Rob Sheeley thought he might die, right there in that West Texas basement.
Eyes bugged out. Heart pounding. Hyperventilating. They’d find him in a fetal ball at the bottom of the stairs, passed out from sheer excitement.
That’s what can happen when dreams come true.
“It took everything I had to keep it together,” Sheeley said, describing the January day he walked down those stairs in Big Spring and gazed upon row after row of shelves holding 100,000 virgin discs, the entire vinyl inventory of a record store that closed its doors in 1984.
From Abba to Zappa, it was there. Bruce Springsteen. James Brown. The Ramones. Ozzy Osbourne. Prince. All sealed in their original wrappers.
Within five minutes, Sheeley bought the whole lot for close to $100,000 and began planning how to get it onto the shelves of his store, Mill City Sound in Hopkins.
“I dream about this stuff,” said Sheeley, 60, a lifelong record lover who opened his store in 2014 after selling a successful audio/visual business. He decided it was finally time to do what he’d always wanted to do: “Get the coolest records in the world.”
When the music business went all-in on CDs in the 1980s, generations of vinyl records were abandoned. Those records from the 1980s and earlier are the treasures collectors are hunting for today. And the Twin Cities area is home to some big-game hunters.
John Kass has more than 600,000 records, and he got about half of them for free. Kass, of Maplewood, started collecting vinyl in the 1990s, when people were just tossing it in the trash.
“Everybody was throwing out their records. Even record stores,” Kass said. “I’m the guy who got them.”
For Kass and other collectors, the appeal of vinyl is not only in the richer sound, but in the whole sensory experience: the feel, the smell, the look of the albums and their covers. Kass recently sold about 300,000 of his records to Flashlight Vinyl, a new store in northeast Minneapolis.
But those records won’t show up right away on Flashlight’s shelves. No, Kass plans to spend a couple of years curating the collection. Sorting the records. Cleaning them. Giving them one last, loving fondle before letting go.
“That’s what I’m doing now,” he said. “What I like is putting my hands on every single record I can, getting it ready for the shop.”
Mark Trehus, owner of Treehouse Records in south Minneapolis, has been in the vinyl business for more than 30 years. When other shops had no vinyl on their shelves, fans could always find it at Treehouse and its predecessor, Oarfolkjokeopus. But the competition for used vinyl is heating up, Trehus said.
“I’m going out more and looking for it in the wild,” he said. “Used to be, I could sit on my butt and it would come in. Now there are probably 25 competitors. Even antique shops will have a little record section, because it’s cool.”
Yul Brynner sings
The scent of fresh-cut wood permeates the basement of Mill City Sound, residue of the vast shelves newly built to hold Sheeley’s Texas treasure. His massive haul of “old store stock” is rare, he explained, because of the way it accumulated.
In the heyday of vinyl, record stores would buy albums in boxes of 25, then return the unsold records for credit. But the owner of the Big Spring store — the Record Shop — never sent back his unsold albums. He stored them in a climate-controlled basement. So Sheeley’s collection includes multiple copies of rare, sought-after albums.
Sheeley was an animated host as he gave a tour of his collection.
“Look at this!” he exclaimed, pulling records off the shelf. “Do you want to see something funny?” “Let me tell you about this!” “This is a very cool record!” “This is amazing!”
Probably the rarest item he has found to date (he hasn’t gone through his entire trove yet) is a 1968 issue of MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams.” The Minneapolis scene is well represented in the new haul, with records by Hüsker Dü, the Replacements and Alexander O’Neal.
But for every treasure, there’s trash — and we’re not talking about the Trashmen.
Anyone looking for “Yul Brynner Sings Gypsy Songs”? He’s also got a dozen copies of “The Best of the Mom and Dads.”
“I can only hope my grandmother or someone like her is still alive and wants to buy this,” Sheeley said. “There may be a ceremonial burn at some point.”
Sheeley plans to expand his store layout to make room for more vinyl, making room in the displays for 20,000 more albums.
“There are diamonds, and there’s coal,” he said. “A lot of coal. But that’s the whole treasure hunt thing.”