Crate-digging at the Dog Groomers

It’s so long ago now that I can’t nail down a specific date – and even the year is something of a guess – when it took place. And my memory is completely blank as to how we found out about it. But it was a big deal nonetheless, one that set me on a path of sorts.

I think it must have been about 1982 or so. I had already returned from my brief, single semester excursion to the University of Florida. While memories of the three or four months I spent in Gainesville remain shrouded in a thick, college credit-free haze, I do remember a few highlights: seeing Frank Zappa onstage; regularly using my campus meal ticket dinner coupon to buy a soft pretzel and a pitcher of Schlitz Dark (“one glass, please”) and – most importantly – finding a used record store.

When I arrived on campus in August ’81, my record collection – which I brought with me – numbered around 200 LPs. By the time I left in December, it has blossomed to around three hundred. Gainesville had some good used record stores.

So once I was back in Atlanta (and enrolled at GSU, and owning a car, and employed) my mission to grow my collection had assumed a prominent space in my life. And as I say, I don’t recall how my friends and I found out about it, but through the grapevine we learned of a place that had tons — and I mean that quite literally – of records for sale at rock-bottom prices.

The place was in nearby Decatur. Once a small city, Decatur was now surrounded on all sides by the sprawl of Atlanta and its environs. Yet the place valiantly tried to maintain something of its own character. Sometimes it succeeded; other times, not so much: as is typical of metro Atlanta, developers set the pace for everything. In those days Metro Atlanta had a deserved reputation for lacking a sense of history; “old” buildings were routinely torn down to make room for new ones. And rezoning transformed bedroom communities into shopping districts.

So it was that we found ourselves at what had previously been a split-level home in the suburbs of Decatur. But now it was a dog grooming business. Well, a dog grooming business with a basement full of records.

This place didn’t have a sign out front; neither did it have a parking lot. You found a space in the single-car driveway, trundled up to the front door, knocked and were greeted by friendly Mr. or Mrs. Dog Groomer. They would lead you around and down to the basement, unlock the door and flip on the light switch.

What you’d see was a treasure trove of LP records. Easily twenty thousand of them. They were in boxes (or, as was popular in those days, fruit crates) situated on tables and on the floor. Everywhere you looked, more and more records.

They were not sorted.

In fact, they weren’t even all right-side-up or facing forward. But they were categorized in some way: at some point in recent time, somebody had divided the records into two groups, lined then up, and run a bead of spray paint along the spines. So every album had a small (and not really too defacing) color code on its spine. Red marks – like the one I found on the spine of the Moody BluesIn Search of the Lost Chord – meant the record was priced at $1.00. A green stripe – as found there on a gatefold copy of Three Dog Night’s It Ain’t Easy – meant the record would sell for a mere fifty cents.

My friends and I spent many, many hours crate-digging there. In fact the process took so long that we took breaks for lunch at a nearby fast food place, and even made two or three return visits over the next few weeks. We made a solemn vow not to share news of this place with anyone; it was strictly word-of-mouth, and no words would be forthcoming from our mouths. Not, at least, until we had cleared the place of anything and everything we wanted.

A few rarities and semi-rare titles surfaced, like copies of Badfinger’s Straight Up, but for the most part it was just really good mainstream 60s and 70s rock. Cream’s Disraeli Gears. The fourth Led Zeppelin album. The Sugarloaf album with “Green Eyed Lady” on it. In the waning days of vinyl, some of these weren’t all that easy to come by. And certainly not for a dollar or less.

I remember the check-out process. We’d lug our treasure out the door and back up around to the front door of the place. Sometimes it would take multiple trips. Mrs. Dog Groomer would look at the spines of the records and then total up the price. Cash only, of course. Occasionally she’d take a moment to look at what sorts of records we had picked out. I got a laugh when she stopped to look at one in my pile: Machine Head by Deep Purple. Making a sweet but feeble attempt at small talk, she offered, “Oh, ‘Deep Purple.’ I love that song.” She was referring to the 1963 hit single by Nino Temple & April Stevens, not the organ-heavy British heavy metal superstars. I just nodded and smiled.

About a year or so later I found myself in Decatur again, and so on a lark I decided to see if the dog groomers had anything worthwhile left. What I found was that both the groomers and the vinyl cache were gone, almost like they had never existed. The house was vacant and had a “for sale” sign out front. But of course the giant pile of records had existed, and my friends and I worked diligently to make that pile smaller. In that, we succeeded.