North Hills treasure trove of music goes up for sale on eBay
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It started with a 1951 Frankie Laine single called "Jezebel." From there, Paul Mawhinney's obsession grew into the 3 million records that now fill the Record Rama archives.
When the clock strikes 6 p.m. tomorrow, it may be out of his hands and on the way out of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Mawhinney has put what he calls "The World's Greatest Music Collection" -- bigger than the one at the Library of Congress -- up for auction on eBay. He is selling the collection, housed in his store below a strip mall in Ross, as one unit with a starting bid of $3 million.
Mr. Mawhinney estimates the value at $50 million and said that CD Now nearly bought it for $28.5 million earlier in the decade, just before stock in the online Web site plummeted. He added that over the years, the Library of Congress and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum have both expressed interest in the collection.
But, between the digital revolution and the shrinking population of oldies collectors, the retail record industry is dying fast and a lot of the old-timers just want out.
Mr. Mawhinney, 68, said he's more determined than ever now to sell.
"I want to retire. I'm legally blind and I had a couple strokes four years ago. My vision is really getting to be a problem. And the record industry also has changed. Kids are used to downloading stuff. The world's changed."
The name Record Rama doesn't even do justice to the seemingly endless aisles of Mr. Mawhinney's vault, each longer than a bowling alley. It's more like Record Nirvana. It has just about anything you'd want -- in bulk.
You can stop and count 29 copies of Led Zeppelin's "Houses of the Holy" and more than a dozen of the Velvet Underground debut with the banana cover designed by Andy Warhol.
The rarest piece is a Rolling Stones record of early mono singles, remastered in stereo for FM radio stations. Mr. Mawhinney said only 300 copies were made, and it's worth up to $10,000. The original pressing of Elvis Presley's first Christmas album, which comes with photo booklet gatefold, is worth $700. He has 17 copies.
Just the other day, Mr. Mawhinney said, he came across a '60s soul single, which are all the rage right now, in his collection that is listed for $500 in Canada.
One of the things that separates Mr. Mawhinney, who opened his store in 1968, from most collectors/retailers is his meticulous archiving. In 1983, he published a two-volume Music Master discography that became a reference book for the industry and drew the praise of Dick Clark. Now, he has nearly 1 million records archived on an electronic database.
"I want to keep the collection together," he said. "It's my life's work."
Mr. Mawhinney's rare combination as collector, retailer and archivist is mind-blowing to colleagues such as Jerry Webber of Jerry's Records in Squirrel Hill and Val Shively of Val's Records in Philadelphia.
"I have a computer that sits on my shoulders," said Mr. Shively. "It's called my head. I don't even know how to get onto a computer."
Mr. Webber and Mr. Shively both talk of having warehouses full of boxes and not even knowing what's in them. That's partly why it's hard to back up Mr. Mawhinney's claim of having the world's largest collection. The other collectors aren't entirely sure what they have.
Mr. Webber, a vinyl-only dealer who built some of his collection from Record Rama, estimated he has around 1.7 million records. Mr. Shively claims to have more than 4 million records, with the world's largest collection of 45s. Craig Moerer of Records by Mail in Portland, Ore., claims more than 2 million records.
Mr. Webber recently tried to unload his whole collection for $400,000 but couldn't get it. Part of what makes Mr. Mawhinney's vault so valuable is that he never sold the last copy of a record, so it is filled with rarities.
Mr. Webber and Mr. Shively both doubt that anyone in this country is going to come forward with the asking price. "I think he'll get between $3 million and $5 million," Mr. Webber said. "It'll be someone overseas, who will have it shipped there. They're really into these records in London, Germany, Japan. They'll buy it and make millions on it."
"I know there are bidders," Mr. Mawhinney said. "A guy in Germany went to the bank [Monday] to get money. There's a guy in London, too."
Mr. Mawhinney regretted seeing the collection leave the city and said he tried to get local politicians and foundations interested in raising the money to keep it here, but got very little response.
David Grinnell, chief archivist at the Senator John Heinz History Center, said the collection is too broad for their interests. "We're more concerned with local materials than national. Tony Bennett's first album doesn't fit with our collection policy."
Even though Mr. Mawhinney's collection lived here for the past 40 years, people never had full access to it at Record Rama. The vault was kept in the back of the 16,000-square-foot space, closed to browsers. Between that and Record Rama's higher prices, Mr. Webber said, a lot of collectors didn't shop there.
Mr. Mawhinney said that when the right bid comes through, he'll let go of every last piece -- even his private collection, which long ago was absorbed into the archive.
"I had a wonderful life doing what I've done. I've lived a full life. I have three children and five grandchildren."
If all goes well tomorrow, they can expect new houses and healthy college funds. And, for that, they can thank Grandpa, Frankie Laine and Jezebel.
First Published February 20, 2008 12:00 am