Pittsburgh – Behind a record store’s suburban strip mall facade sits a vaultlike storeroom that resembles dimly lit library stacks.
Few customers make it behind Record-Rama Sound Archives’ checkout counter to find hundreds of thousands of LPs, CDs and 45s – which represent the last 48 years of Paul Mawhinney’s life.
Mawhinney, a 65-year-old grandfather of five, claims to have accumulated nearly 3 million recordings – everything from a radio promotional album by the Rolling Stones to a rare release from Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy. He also created a database of about 700,000 titles that allows users to search by artist, song title or keyword.
But now, the owner of the Pittsburgh record store is looking to sell off his entire collection to the highest bidder.
His business was appraised at $50.5 million three years ago, Mawhinney said, and a company once offered to buy his collection for $28.5 million.
Ideally, a benefactor would pay him millions for the collection and donate the records and CDs to the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center, Mawhinney said.
“I took enough money out (of the business) to pay off my expenses and provide for my family and that’s all I ever removed. I kept buying records and buying records and buying records,” Mawhinney said. “That’s my retirement, so somebody’s got to put up the money.”
According to Mawhinney’s breakdown, Record-Rama contains 1.5 million 45s, 300,000 CDs and more than 1 million LPs, but many of the recordings are duplicates. He has at least one copy of every recording he’s ever purchased and might have dozens of copies of one record.
Officials from the U.S. Library of Congress and the Heinz History Center have approached him about acquiring the collection, Mawhinney said, but he won’t donate it.
A spokeswoman for the Library of Congress said the institution doesn’t discuss negotiations until a collection has been acquired.
Representatives from the Heinz History Center have checked out Record-Rama and called it a unique collection, said spokeswoman Meg Colafella.
Mawhinney scoffed at assertions that he’s asking too much for his records.
“A lot of people say I’m a thief, trying to sell something for $35, but I paid another dealer $35 for one single,” he said.
Mawhinney might have a large quantity of recordings, but that doesn’t mean the collection is of good quality, said Steve Smolian, the owner of Backnumber Records in Frederick, Md. The value of his collection depends on what’s there and the condition of the records, Smolian said.
Attic Record Store owner Fred Bohn, who considered Mawhinney a mentor when Bohn first got into the business, praised Mawhinney’s accumulation, but said there might be other collectors with more valuable collections.
“There’s people like him all over the United States, in reality,” Bohn said.