Spirit of 78s

"I'M NOT MUCH into Holy Grails," Scott Holthus says, then reconsiders. "You wanna hear something?" He does a push-up off his desk and lunges up a ladder to a top shelf where he keeps his private stock, drops back down and crosses the room to the phonograph. "Maybe this is a grail," he says, and drops the needle on the groove, the last recording of Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra. "In-your-face fidelity," Holthus says. "December 1932. Count Basie on piano, Ben Webster on tenor sax."

East Lake Street is a living fringe with a serious identity crisis, a fictive mine where there is still poignancy amid the squalor. Down there, surrounded by massage parlors, used-car lots, and fast food, Scott Holthus has built himself an elegant and cluttered monument to his obsession. Holthus, sole proprietor and employee of Vintage Music, buys and sells 78-rpm phonograph records, and repairs, restores, and sells the "talking machines" on which they are played. The walls are lined with racks of records from floor to ceiling--Louis Prima, Don Byas, Spike Jones, the Ravens, Caruso, Tex Ritter, meticulously organized, numbering over 300,000. There are bins of Edison cylinders, a cookie jar filled with pink wafers, fresh flowers, wood floors, oriental rugs, and worn velvet furniture. In the front of the shop there is a huge selection of beautiful vintage phonographs and radios. Through careful attention to detail and rigorous taste, Holthus has created a parlor atmosphere that feels authentic to the point of being disconcerting. A first-time visitor has the sensation of teetering on the edge of the planet. Were it not for the Mr. Coffee, and a copy machine tucked in a corner, one would be hard-pressed to date the place beyond the Roosevelt administration. And then there is the fact that Holthus is 32 years old and favors jeans and T-shirts.

A renaissance handyman--or maybe that should be a handy renaissance man--Holthus bounced around the hardware store circuit between college stints for years. He acquired the hardware fixation about the same time he got hooked on cigarettes. He was 13 years old, and would sneak out to his grandparents' garage for a smoke. "My grandpa had all this stuff out there," he says, "very well organized--tools, nails fasteners, wood, paint, brushes." He shrugs. "I was out there all the time smoking, and I just started building things, then fixing things. I like to know how things work. I'm a below-the-surface guy. I always want to see the roots."

Holthus was managing a hardware store when his current situation imposed itself on him. He was offered the opportunity to buy up the stock of an old 78 dealer just up Lake Street from his current location, and jumped in, coming away from the deal with 20,000 records and some racks. He opened Vintage Music, he says, "with $1,000 in my pocket and a cigar box. It was apparently God's will. Now look at me, I'm captive. It just snowballed on me."

Holthus is an encyclopedia, capable of strenuous monologues on just about any subject that strikes his vast fancy. He can spout label histories, catalog numbers, dates, personnel, fleshing everything out with a steady stream of anecdote. He seems to know exactly where everything is, and what a listener might expect from every record. Much of his time is spent organizing, filing, and shuffling through the random stacks of records and sleeves waiting to be processed. And throughout it all Holthus shuttles records to and from the phonograph, providing a running commentary, and in the process demonstrates his obvious passion and somewhat answers the question "Why?"

"The wonderful thing about 78s," Holthus says, "is that you're hearing this music in its original form, on the original equipment, exactly the way people heard it at the time. And 78s have a big fat groove, so you've got all the sound that was in the studio that day, the click of Cozy Cole's drumsticks, Billie Holiday clearing her throat. When they transfer the music to CD they chop all that stuff out of there. 78s always get the bum rap. Recording techniques were in their infancy, but they did a damn good job with what they had."

Though Holthus has no plans for getting rich any time soon, there are plenty of people out there still buying and listening to 78s. "I've got my little stable, my weeklies, my bimonthlies. I've got guys looking for all sorts of things. Depression-era jazz and dance bands. Some country people. Early opera. One guy just wants Dick Jurgens, another wants gangster songs. I don't question these things." Holthus also does mail order, regularly shipping to Japanese customers. But it's never been about money. "If all I wanted was to make money," Holthus says, "I'd have gone into hog futures."

These days, with virtually no competition in town, the records just come to Holthus. He never has to leave the store. Of course, everybody who's ever stumbled upon a box of 78s in the attic calls on Holthus, certain they've got a gold mine on their hands. On a recent afternoon he listened to the latest inventory over the phone, grimacing in mock horror. "Wayne King? Sure. Jan August, uh-huh. Russ Morgan? Well, I'm terribly sorry, but I'm afraid they left them behind for a good reason." He hangs up the phone and throws up his arms. "I've ruined more college educations and trips to Bermuda. I get this stuff all day, every day. Somebody's got a box of 78s by the Rolling Stones? Excuse me? Or this--I've been a Crosby fan all my life. I love "White Christmas"! But, please, it sold a million copies in 1942 and it's never gone out of print, so why in the hell would anyone think they've got a $100 record on their hands?"

He shakes his head, paces back over to the phonograph and gets the needle down on another record, Fats Waller and his Buddies doing "Lookin' Good But Feelin' Bad." When Holthus is really listening he jams his hands down into his pockets and hunches into himself, scowling, his head cocked toward the phonograph. "Jack Teagarden," he says to himself, nods, "Red Allen." A moment later he places the record back in its sleeve and returns it to its place in the racks. "That's the thing about these records," he says, "one side, two-and-a-half minutes. When you put it on you sit down and you listen to it. You really do listen."

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