For a music fan, crate-diggin' is spiritual. It's like panning for gold with a real chance at eureka. Or praying and actually seeing results—assuming you're not looking for specifics.
My first record-shopping trips were to discount department stores like Kmart and Grand Central, or mall chains like Musicland—the places you're forced to go with your mom, where the music section is an oasis in the vast, boring desert of clothes and toasters. This was satisfying when most music was new to me, but the radio, along with magazines like Creem and Rolling Stone, aroused in me a lust for music these stores didn't stock.
My mom is cool; I didn't have to beg for her to take me to real record stores, the ones now quaintly referred to as indie/hipster/boutique/brick-and-mortar/mom-and-pops. My favorites were Randy's Records and Recycle Records. As I got older, I'd walk or take the bus from Sugar House to hit both joints. That's where I developed a love for the dig.
Walking into a record store, I feel like an explorer who's crested a ridge and is surveying so much undiscovered country, high on possibilities. Then I put on my game face—a good adventurer has to stay sharp. Fellow shoppers are frenemies. We share a common passion, but we protect our territory from claim-jumpers and poachers. We guard our selections because we can be covetous, and we tend to overvalue our finds. One man's The Gap Band V: Jammin' is another's butcher-cover copy of the Beatles' Yesterday and Today.
I keep a wish list but, knowing how wishing works, maintain reasonable expectations. That's because, when I'm diggin', surprise is the No. 1 item on my list. Buying something on a hunch and falling in love with it is as good, or better, than plugging holes in my collection or stumbling upon a valuable rarity. To me, a great find is something legitimately awesome or sublimely awful/weird. One of my best scores was Manic Street Preachers' 1991 bow, Generation Terrorists, weeks before its release, for 99 cents at Randy's. Another was finding gay Christian punk artist Glen Meadmore's Hot, Horny & Born Again for three bucks at Amoeba in Hollywood. I cherish them both, along with the "score" stories I can share with friends of similar proclivities.
I used to have dreams of finding a new indie record store that just happened to be having a ridiculous sale on extant records I needed and albums by figments of my subconscious. I found such a sale in Tucson around 2003. Zia Records (Arizona's version of Graywhale) was blowing out CDs for a dime apiece. I left with 125 discs. More than half of them were gambles, or extra copies of a great album I wanted to share with a friend. Some were collection-pluggers. I even found a copy of Detached by one-time Salt Lake City grunge juggernauts, The Obvious.
Simultaneously, I boarded the rock-writer gravy train—my mailbox was stuffed with free CDs daily. Parallel to that, the internet took the dig virtual. Suddenly, all the music in the world was free. If I went to a record store, it was to sell the unwanted freebies that cluttered my house. Luckily, the train went digital a few years ago, and music subscription services like Spotify made it so I don't even need to own physical copies of these albums. But I do, because nothing will replace the experience of holding the album art and reading liner notes and lyrics while listening.
Lately, I've ventured back into record stores, but only where music is cheap and plentiful and largely unfamiliar. The wish list still exists; I add to it and sometimes even consult it and order something specific—online. The in-store experience is now all about the dig. I'll spend hours looking for nothing in particular but finding plenty, while all around me is a symphony: The plastic clatter of cassette anti-theft devices and CD jewel cases, and the soft whap-whap-whap of LPs as my frenemies and I flip through them, alternately murmuring, sighing and, if we're lucky, yelling, "Eureka!"