Taylor Wallace doesn’t remember the record he saw first. He’s pretty sure, though, it was one of the following: Lionel Richie’s Dancing on the Ceiling, Jane Fonda’s Abs, Buns and Thighs, the soundtrack from Zorba the Greek or something from Kris Kross. What he does know is that he decided to keep each of them — including all 10 copies of Dancing on the Ceiling. And that he’s kept everything else he discovered on that June afternoon and the days that followed. Legendary stuff from Sinatra, The Beatles and Ray Charles. Not-so-legendary stuff from the Booty People, John Travolta and Jabba the Hutt’s band from Return of the Jedi. And something called Bob Wiseman Sings Wrench Tuttle. “Do you have any idea who General Public was?” asks the 37-year-old Wallace, who prefers neon patterns and believes his thick, exaggerated hair means he possesses neanderthal DNA. “I’ve got two of those.”
Inside of a week, his tidy personal record collection of 500, which he’d been adding to a few at a time for 15 years, grew to around 50,000, or roughly 15 metric tons.
The records were, as most found treasures are, an inadvertent discovery. Wallace, who makes furniture and art for restaurants, retail stores and hotels, had recently rented studio space in an imperial-sized brick warehouse on the South Side of Chicago. Locals know it as the “Tank Factory,” through its reputation as a munitions plant during World War II; in fact, the basement was used as a morgue for soldiers’ bodies returned from that war. It was in that basement a couple of months ago that Wallace spotted a crew of workers from the Junk King (“North America’s Best Junk Removal and Hauling Service”). They’d been hired to clear out the 7,000 square-foot space, which had become the bastard child of Hoarders and High Fidelity. Records overwhelmed any sense of the basement’s vastness or history. In all, there were 170 pallets of vinyl, six 25-foot long industrial racks packed to the top of the 15-foot ceilings — as well as several other 50-foot racks similarly kissing the ceiling with vinyl.
By the time Wallace got to the hoard — day four of its two-week long liquidation — 640 cubic yards worth of records had already been taken to the landfill. From then on, it was all Wallace could do to save every record he could get his hands on. (The Junk King crew didn’t mind him taking some weight off the job as long as he stayed out of their way.) “I was really only thinking about saving as much as I could as fast as I could,” he says. “It was dark and dank down there with these junk dudes working to clear it out. They just had pallet jacks rolling back and forth. The only thing holding them back was waiting for new dumpsters because they were filling them up so fast. There were pallets and pallets of records lining the halls 20 feet from the dumpsters.”
Wallace, along with one of the employees, stacked armload after armload of records onto their own pallets, working day and night over the next several days. He prioritized their armloads by quality, then loosely by genre. A lesser person would’ve been tempted to sort by taste, leaving behind the later years of whomever’s work, Huey Lewis and The News, Mike Love’s solo stuff, acoustic and disco KISS — you know, things that should be given back to the earth sooner than later. But not Wallace: “We were completely ignoring album content so that more could be saved.”
Even now, he’s still not sure exactly what he’s got. At his 2,000-square foot studio one floor above the basement, he points to a dozen pallets, each holding 1,000 pounds of vinyl. “You can’t get through this in a day,” he explains. “Even if I looked at 100 records a day, there’s no way I could ever get through it all. It’s gonna take some time.”
Wallace walks over to the back wall of his studio and stops at a large table where he’s sorting the hoard by market value. “As I’m flipping through, I’m picking out the things I recognize. I’m no expert, but some things that are obviously more coveted than others. I’ll set aside the Grateful Dead and Michael Jackson. And if I see it on Ebay for at least $30, that goes into one section. I’ll probably sell those first and try to get some rent money paid on this place. That’s the plan at the moment at least: Sell some on the internet and make the giant pile smaller somehow.”