Suzannah's Voice

I Went a Little Crazy with Columbia House Records

…because they asked me to. And why would I turn down The Big 1¢ Steal— any 11 records or tapes for 1¢, or any 13 records or tapes for 1¢, depending on the ad I happened upon?

I know Columbia House was a ripoff. They hooked people with those amazing deals, and there was fine print: when you joined the club by getting those records, you were also agreeing to a subscription to buy more records for three years. And you had to pay shipping on top of the prices for the records. And they made it really, really hard for you to cancel. They’d send more records, and maybe they weren’t even records you would want to listen to, and they’d send you a bill. None of that mattered to me.

I had so much good music to listen to! Bruce Springsteen, Boston, Billy Joel, Blondie, The Doobie Brothers, and even Steve Martin (the comedy album, A Wild and Crazy Guy). Before that, I’d chosen Neil Diamond, Dolly Parton, Cher, Kris Kristofferson, Jackson Browne. I can remember only a fraction of the albums I had back then.

After they sent me a first glorious shipment, Columbia House would send me a new bill with additional records I didn’t order, like Vladimir Horowitz and Chick Corea. Yuck, I thought. I mean, I was a kid. I started doing this when I was eight. I cared even less about bills than I did about Vladimir Horowitz.

I got a lot of free records from Columbia House. I mean a lot. And I can freely admit it because 1) the statute of limitations has already run, so no one is going to nab middle-aged me for stunts I pulled as a child, and 2) I never used my own name on the enrollment orders, so how could they even track me down?

We moved a lot when I was a kid. I went to eight schools by eighth grade. (Yes, that is true, and no, my father was not in the military. He wasn’t even in the home.) My older brother and I would periodically “join” the Columbia House Records club. His tastes ran more to Ted Nugent. Yuck. (This is the adult me saying “yuck” this time.) We’d get bills that we didn’t pay, of course. But then we’d move and we’d have a new address to use to order some more records for a penny– and we didn’t even pay that penny, because they billed us later.

It was always fun to scan the long lists of titles and mark the ones I wanted and then narrow it down to however many I was allowed to get for that hypothetical penny. I must have had decent handwriting as a child, because I filled out the forms correctly enough that it passed for an adult’s handwriting. I mailed in the order forms, licking my own stamp and all. (Kids today would be disgusted. “You licked stamps?“)

The joy of choosing the new records was only the beginning. Then there was the thrill of actually receiving them in the mail. Finally came the thing itself: playing the records. Reading the liner notes, if there were any. Or staring at the album cover if there weren’t. Listening to every song on the album. Discovering some songs that hit me right in the heart and some that sent me sailing with joy. That. Was. Everything.

And that’s why I remembered, all these years later, Columbia House Records. The songs still matter to me now like they did then.

The other night while I was cooking, I had Alexa play music for me. I’d asked for Merle Haggard, and then for some reason, a while later Alexa played the Dolly Parton song, “Two Doors Down.” It took me right back to the townhouse we lived in on Cherokee Court when I was ten or eleven, the one with the gold shag carpet and burnt-orange, square push-button phone, and mirror tiles on the wall. That song might be sad for some, but for me it was always a celebration of optimism. How could I not sing along?

My husband came into the kitchen when he heard me. (Rumor has it that I may have been dancing. Just a rumor.) I told him how I knew the lyrics– I used to have the album. And then the memories of my “juvenile record,” as he is now calling it, came back to me: I went a little crazy with Columbia House records– over and over again.

In the end, I know it was wrong to take advantage the way I did. But I’m looking at it in the best light.

Those records made a difference to me. We were poor. We ate free lunches at school. There was no way we would have had all that music to listen to if it hadn’t been for Columbia House. We’d only have had the radio, and radio only plays the hits.

I could put a record album on the turntable, lie down on the shag carpet, and look at the ceiling– or close my eyes– and internalize a mosaic of music, song by song. I got the full experience, every time.

So I guess thank you, Columbia House, for inviting me to go a little crazy. The music is with me, and it always will be.

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