We love to get lucky. Whenever we can, we put ourselves in situations where there's an element of chance, and we try to snatch from that situation a moment of triumph. Why else would we buy lottery tickets when two minutes' work with figures shows us they're nothing but a tax on those who are bad at math?
Likewise, why prowl the back rooms of used book and record stores, the dusty cartons under the dealer's tables at conventions, the e-commerce sites that somehow remain alive in the face of eBay and Amazon.com gobbling everything else whole — or for that matter, eBay and Amazon.com themselves, both of which contain many more dusty and obscure corners than it might seem at first?
Why? Because we love to get lucky, and for a time — and even still now — one of the pleasures an anime fan could have in that vein was to roll the dice and dig for hidden treasure in the cutout bins, discount racks, and overstock sections of the world.
Record collectors know the term "crate-digging", the catch-all term for hunting obsessively for rare recordings, whether for the sake of completing a music collection, locating the source of a tantalizing sample, or just for bragging rights. Most anyone who is a fan of some variety of media — books, recordings, video — has blackened their fingers on the spines of a shelf or the contents of a milk crate somewhere, hunting for one pearl that would stand out amidst all that mud. Sometimes we found it; most of the time, we just washed our hands and went home. But when we did find it, it carried a satisfaction that couldn't be matched by going into a store or opening a webpage, and getting exactly what you were looking for. You didn't always have to know what you were looking for; you just had to be looking.
I came into anime fandom in the mid-Nineties, when physical stores were still the way to go, and where enough of a primary market existed to allow a secondary market to bloom in turn. The first consisted of all of the retailers most people turned to as a first resort — the Suncoasts and FYEs of the world. The second was made up of the used-media stores, the Tower Bargain Annexes, the places where (in theory) things went to die. Without a whole lot of money in my kick to begin with, I made those secondary markets my haunts, and I came back lucky: second-hand VHS copies of Urusei Yatsura (or copies that had never sold to begin with); back issues of Newtype and Animage against which I practiced my struggling language skills; and even the occasional import LaserDisc, savored even when it didn't sport English subs of any kind.
The rarer something is, the harder it is for a shopkeeper catering to mainstream customers to gauge its real value. That made it possible, at least in the early days, to get away with some massive bargains when it came to anime that ended up in the cutout or overstock bins. Even some of the most seasoned record-store owners had no idea what kind of value an anime-related product could command. With the thrift stores and the overstock outlets, their ignorance was my bliss. (Robot Carnival soundtrack. Thrift store. $5.)
Then anime's popularity grew explosively, and the days of bargains courtesy of the unknowing more or less ended. Probably for the best, I told myself: there was no way anime could become a mainstream concern (or, at the very least be not all the way out, if not quite all the way in) without it coming at the cost of such one-sided wins. Strangely, that only made the discoveries I did make all the more rewarding, even if they now came at far higher price points. The fact I'd been able to find the Mind Game soundtrack at all far offset the $40 I paid for it — doubly so since it was soundtracks, of almost all the anime goods I collected, that had come to mean the most to me. A few of them were as good as any music I was likely to find in this lifetime (hello, Yoko Kanno; hello, Susumu Hirasawa; hello, Geinoh Yamashirogumi); the act of finding them was charged with at least as much significance for me as finding the shows they'd been created for.
With the rise of the Internet and all of the online venues — Amazon.com, eBay, even relatively direct venues for obscurities like YesAsia — physical stores began their long and mostly irreversible drying-up process. Soundtracks in particular suffered; some vendors at conventions that specialized in such things quit offering them entirely, citing the costs involved of just getting their hands on the blasted things, only to have them sit around. Why bother shelling out the cash, when some soul had already ripped the contents and offered them up to the whole world as a torrent? But I couldn't bring myself to be a party to any of that. If a soundtrack was worth having it at all, it was worth having at the list price, as a way of forcing me to be all the more appreciative and selective. I knew I was in an impossibly small minority by taking such a stance, but I couldn't stand with others who felt the best way for them to show their love for something was to download it and pay nothing for the privilege.
What surprised me, though, was to what degree the crate-digging experience could be emulated (if never completely reproduced) by on-line shopping. Most of that happened in corners of the Internet with a short shelf life — not because they were illegitimate, but because of the way they tended to be driven out of business by larger and more ruthless competitors. Just The Disc was one such outlet, a California-based online liquidator whose website was a model of bad design. Any discs in their catalog that sported non-English titles — like, say, anime soundtracks — would only show up as "?????????"; one had to figure out what the discs were on the off-chance a track title or three was rendered in Romanji rather than Japanese text. But that reverse engineering yielded up a treasure trove of anime titles, all the more a treasure since everything in the Just The Disc catalog was $3 a title. It was the online version of reaching the back of a crate and holding in one's hands something whose grimy, near-indecipherable liner notes contained just enough clues to let you know you were holding a gem in your hands.
I now live far from any urban center that has a good roster of record stores, but just the other weekend I made a trip back to New York City, and spent most of a morning darting from shop to shop, dirtying my hands in one bin after another. I came away with a few things that were anime- and manga-related: the live-action movie Helter Skelter (adapted from Kyoko Okazaki's manga); a manga adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; a few other bits and pieces. All of them pleasant surprises, all of them welcome. And waiting for me back at home after I returned was word of multiple parcels on their way from Amazon, all items I'd pre-ordered knowing full well I wanted them. Which was better, having known desires satisfied, or making discoveries? Both have a place, I'm sure, but I'll take a happy accident over smug fulfillment any day.