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Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018 12:24 am

Recycled Records reaches golden age

Store owner ready to quit

Mark Kessler, proprietor of Recycled Records.
Photo by Bruce Rushton
Queen Elizabeth has a throne. James T. Kirk had the captain’s chair. Mark Kessler presides from a cluttered desk that is equally iconic for locals with an appreciation for records, posters, neon beer signs, books and assorted other stuff – don’t dare call it junk – that graces the walls, display cases and shelves of Recycled Records.

On any given day, you can walk into Springfield’s best-known record shop and find Kessler, who co-owns the place with his brother Gary, at his been-there-forever desk, answering phone calls while greeting customers while discussing anything from music to civic affairs to his affection (ahem) for the way the city handles downtown parking with most anyone who cares to talk. He is, in short, a multitasker who doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the business of buying and selling, which has been Kessler’s business, in one form or another, since the 1970s, when he bought and sold jewelry and precious metals to make ends meet.

“I will look at anything you want to bring in,” Kessler tells a prospective seller who is carting in boxes brimming with vinyl that only fans of Mantovani and Andy Williams could appreciate. Kessler just looks. How about some silverware, the man proposes as he shows a box filled with table knives, spoons and forks. That’s silver plate, Kessler observes, diplomatically declining to bite when the man assures him that silver plate is the industry standard. He also passes on a knife of questionable value. Ultimately, he pays 10 bucks for a Zippo-style lighter that looks old and is engraved with a map of Vietnam, the words “Danang Chulai” and the date “1965-66.” It’s a gut decision informed by experience – the maker is Maddros, according to markings, but Kessler’s never heard of such a company and a quick check of eBay listings reveals nothing. He figures, though, that a vet will pay enough to make the transaction worth his while.

After nearly 40 years of doing this at the same address, Kessler says the end is near -- he’ll turn 71 in November and doesn’t plan on being here when he’s 72. He’s been trying to sell both the business and the building on Adams Street since January with no luck. And so, Kessler says, he is close to putting up a “Going Out Of Business” sign and buying-and-selling no more forever, which is hard to believe, given his reputation for being first at yard and estate sales. He says he rises at 5:30 a.m. on weekends. “If I’m going to be late, I’d rather stay home,” he says. “The stuff I want is going to go quick.”

While records and music are today’s lifeblood, the store is rooted in furniture, which Kessler’s grandparents started selling in the same building in 1910 or thereabouts. Kessler’s parents passed on the business in the 1980s, and, with neither Kessler nor his brother having children, the longtime family enterprise has run out of family.

“Springfield Furniture” still gets top billing on the sign outside, but chairs, tables, couches and the like were long ago relegated to the basement. Records debuted, Kessler recalls, in 1980, when he and his brother culled 800 LPs from their collections and started selling from a mezzanine halfway between the ground floor and the second story.

The first floor glitters with doodads because Kessler figures a record store needs funk. “Otherwise, it’s like seeing a blues show at the Hoogland,” he asserts. The second floor is where things get serious, particularly in the summertime, owing to a paucity of air conditioning that can make a July trip to Recycled Records an expedition with tropical overtones. With an abundance of bare painted walls, the top story is a morgue of music, calling equally the fascinated and bored to flip through bin after bin after bin after bin of LPs, organized, more or less. But how does one, really, pigeonhole such gems as Panty Raid by Doug Clark and The Hot Nuts and How To Strip For Your Husband: Music To Make Marriage Merrier by Ann Corio? Kessler recalls, with apparent fondness, selling spoken-word albums starring the late Sen. Everett Dirksen and erstwhile Vice President Spiro Agnew. For whatever reason, flight instructional records for pilots, would-be or otherwise, are popular. “Any of the weird stuff, you can sell,” Kessler says.

Weird is good, according to Joe Schwab, owner of Euclid Records based in St. Louis.

“I always thought it was just a super cool store,” says Schwab, who got his start in the record business about the same time as Kessler and recalls sweaty shopping sprees on Recycled Records’ second floor. “The thing is, it’s always been one of the most unique record-buying experiences.”

Schwab survived and ultimately thrived by cataloguing inventory and selling albums on the internet, something Kessler never has done. “I’m not capable of doing that, I should have done that and I take the full blame for it,” Kessler says. But he was omniscient back in the 1980s and 1990s, when music lovers converted to digital and sold their record collections, usually for not much money. “Albums will go up as they become more scarce, especially the higher-end collectible stuff,” he predicted in a State Journal-Register story published in 1989.

“The smartest thing we ever did was when people were buying CDs and dumping their albums, we bought them,” Kessler says now. “We bought any album we thought we could sell, and we were picky.”

And thank goodness for that.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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