The Storage Dilemma

Dan Davis

[December 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:5.]

I recently visited a colleague in his midtown New York studio apartment in. Nice building. Good address. Great zipcode, the kind that ensures a mailbox crammed with unsolicited pitches from brokers promising to make you filthy rich.

For all I know, it’s even a nice apartment. I didn’t see it. Instead, all I saw were CDs. They were in floor-to-ceiling bookcases, on windowsills, on tables, on every surface that could possibly hold plastic jewelboxes. The damn things were even on kitchen counters.

That’s an occupational hazard for reviewers. But it’s a problem shared by collectors, too. For the truly dedicated, space is always a problem. Even if you’re in a fifteen-room mansion with a football field-size listening/storage room, LPs and CDs will ultimately fill every available space. It’s the nature of the beast.

The problem of where to put them has plagued me since I became addicted to vinyl, haunting the old Sam Goody LP emporium on 49th Street daily. Recorded music is innately imperialist in its unstoppable urge to expansion. CDs have even more voracious appetites for space than slim LPs. Jewel boxes are shorter than LPs, but that means dedicated shelves fit to their height. Which also means more shelves and more encroachments on living space. Fine when you’re living alone, but a problem when you’re sharing space with a spouse who thinks living space is for living, not for storing record collections.

Unreasonable? Maybe, but even maniacal collectors should be able to get the point. I did. I’d make periodic sweeps, jettisoning LPs I didn’t think I’d listen to again. Many of them now go for big bucks on the collector’s market. After a while, even as my LPs shrank to fit their allotted space the CDs began spinning out of control. No matter how many I’d give away, more would come in. A friend told me he has a firm principle — for every new CD he acquires, he gets rid of one in his collection. “Does it work?” I asked. “No,” he admitted, “but it makes me think twice before buying.”

The problem is compounded for a reviewer. Does anyone really need six Sibelius Seconds or ten Traviatas? Not really, but I need multiple versions of a piece to do what reviewers do — compare and contrast. So do music lovers. Owning just one version of a piece limits you to a single performance, one vision frozen in time. But a great work has infinite interpretive possibilities and anyone serious about music needs multiple recordings of works close to their hearts.

Audiophiles don’t have this problem. They have others, like closets full of extra electronics and drawers crammed with tubes, cartridges, and wires. Often, their record “collections” consist of a few dozen CDs drawn from The Absolute Sound’s Superdisc lists or other pre-approved audiophile marvels. So the space dilemma is primarily a music-lover’s problem, though a double problem for audiophile music-lovers who must find room for their High End tchochkes, as well.

This problem seems amenable to solution via some form of six-step or twelve-step program to mental, or at least, spatial health. But it’s not. For the truly disciplined, a simple mantra like “I will not buy another CD” may suffice. But even for them, there’s likely to be serious slippage. “Disciplined collector” is an oxymoron. Collectors are only disciplined in pursuing their insatiable appetite, not curbing it.

What to do? My “solution” isn’t really a solution, merely a strategy designed to muddle through. But short of taking up sky-diving or some other passion that doesn’t require shelves, there’s really no “solution.” And thinking in terms of a “solution” implies that there’s something wrong with being a record collector. There isn’t. It’s a noble calling (“hobby” is far too frivolous a term). Think of it as a passionately held civilized interest that gives pleasure, insights and both intellectual and emotional stimulation. Others may not understand, but that’s their loss, not ours.

The first step to getting the space problems endemic to record collecting under control is to set limits. Figure out just how much of your living space you (and your significant other) are willing to devote to storage. Check out odd corners and closets that could hold extra shelves and either add storage space now or reserve them for future expansion.

While you’re at it, check your present storage system and determine whether it’s the most efficient use of space. Many people, for example, store CDs in prebuilt units whose shelves are are notched to fit jewelcases. I’ve never understood why. Those notches eat space that could be used to fit more CDs, and they force you to shelve multiple CD sets out of order.

I had several wall units built, the shelves measured to CD height and width, to store the maximum number of CDs in the minimum amount of space. I then converted two large cabinets, inserting shelves. Next step was to order boxes from a specialty plastics house. They’re 21″ deep, 3″ high and 5 1/2″ wide and each comfortably holds over 50 CDs. At six boxes to a shelf, 24 boxes hold approximately 1,250 CDs in a cabinet roughly 36″W x 30″H, x 24″ D. A similar alternate-use remodeling partitioned the drawers of a pair of dressers, now holding about 600 more CDs. The success of such a system depends, of course, on how you file your CDs but that’s a subject for another time.

After you’ve maximized the available space, you may think the problem’s solved. It’s not. It’s temporarily in abeyance, because collectors despise vacuums. Unused space means buying more CDs “since I’ve got the space for them.” You don’t. Or at least, you won’t. Remember, we’re trying to contain the situation.

So the next step is a continuing one — periodically go through your collection and determine whether each CD (and LP) stays or goes. This can be a painful process, but it does have useful byproducts. One is that you’re likely to discover records you forgot you had. The other is that you’ll want to give those on the bubble — in danger of being cut — one last chance. So you play them, and either rediscover a wonderful disc you hadn’t heard in years or find some duds you never should have bought. And think of all the friends you make when you give your excess records away — all those unsuspecting buddies who haven’t figured out that you’re dumping your problem on their backs.

Inevitably, new acquisitions ultimately outnumber the cuts however ruthless you are. You’re then faced with the same dilemma you started with — find more space or let the collection take over. But you’re smarter than inanimate objects, so beat them at their own game.

Compression is the answer. Begin with boxed sets. Remember, boxes are not music. They’re marketing devices. Companies want you to buy two-CD sets housed in grossly oversized boxes whose only purpose in life is to fool you into thinking you’re getting a luxury product. You’re not. You’re just getting a big fat box.

But some genius — my nominee for the Nobel Prize — has come up with slimline jewelcases that hold two CDs in the space of one. The idea was extended to create jewelcases that can accommodate up to six CDs in a box no larger than the ones marketed for two discs. I bought several hundred of those slimline twofer boxes and a few dozen of the larger ones and systematically scrapped fat boxes for anorexic ones. After you do it a few times, it’s quick and easy to remove the front and back printed matter from your bulky boxes, insert them and the CDs and booklet into the slimlines, and move on to the next one.

One source of the slim twofers is shapenet.com. They’ll insist on large lots though, but you can pool with similarly afflicted friends to buy in bulk. Or you can buy retail. Several record stores and used CD stores in New York sell them over the counter; no prescription needed.

Compression also works for singles. I once read an article in The New York Times by a music critic who said he throws out the jewelboxes when they arrive, puts the CD inside the booklet, and files it. That lacks appeal to me, but it does suggest a cleaner alternative. Browsing in an office supply store I came across packages of plastic sleeves made for computer CDs. Insert the disc, put the booklet in, write the relevant information on the supplied tab, and file.

I admit I haven’t done more than dip my toe into this particular pool. There’s something irrevocable about ditching the jewelcase. And it could be cumbersome for a bookcase-style filing system. But my back’s up against the wall. I’ve pretty much reached my space limits and domestic tranquility requires I stick to them. The dozen or so discs I’ve put in those sleeves don’t seem any the worse for the experience, so I’ll probably do more soon. Right after the next pruning sweep.

So there’s hope for us collectors, isn’t there? Maybe not. A little while ago, my wife, seeing me pounding away at the keyboard, asked what I was writing.

“An article about getting CD and LP collections under control.”

“You,” she said in amazement. “You’re telling other people how to control their collections?

Then she laughed. And laughed. She’s probably still chuckling. But you understand, don’t you?