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A few years ago, James "Hymie" Peterson was looking for ways to promote his East Lake Street record store, Hymie's Vintage Records. Oar Folkjokeopus, another small south Minneapolis record shop, had been running a yellow-pages ad with the motto 25 Years on the Cutting Edge. "I came up with that slogan," recalls Mark Trehus, who manages Oar Folk, and had worked there with Peterson in the mid-Eighties. "Then Hymie went out and had some matchbooks printed up for his store that read, 20 years or so away from the cutting edge."
Trehus laughs at the memory. It was, he says, vintage Hymie--self-deprecating, understated, and funny. But the matchbook gag belied the institutional status Hymie's Vintage Records had attained in Twin Cities collectors' circles over the past decade before the death of its owner two weeks ago. Since its opening in 1988, Hymie's has been known for its eclectic inventory of hard-to-find records--most notably jazz, but also blues, country, classical, early rock 'n' roll, and older popular music. "Hymie's store was the first one in the Twin Cities that made an attempt to cater to serious collectors," observes Trehus. "And if you collected jazz in this town, you knew Hymie."
While the store catered to varied tastes, it was defined by the quirky, wide-ranging sensibilities of its owner. Peterson had no formal education beyond high school. But he was a heavy reader, with pronounced interests in Eastern religion and travel. Books on those topics, along with shelves of classic pulp paperbacks, sit beside displays of vintage recordings by jazz pianist Errol Gardner, French torch singer Edith Piaf, and Sixties garage-rock stalwarts the Standells.
Peterson died of liver failure on February 16, at the age of 56. He spent most of his last three months in the intensive care unit at Fairview University Hospital. According to Peterson's brother-in-law Phil Thornton, Hymie suffered from cirrhosis. "The doctors had no idea what caused it," Thornton says. "He wasn't a heavy drinker or a drugger and he never had hepatitis. I guess genetics got him." Although Peterson had been ill for about a decade, his condition took a sharp downturn in August following the removal of his gallbladder. At the end of November, he became eligible for a liver transplant and it "was just a question of keeping him healthy until one came along," says Thornton. "We held out hope until the end."
A bone-thin man with a long, angular face and a gray mustache, Hymie Peterson favored simple attire: slacks, dress shirts, and a flattop cap. He looked less like a record dealer than an old-time cabby, perhaps a cabby as rendered by Goya. Born in Minneapolis, the eldest of four children, Peterson had moved with his family to Minot, North Dakota, as a small boy. His father Charles "Jimmy" Peterson was a journeyman jazz pianist who made his living touring the upper-Midwest club circuit. By the time Hymie was a teenager, his father's musical influence was apparent and "his room was wall-to-wall records," recalls sister Linda Reynolds.
He picked up the nickname that would grace his store in a high school Spanish class, changing the spelling from Jaime to Hymie. After graduation, he served a brief stint in the army reserves and in the early Seventies opened a bar in Minot, Hymie's Downtowner, where patrons drank and danced to Peterson's custom reel-to-reel mix tapes of old pop, blues, and jazz. After a few years he grew tired of North Dakota, moved to California, then returned to Minneapolis, where he plunged full-time into record dealing.
From the day he opened Hymie's, Peterson spent most of his waking hours planted behind the counter, spinning records from open to close, drinking bottomless pots of coffee, and offering quiet recommendations to his patrons.
In outward manner, Peterson was laconic and reserved, but according to friends and family, he had a soft touch. "He seemed to always think the other person had the right to feel however they felt and he wasn't going to impose his will on anybody," says Thornton. "Before he died he requested that when we do a memorial service it not be conducted by a religious figure. He didn't want his friends to feel uncomfortable because they don't agree with the views of the particular clergy. That was Hymie."
In accordance with those wishes, the memorial, held at a south Minneapolis funeral home on February 20, was an informal affair. In lieu of traditional eulogies, a half-dozen mourners rose to deliver impromptu recollections of Peterson, while a mix tape he had made played over the speakers. It was his favorite music--the popular sounds of the Twenties and Thirties--and he inserted bursts of commentary during the breaks, his voice mellow and low in the manner of the old-style disc jockeys.
Among those who spoke at the service was Rich Shelton, who met Peterson back in 1981. At the time, Hymie was selling records out of the trunk of his car at conventions and flea markets. "I was just learning about jazz," Shelton says, "and he would suggest records and I would buy them and I was always happy." The two became friendly, and when Peterson opened his shop--originally in partnership with another collector, Kent Hazen--Peterson offered Shelton a job.