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BILLSTUFF Goes to Washington

By Kathryn Skelton
Lewiston Sun Journal
September 26, 2007

Bill Cartmel found work on eBay. Since 1998, he's sold records and antiques from his College Street home and made a full-time job of it. Someone noticed.

For the second year in a row, he's being flown down to Washington, D.C., by the company for the annual "United States of eBay" fly-in - a huge lobbying push where Cartmel and 22 sellers like him scour the Capitol, talking taxes and online issues.

He'll meet with U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. Thursday is the big day.

"eBay is kind of watching out for itself and us, as well," said Cartmel, who worked for Maine Public Television from 1986 to 1998.

On his agenda: The unfairness of an IRS proposal to get companies like eBay to report out small-business sales and the difficulty of collecting taxes from people across the country.

Through his eBay store, Billstuff, Cartmel sells thousands of LPs, books and Maine finds, like a leather-bound 1936 Bates College commencement program. He sells more wares off a personal Web site.

"We just bought Maine Public Radio's entire record collection last year; that was over 10,000 pieces," he said.

He ships 60 to 70 items a week. Sales go around the world.

Cartmel opposes the idea of a remote state sales tax, which would require having to, for instance, charge the going California tax on a record sale to someone in California, then forward that tax to that state.

In a one-man shop, that would get complicated, fast. "The idea would be to collect taxes from all of the thousands of taxing districts all over the country," Cartmel said.

He does collect taxes from Maine buyers and forwards that money to Augusta.

Another hot-button issue for him, Cartmel said, is an IRS recommendation that companies like eBay start reporting how much in sales small businesses like Billstuff are doing.

The intent is to get at companies that under-report. The problem, Cartmel said, is that the number eBay reports out would be incorrect. About 3 to 5 percent of his bidders don't ultimately pay. Plus, he gives regular customers coupon codes for discounts at checkout.

Cartmel said he'd be OK with an entity like PayPal, which most of his customers use, reporting figures to the IRS. Those would be accurate.

About 1,500 people in Maine work full time selling items on eBay, but it's largely solitary work. He said Tuesday he's looking forward to getting to talk shop with the other sellers.

Last year, after the intensive trek all over the Capitol, "I had to soak my feet. We were all over the place," he said. The carrot this year, at the end of Thursday's events: dinner at the Spy Museum.

 

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Record Entrepreneur Specializes in Rarity and Condition

Friday, February 16, 2007

The office phone rings at least two or three times a day from someone attempting to sell their record collection.  For the seller, it’s sometimes like ushering a child out the door forever.  For BILLSTUFF.com, a Lewiston, Maine-based on-line store for vinyl record enthusiasts, it’s just another day of stocking the shelves.

 

BILLSTUFF owner Bill Cartmel jumps into action whenever there's an opportunity to purchase an important collection.   For example, he recently bought the entire Maine Public Radio record library which had been mostly gathering dust since the wake of the CD revolution.  He also scouts out the inventories of closed record shops, and the stockpiled treasures of major collectors.  That’s where he’s most likely to find the kinds of records he specializes in – the unusual and obscure, highly-collectible, mint condition and sealed recordings that most other music stores don’t have in stock.  Although he carries the most popular releases as well, his inventory is brimming with artists, titles, and even formats you’ve probably never heard of.

 

“Finding lost, forgotten, and little-known recordings is like being a music archeologist,” says Cartmel.  “I really enjoy digging through piles of records that have been sitting in an attic or tucked away in some closet and finding something I’ve never seen before.  And when a really rare one leaves our store I realize we may never run across another copy again.”

 

BILLSTUFF recently found a 2 LP set from the “Today Show” music archives.  It was a vinyl recording of the entire July 2, 1965 show featuring the music of New York songwriter Bart Howard who wrote Frank Sinatra’s big hit “Fly Me to the Moon” and other songs recorded by Perry Como, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Mel Torme, and Mabel Mercer.  Cartmel figures it may be the only copy in existence, and it's the only known vinyl recording of Howard performing his own material.  Other examples of his extremely rare offerings include way-off Broadway musicals, privately-made recordings, traditional ethnic music on foreign labels, obscure television and film soundtracks, speeches, and old radio shows. 

 

Also among his rare listings is a disc made from recordings at a private family reunion back in the 1960s; an extremely limited-edition Walt Disney record made exclusively to benefit the California Institute of the Arts; several test-pressings made by the artists before their records were mass-produced at the factory; and a still-sealed copy of Janis Joplin’s 1968 “Cheap Thrills” album that she released when she was with Big Brother & the Holding Co.  He has also amassed a large collection of one-of-a-kind 1940s and 1950s homemade records showcasing the talents of dozens of French-Canadians living in New England.  They were musicians by night, and mill workers by day.  And that is just a tiny tip of the iceberg.

 

Bill says he selects only a fraction of 1% of the records he looks at to put on BILLSTUFF.com and his eBay Store.  A few more will be sold through other venues such as dealer stock and direct customer sales.  The rest he simply rejects as not being of sufficient interest, quality, rarity or condition to meet his high standards.  He is currently the largest seller of "still sealed" vintage LPs on eBay, with approximately 2,000 in stock.  What he doesn’t discriminate against is the format.  He carries 33 1/3 rpm, 45 rpm, and 78 rpm records.  He also sells picture discs, acetates, and even reel to reel tapes.

