Music fanatics might be devastated when Treehouse Records closes its doors for the last time Dec. 31, but owner Mark Trehus won’t be.
Sipping ginger beer at Uptown’s Caffetto Coffee Shop recently, Trehus looked ready to retire. The 62-year-old had dark crescents beneath his eyes. Sprigs of gray hair peeked out from beneath his New Orleans Super Bowl Champions cap.
“It’s not economic reasons at all,” Trehus said of his motivations for closing. “It’s all about me reaching a point in my life where I realize that I’m just tired of it. I don’t feel like the store is relevant in the same way it used to be.”
Treehouse is third in a continuous line of record stores occupying the corner storefront at 26th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis. It all started in 1972, when North Country Music took over the space. In 1973, Vern Sanden bought the business and renamed it Oar Folkjokeopus (or Oar Folk, as everyone called it). A few months later, Sanden offered a job to Peter Jespersen, who went on to co-found Twin/Tone Records and discover the Replacements.
“I couldn’t believe I got to work in a record store,” remembered Jespersen, who was promoted to manager in 1975. “It was the biggest deal to me in the whole world.”
He recalled Oar Folk’s unrivaled inventory of blues, classical and disco in addition to punk and rock. The store also stocked soundtracks, imports and indie labels. “There were no boundaries. We loved music and all people who loved music were welcome,” said Jespersen, who left in 1983 to work on the road with R.E.M.
An ugly turn of events came in October 1985, when an electrical fire gutted the building. Sanden was uninsured and the entire staff soon abandoned ship. “I got stung for the loss,” said Sanden. “It was a tough time.”
Sanden quickly rebuilt the shop and was in need of new management. He approached Trehus, a fellow “record nut” with a wild past.
“Up until I was almost 30, the most important thing in my life, quite honestly, was getting as obliterated as possible and as far away from the dysfunctional reality I grew up in,” confessed Trehus.
His traumatic childhood involved two alcoholic parents: one functional (his father) and one unpredictable (his mother). Plus he was a “notorious hell-raiser,” claiming to be the first student ever expelled from Fridley Middle School. Though Trehus had dreams of becoming a music journalist, he dropped out of the University of Minnesota after one year.
That’s when his “drug career” graduated from pot and LSD to intravenous use of heroin and cocaine. At one point, Trehus said, he overdosed and was clinically dead but was revived. He entered treatment at St. Mary’s in 1984, suffered a one-day relapse on New Year’s Eve of that year, and recommitted to sobriety in 1985.
“It reached a point where that no longer worked for me ’cause I was going to die,” he said. “I had to look at the possibility that there was another path.”
That path presented itself toward the end of 1985. Sanden offered a manager position to Trehus, whose sobriety was still in its infancy.
“He seemed very sincere at the time that he wanted to get cleaned up,” said Sanden. “I went for it.”
“He took a chance on me,” said Trehus.
Becoming a Treehouse
Trehus had an affinity for “noisier bands” like the Cows, Run Westy Run and Babes in Toyland. The vinyl-centric selection at Oar Folk reflected that.
“It was more or less curated by me to tailor to what I thought people should listen to,” he said. “There was a bit of a narcissistic element there. But just like Peter before me, that was what a record store did. You influenced people’s tastes.”
The store’s clientele and roster of in-store performances reflected a who’s-who of the local music scene. The shop had ties with artists including Bob Mould, Fancy Ray, the Jayhawks, Prince, the Replacements, the Suburbs and Soul Asylum.
“It was a store that taught people an awful lot about music,” said Jespersen. “It provided a service that was pretty crucial to the development of the Minneapolis music scene.”
By 2000, Sanden “had had enough,” he said. The record store “just didn’t interest me like it did before.”
Trehus wanted to keep the store at its famed location, so he bought the building that houses Treehouse Records as well as the duplex behind the store and the adjacent space where Nightingale restaurant is now located.
“It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” said Trehus, who had to take out a second mortgage, cobble together loans and borrow money from one of his brothers. “I never wanted to be a landlord. I still don’t particularly like it. But it’s enabled me to collect rents and get by.”
In 2001, Sanden liquidated his inventory and Trehus officially took over, renaming the store Treehouse Records. The store stayed busy, even as the recording industry changed and people’s buying habits gravitated to digital music. By 2016, though, half of the business’ sales were online and in-store performances became rare.
Trehus also experienced a personal metamorphosis — for the better. In 2015, at age 60, he married for the first time. His wife, Alice, is a retired scientist and geologist whom he met at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “She’s been an incredible positive influence in my life,” he said. “I feel like the Universe or God put her there for me at the exact time that made sense.”
The couple live in a St. Paul condo with their two cats and an architect-designed storage system to accommodate Trehus’ 50,000 records.
Though collecting vinyl has been a lifelong obsession, Trehus said he’s hungry to experience more of the world, go deeper into spirituality and give back to his community. “I’m trying really hard to become this person who’s focused on love because in the end, that’s all there is,” he said. “The rest of it’s just details.”
Trehus will continue to own and act as landlord for the storefront, but he doesn’t know what kind of business will inhabit the space next. A salon or a coffee shop seem the most likely candidates.
Sure, the legendary record store will be missed, but Trehus isn’t sentimental about it. In fact, he’s eager to move on.
“For 30 years, I was able to successfully make a living — a good living,” he said. “I finally decided to draw a line in the sand, set a firm date, and get out, so I can become the person that I want to be.”
Erica Rivera is a freelance writer and book author from Minneapolis.