activate your tracking devices one by one. Listen as they chime. Feel a sense of calm returning to your system. Put on a record. Sit down. Listen.

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/SA4pmOle7sk

Unpack with intention. You’re in a new place. Your vibe has shifted. As you remove records from their boxes, do so with an eye toward the future and pull out selections that you no longer want or need. Try for at least 50. These will serve as a greeting to your new community’s best record store when you sell them. Doing so not only allows you a one-on-one with your new best friends, but adds to the proverbial wellspring. Consider it a tithe.

Plan a listening session. Ask the record clerks to ID who buys the good stuff in town. Reach out and introduce yourself as a fellow head and pitch a six-or-so person listening session. The beauty of living in the Midwest, after all, is the inexpensive space it affords. We landed in a spot that has the listening studio of my dreams.

Last week I finished unpacking all my records. I didn’t lose anything and haven’t noticed any damage — despite it hitting 110 degrees at one point during the journey. Unlike the books, they’re already sorted and alphabetized in new shelves — the studio belonged to a book collector so there are many storage options — and my sound system has been getting a workout.

Make sure your system is intact. A few days ago one of the channels on my Harman Kardon twin-powered 730 receiver went dead. Lacking a back-up, I write this sentence in silence, surrounded by albums aching to be played after surviving their grueling journey. The guy at the electronics shop says he’ll have it fixed in five days.

Right now that feels like an eternity. But at least they’re here, safe and sound.

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