Living in a Manhattan apartment, I’ve learned to streamline. I have what I need and not too much more.
So when a large box arrived at holiday time last year, I cringed. Yes, I was delighted that my two young-adult children had cooked up a thoughtful gift for me. But I was dubious about dealing with what was inside the cardboard: a stereo turntable and speakers, along with a single vinyl album – a Bob Dylan compilation.
After all, I had winnowed my music-listening to what I could stream directly from my iPhone, along with a single Bose speaker capable of filling any room with gorgeous sound. Anything I wanted, at any time, all within two smallish rectangular prisms. At a moment’s notice, I could pack the whole thing up in a shoebox.
However, I was touched and could think of no viable alternative, and so, with the help of a friend, I set up the primitive machinery – cables and speaker wire and all – in an available corner. As it turned out, I had just the right spot for it.
We put on the Dylan album.
And from the start, I was charmed. I enjoyed the sensory experiences of handling the double-album cover, placing the disc on the spindle, watching it revolve, and listening as the familiar sound of Blowin’ in the Wind flowed from the two speakers set on the floor.
Normally so inseparable from my devices, I began to find it a relief to be non-digital for a little while.
And I listened differently – with more depth and contemplation – somehow. The music sank into my bones in a way that I hadn’t experienced in years.
Part of that, perhaps, was the repetition: without a collection, I had to go deep instead of wide. Dylan’s query – “How many times?” – turned out to be an apt question.
Soon I felt the need to branch out.
The first stop involved time travel, of a sort. My friend and I sought out a record store in Greenwich Village where hand-lettered signs guided searchers through the rows of bins.
Flipping through, I found Frank Sinatra’s A Swingin’ Affair! I overpaid, but it was worth it to hear the master crooner kick off with Night and Day and make his way to Nice Work If You Can Get It. Who cared about the skips and pops?
Then my brother sent me a remastered version of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, unopened, wrapped in plastic – and delivered by Amazon. Old meets new.
Soon I discovered an outdoor market where I picked up the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, and Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky.
A friend teased that I had become a hobbyist. Albums were treasure, and I was on the hunt.
I hit paydirt after chatting with a neighbor who had a collection of albums that she hadn’t listened to in years. She invited me to come have a look.
Her cache of classics included Carole King’s Tapestry, Janis Joplin’s Pearl and the first Aretha Franklin album, with the Queen of Soul looking like a fresh-faced teen on the cover. My neighbor only held back her Laura Nyro albums, a sentimental favorite. She made up for it by looking the other way as I picked up the original Broadway cast recording of Hair.
Not a cent changed hands. Take them, she said, and enjoy.
My own original collection had disappeared over the years, along with dozens of precious mixtapes handmade by friends.
What was I thinking to let them all go? Back then, I took it all for granted.
You bought albums for a few bucks, swapped them with friends, used the V-shape of the double White Album to weed out stalks and seeds. Later, when my son was a baby, we would put on Tracy Chapman’s Fast Car and dance around the living room putting him to sleep.
Albums were simply … there.
The sound quality wasn’t perfect, but the vibe couldn’t be beat. Now I find, after all this time, something of that analog magic remains.
As much as I appreciate the immediacy, the precision and the endless array of digital music, vinyl has its own peculiar beauty. And I’m so glad now that that bulky box came to my door.
Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist