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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.
"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."