The Austin Record Convention takes place at the Palmer Events Center. Photo courtesy Austin Record Convention

I swore I wasn’t going to buy anything at the Austin Record Convention, the biggest record sale and swap meet in North America. But while flipping through a bin of albums marked Willie Nelson in September, I saw a rarer-than-rare album that’s one of Willie’s most unusual: Danny Davis & Willie Nelson with The Nashville Brass. I ponied up 10 bucks. It wasn’t for me, it was for my friend John Spong, host of the One By Willie podcast.

No matter what you promise to yourself, you don’t leave this biannual wonderland of pop culture, nostalgia, and analog music empty-handed.

This late spring and early fall event is said to be one of the largest of its kind. Held at the Palmer Events Center in downtown Austin, 300 vendors spread out along eight rows that fill the hall. They are hawking records, along with posters, T-shirts, books, and memorabilia covering every significant era of popular music.

Almost every subdivision is represented—Tejano, blues, rock, country, big bands, death metal, Doom Stoner Sludge—in the forms of 45 rpm singles, 12-inch long-play albums, colored vinyl, weighed and graded premium vinyl, special pressings, promo copies, even CDs and cassettes.

Now in its 43rd year, the show was dreamed up by Doug Hanners, a professional collector who scours estate sales, garages, attics, and storage facilities in search of ancient discs sheathed in colorful, artistic covers. He knows more about Texas records than anyone I know, in case you’re looking for that copy of “It’s All Over (I’m Glad)” by Little Johnny and the Insteps on O-T-O Records from Robstown.

At 78-years-old, Doug is the first guy you see when entering the hall. You’ll find him manning the Convention Headquarters booth closest to the entrance with official swag, rare Texas album covers from the 1960s and 1970s, vintage posters and a shiny 1970s bomber jacket advertising Rolling Stone magazine displayed on the backdrop.

Though several dozen hardcore collectors deal in rare pieces that cost up to thousands of dollars, Doug says it’s the folks spending $5 to $20 for a record who are the show’s heart and soul. “There’s thousands of new LPs being reissued of vintage music, but they’re going for $30,” he says. “An original copy at the show can be found for $20 or less.”

Austin Record Convention

Where: Palmer Events Center, Austin
When: May 4-5
Admission: General admission $5

An effusive younger man sidles up to Doug with a spread sheet in his hand. Nathan Hanners, 48, Doug’s son, has been running the show for the past eight years. “I’m the curator,” Nathan says of his role. He has modernized operations of the event and introduced a text-to-search app to better connect buyers and sellers. Otherwise, he mostly lets the show be the show. “It keeps growing on its own. Last spring was our largest yet,” he says.

Dick Blackburn, an actor, writer, and director from Los Angeles who has been coming to the show since the 1980s, calmly sits on a stool behind a table with several bins of blues, rockabilly, and instrumental 45s from the 1950s and 1960s and a Mister Disc turntable that he describes as “the Rolls-Royce of portables,” trying to explain his passion. “I keep selling and I keep buying,” he says, cracking a slight smile signaling he’s resigned to his fate. “The capitalist system works somewhat for me. Addiction is the same anywhere: you start out as a user and end up a seller. That way, you can keep using, or keep collecting.”

Nearby, Eve Monsees, the co-owner of Antone’s Record Shop in Austin and member of the band The Bluebonnets, is on a busman’s holiday flipping through a bin of albums. “The convention is always great for finding that thing you didn’t know you needed,” she says, a sure sign she’s addicted, too.

Walter Thorington closes his Alchemy Records shop in downtown San Marcos for the record show, and curates his stock of mostly contemporary electronic, hip hop, punk emo, and anime and video game soundtracks for his four-table set up. “This is just advertising,” he says. “I’m trying to get people to come to the shop. Besides, it’s a good opportunity to talk to people. There are so many people who have just gotten into this. I like giving them a good experience.”

Doug is reporting he’s just sold the Austin Lounge Lizards album and Bugs Henderson Live at the Armadillo when Peter Buesnel from Clear Lake walks over from his table to show Doug a handmade poster for the Liberty Bell, a 1960s psychedelic rock band from Corpus Christi.

“They were heavily influenced by the Yardbirds,” Buesnel says, triggering a conversation about their manager, Carl Becker, and his J-Beck record label, and the band Zakary Thaks from the same scene. Multiple hits of casual music history are part of the record show experience.

Around the corner from Doug’s table, Pete Flanagan from London, a veteran of more than 40 shows, leans over a table of 30 neatly arranged vintage books about psychedelics and other illicit substances. “I always liked Texas music, the 13th Floor Elevators, all the IA [International Artists label] stuff,” he says. “I used to find tons of that, real deals. Not so much now, but I’m still buying, trading, bits and pieces.”

Early Sunday afternoon, dealers start dropping their prices, and the bartering and trading gets serious. This show has an additional wild card: an older man from Dallas who walks in the door with a box containing what Doug describes as “40 of the rarest blues 45s that exist”—the kind that get collectors like Doug all hot and bothered. The man sold the entire stash to a dealer with an extensive stock of blues sides. “Their value ranges from $500 to $10,000,” Doug says, pleased knowing hidden treasures remain to be found.

“They’re still out there.”

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