Hymie's World

The late Hymie Peterson never made much in the vintage record business--except a city of grateful customers

"I already had a graduate degree and I told him [the store] just didn't pay enough," Shelton recalls. "But Hymie said, 'Why don't you try it for a few weeks?' We'd go through three, four pots of coffee a day, just talking, and I wound up working there off and on for eight years."

Peterson's habit of pricing collectible records below market value fueled his reputation for scrupulous fairness and outright generosity, despite the tight margins of the business. "When I started, I said, 'Hymie, I know you can sell some of these records for a lot more money,'" Shelton says. "I'd tell him a record was worth $50 and he'd sell it for $20. He said something to me I now know was very wise. He said, 'I'm not interested in making a lot of money. I'm just interested in having a good store, having a store people love to come to.'"

That attitude, says Shelton, translated into fiercely loyal customers. "I can't begin to tell you how many guys between the ages of 50 and 90 would come into Hymie's and say ,'No other record store in town carries this kind of stuff.' Most of the stores cater to young, hip crowds. Hymie catered to everybody but that crowd."

Peterson didn't hit estate sales and thrift stores very aggressively, unlike most of his colleagues in the used-record business. Instead, he relied on word of mouth. "He had a name in this town, so there was a constant stream of people coming through the doors," Shelton says. "Sometimes, people would come into the store to sell records I knew we couldn't sell. Most of the times, he would say, 'This is junk.' But if they looked like they needed a little money, Hymie would buy their records anyway. Then at the end of the day, he'd tell me to take them out to the trash."

 

Today, if you walk by the two-story stucco building at 3318 East Lake Street that houses Hymie's Vintage Records, you'll see a wall adorned by a big, colorful mural depicting the likes of Billie Holiday crooning into a microphone, and Ray Charles banging on the keyboard. Down a flight of stairs is a record co-op. Up a flight is Hymie's, a pleasant but ramshackle four-room warren. And across the hall is the one-room apartment where Peterson lived. The proximity of the store and residence was no accident. Peterson was easily rousted from his apartment when customers in need of a fix of classic vinyl came knocking after hours and--despite his interest in travel writing--he seldom ventured outside the small world he'd carved for himself.

"The store was his life," says Shelton. "He wasn't overly social. I'd ask him to go do things, and he'd say, 'Aw, no.' But the business created a social environment for him. He really built a community there and that's all he wanted. And he always managed to get by because he lived very modestly."

Aame Vennes didn't speak at Peterson's funeral, though in recent years she spent as much time with him as anyone. When Vennes first met Peterson she was 15 years old and down on her luck. Peterson needed some extra hands to help him move into a new apartment. He hired Vennes and a few friends, she picked up a few bucks, and then didn't see Peterson until another chance encounter some five years later. At the time, Vennes was again looking for a job, so Peterson offered her a gig at the register. At first blush, it was an odd pairing. "I was into hardcore at the time," Vennes explains. "He didn't think I'd be with him very long, and neither did I. But we hit it off, and he turned me on to blues. That was the first thing. Then early rock 'n' roll and a lot of other stuff."

As it turned out, Vennes remained at the shop for nine years, soon coming to regard Peterson as a member of her family. They often spent holidays together. Vennes has been running the business since Peterson's health worsened in November. And for the time being, Hymie's Vintage Records remains open. The store's fate, however, remains uncertain. Vennes says she'd like to take over the business, but fears it may be auctioned off to pay Peterson's considerable medical bills. Thornton says only, "The family hopes that someone who enjoys music and who wants to keep Hymie's spirit alive will end up owning the business." But Oar Folk's Mark Trehus doubts that will be entirely possible.

"No matter who comes along," Trehus says, "I can't imagine it will ever be the same. This is a tough time for independent record stores, especially ones like Hymie's that cater to collectors.

"There was something about the whole vibe of that store that made you want to support that guy," he adds. "He was in it purely for the love of music."

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