 

Many of Cartmel’s buyers are returning customers who have come to trust his record grading expertise, and prefer to shop with him to be assured of a pristine copy.  They rely on him to turn up the artists, music and recordings that simply don’t turn up anywhere else.  Roughly half of his buyers are from the United States.  The rest are collectors from Western and Eastern Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Americas.  On any given day a bundle of BILLSTUFF records is making its way to China, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, and even Russia, Poland and Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

 

It’s not unusual for BILLSTUFF to sell a record to someone who actually made it.  Baritone Peter Van Ginkel once bought his own record “Songs of Travel" from the web site.  The granddaughter of 1920’s big band leader Henry Halstead purchased a vinyl recording of his New Orleans jazz concert that she didn’t even know existed.  It was an RCA import made in France.  The niece of Boston pop singer Billy Porto had a similar experience finding a rare copy of her uncle’s record on BILLSTUFF.  She remembered him singing the songs to her when she was a little girl. Country singer Stan Hitchcock bought a sealed copy of one of his early releases on the Epic label, and Dan Gallagher’s bass player on the album “Being There” finally got his own copy from Bill's store. 

 

His records and memorabilia have been ordered by the spouses, children and grandchildren of such personalities as Tom Mix, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Oscar Brand, Shemp Howard (3 Stooges), and even by the Carnegie Hall Museum, the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Pixar Animation Studios, Harlem School of the Arts, and the Louis Armstrong House & Archives in New York.  But perhaps his favorite experience was when he gave a copy of Frank Sinatra’s version of “Some Enchanted Evening” to James Michener who wrote the novel “South Pacific” on which the Broadway Musical was based.  Michener was not aware that Sinatra had recorded the song, and afterwards he sent Bill a very special note of appreciation that is now framed and hanging in his office.

 

“Other folks make the music,” says Cartmel.  “I just find it, and pass it on.” 

 

Vinyl Records Live on in Age of CDs

Monday, December 29, 2003 10:45 am - Lewiston Sun Journal

LEWISTON, Maine — In this age of digital compact discs, high-tech CD players and music downloaded onto computers, you might think that record players and LPs would have gone the way of the horse and buggy.

You'd be wrong.

At Bull Moose Music in Lewiston, two shelves of new records sit beside the cash register. Used albums are now available at some of Bull Moose´s other locations, including Portland and Waterville.

One aficionado even makes part of his living by selling rare records over the Internet, primarily auctioning them on eBay.

Bill Cartmel´s Lewiston warehouse is filled with old records, each carefully wrapped in plastic. He has been so successful with his online business that he quit his day job as a TV journalist with Maine PBS five years ago.  He is known as BILLSTUFF on eBay, and also sells from his web site, billstuff.com

Cartmel specializes in musicals and soundtracks and sells albums around the world. He said Japan and the United Kingdom are his best customers.

There is still demand for vinyl albums in part because for every album that has been reissued on CD, there are several others that will never make it onto a CD, he said.

"Think about Frank Sinatra," said Cartmel. "He´s about as beloved as they come. But he has many, many albums that have never made it to CD. He issued probably 200."

Then there are those like Clayton Sanders, 21, a Bates College student who has his own collection of records.

Sanders says he is attracted to older things, and describes how he recently found an album in Salvation Army´s 59-cent bin that has joined a crate of records that he totes between his room in Lewiston and his home in Amherst, Mass.

"It was from somebody named Jackson Browne," he said. "I think it was called ´Running on Empty.´"

Fans of vinyl records include young folks looking for cheap music and hip-hop DJs using pairs of turntables to mix and combine separate recordings. There are also baby boomers who have hundreds of records that they say put out a range of sounds that compact discs cannot.

For all of a CD´s clarity, the sound is sterile and without warmth of the original vinyl, they say.

Michael Dixon, a psychologist from Auburn, buys CDs but listens to his records when he can.

"The only way I can say it is that they sound warm," said Michael Dixon, a psychologist from Auburn said. "They seem to fill up a room better."

Roger Poulin, 44, hosts a weekly show called "Vinyl Heaven" on the Bates College radio station that draws from his classic rock tastes.

In recent years, he´s had to show some of the student DJs at the station how to play records. He shows up at each show with his own record duster and cleaning fluid in a pouch, and teaches the students how to hold the LPs and dust them.

He said many have never used a turntable and are nervous of the tonearm or worry they´ll scratch the records.

"I don´t think it´s going to come back," he said. "There´s going to be a small market for it. And then we´ll be gone."

He´s training another generation, though. His 6-year-old son, David, watches him play records at home.

"He calls them big CDs," Poulin said.

Bill Cartmel and his wife Judy have been operating their eBay business since 1998.

 

For Maine Sellers, eBay Made to Order

 

Friday, July 9, 2004 - Portland Press Herald

 

A 1949 glass milk bottle with the name Oakhurst scripted on the front, a summer cottage rental on Frye Island, body-soothing heat pads shaped like moose and bear ­ these are among the thousands of items small Maine businesses market on eBay every day.

Increasingly, entrepreneurs have turned to eBay's eclectic, global yard sale in search of customers. Online, businesses can compete with merchants from New York or Boston ­ even as those big-city firms attempt to steal away customers through the Internet's dominant online marketplace.

"Six years ago, I started selling on eBay on the weekends and started doing pretty well but now I do it full time," said Bill Cartmel of Lewiston. Cartmel sells antiques, records and memorabilia on eBay as BILLSTUFF, and also operates a mail order business from his website, billstuff.com.

Selling items through eBay has its drawbacks: Merchants pay a fee on every transaction. They have to ship merchandise worldwide, with all the hassle that involves. And sellers must live within eBay's strict guidelines or risk being blackballed from a service that has a stranglehold on the online auction business.

Still, thousands of Maine entrepreneurs have embraced the service as a central part of their business models. Nationally, eBay works with 430,000 small businesses, according to company estimates, making it by far the largest online marketplace for entrepreneurs.

The fast-growing Internet service is encouraging further expansion in its business through the addition of new small-business services, by enticing new users to bid on goods and by completing transactions at a torrid pace. The service is selling merchandise for others at a $32 billion annual rate so far this year.

Small businesses are the "bread and butter" of eBay's revenue, said Brian Dancause, manager of small-business assistance in the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

Last year, 60.1 percent of Maine's companies employed fewer than five people, said Michael Burnett of the Maine Department of Labor. And with these small businesses dotting the Maine landscape ­ often trying to sell wares in thinly populated areas ­ the eBay phenomenon has taken particularly strong root here.

Small firms have been using eBay's best-known service, its online auctions, for years. Nearly anyone can enter a user name and password and within minutes begin selling trinkets, baubles or any other combination of resale items amassed over the years.

One day last week, Mainers were auctioning family genealogy charts from Buckfield, a Maine deaths genealogy chart from Berwick and postcards of Pemaquid Beach.

Susan Robbins of North Star Vintage in Portland relies on the auctions for the majority of her business. Competition among bidders for her one-of-a-kind items drives up prices and provides her with a greater profit than she could earn selling items locally.

Robbins' clothing dates from the early 1930s through the 1980s, and she has learned that vintage-clothing customers are very particular, with specific needs.

But eBay has moved beyond this traditional service and now helps small businesses set up a kind of electronic storefront where transactions are completed immediately, rather than through seven-day auctions.

Cartmel has chosen to use eBay's virtual-store option almost exclusively. He displays 95 percent of his listings in an eBay equivalent of an Internet storefront.

The choice has helped Cartmel to reduce fees on each item he sells and make an overall greater profit, he said. "The biggest thing for me was to reduce fees per item from 5 cents to 2 cents."

He runs a Web site, www.billstuff.com, offering vintage vinyl records such as a still-sealed LP from "The Naked Maja," a 1959 Eva Gardner film ­ on sale for $125. But most of his business passes through an electronic boutique administered by eBay, where he offered more than 1,000 items for sale earlier this week.

Other Maine merchants use eBay mostly as an advertising tool. Betsey Hanscom, who runs www.mainewarmers.com from her home in Lewiston, attracts buyers through the visibility of her goods on eBay or off links from search engines like Google.

Among the products Hanscom's company, Maine Warmers, manufactures are "Cozy Critters" ­ animal-shaped, microwaveable heat pads designed to soothe back, neck and joint pain. She doesn't have a huge marketing budget to get her message before consumers.

"I list my items on eBay almost as an inexpensive advertisement, for name recognition," Hanscom said.

"A lot of times people won't bid on my items but will see the company name." It's vital, Hanscom said, to make sure that her products are presented well and indexed as fully as possible on eBay. She takes a broad view of what categories her products fit within.

"When people and store owners go looking for moose and bear products, they consult eBay," she said. "I have listed Maine Warmers on a sporting goods page to cure tennis elbow and other injuries needing heat pads."

But getting noticed with the help of eBay ­ or even selling merchandise through the service ­ is only one step in selling goods online. Internet marketing involves a lot more behind-the-scenes work than just sliding merchandise across a counter at the corner shop.

Photos have to be taken of merchandise, and descriptions written. Shipping, in particular, is labor-intensive and sometimes convinces entrepreneurs to involve other services to help them get it done.

For example, with nearly every item shipped outside the United States, Cartmel and his wife use Endicia Internet Postage, a service that provides postage, labels and delivery confirmation ­ sending e-mails to customers with tracking numbers.

The tool is invaluable for retailers weary of reassuring customers of an item's "in-transit" status, he said. The Cartmels continue to pack and stamp their goods by hand, but no longer have to deal with the constant customer contact.

Hanscom also sends items through an outside service, Avocet. Based in Biddeford, that company offers her both the storage of items, which Hanscom said is a more-attractive option than filling her house with ready-to-send goods, as well as help with shipping.

 


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