When Scott Holthus listens to a swing record, plucked from one of the many piles of 78s in his south Minneapolis shop, he starts by closing his eyes. Nodding his head. Tapping his toe.
By the song’s end, he’s conducting.
“I always wanted to be a bandleader,” Holthus says, his hands waving in the air, his fingers anticipating every cymbal crash.
Holthus, 54, has spent decades collecting, cataloging and selling this music — big band and Billie Holiday, country western and Bing Crosby — in its original form: records that spin at 78 revolutions per minute. He also collects, restores and sells the machines that play them: spring-driven phonographs with stately finishes and names like Edison, Brunswick, Victor.
His shop, Vintage Music Co., which smells of spray varnish and dust, is one of the last record stores in the country to stock solely 78s. Vinyl is popular these days, of course, in its wider LP or 45 rpm format. But Holthus, nostalgic even as a kid, has never been driven by trends.
“I’m not malleable,” he said. “I should be able to bend with the times ... and I just can’t do it.”
Instead, he keeps alive records and players that others have given up on.
“He has an ingrained need to preserve the music, to not let it disappear off into obscurity,” says Mike Nickolaus, the shop’s right-hand man, “so that 100 years from now, hopefully someone can actually still hear it.”
Even on days the shop’s doors are locked, Holthus is there, repairing and cataloging until dark. He’s known both for happily sharing his encyclopedic musical knowledge and his persnickety spirit. He hates the word “vinyl.” He disdains new, cheaply made portable players. He scoffs at reissues.
“I don’t like the idea of another recording technician deciding how the original one should sound,” he explains. “They filter out the surface noise, but when they do that, they also filter out extraneous noise that was actually in the recording studio.”
Billie Holiday clearing her throat, a drummer moving a music stand.
“Behind all the surface noise, you can hear these things, right. On the CD issue? No. All gone. Which took all the humanity out of it.”
As a kid, Holthus looked forward to Sundays. After church, his family would gather around the stereo, eating TV dinners and listening to country and western records. He built a Victrola out of tinker toys. He collected 78s from his parents, his grandmother, the next-door neighbor. He rode his bike to the Salvation Army, buying records for a dime apiece.
“By the time I was 12,” Holthus says, “I had about 5,000 records.”
Since then, that number has grown to three-quarters of a million. “You lose track after a while,” Holthus admits. In 1992, Holthus bought Lee’s 78 Shop — where he used to buy 78s by the box — moving about 20,000 records to a storefront on Lake Street. In the late ’90s, he hauled the store’s ever-growing collection to Vintage Music Co.’s current space on 38th Street, in the Powderhorn neighborhood.
Record sets, meticulously labeled, pack tall shelves along one wall, a ladder leaned against them. Circulation cards are filed in a cabinet that's stacked on another cabinet, nearly reaching the high ceiling. Sleeved 78s fill racks labeled by genre and time frame, with World War II as the dividing line. Pre-war dance, post-war vocal, jazz. Cataloged by number, marked with price tags.
“It is of the utmost Importance that the records in the racks not be shuffled out of order,” a sign warns.
Then there are the piles. Records spill out of bins and cardboard boxes, blocking aisles. In the basement, tens of thousands more.
In the early 2000s, business was good. European and Asian collectors sought out the store, buying $10,000 worth of records at a time, with most priced below $10. But eBay took off and the recession hit. “The two things came at the same time,” Holthus said, “and just about wiped it out.” He put his parents’ savings in the place and applied for “every credit card I could.”
“I made it, somehow,” he says. “God wants me to do this, apparently.”
The shop has shifted, with much of its revenue coming from midcentury consoles. Nickolaus, 40, tends to those pieces. “It’s safe to say that I do everything newer than about 1930,” Nickolaus explains, “and Scott does everything older than 1930.”
Thanks to shows such as “Mad Men,” customers snap up consoles from the late 1950s and early ’60s, he says, easing a record onto a 1960 Motorola console. “This one showed up at the store in the back of a guy’s pickup truck — upside down,” Nickolaus says. It had been stored in an airplane hangar, soiled by water. Refinished and refurbished, it’s now priced at $950.
Holthus knows that repairing and selling midcentury turntables is “what’s kept the place open.” Some months, he doesn’t even sell enough records to cover the utility bill.
But he won’t stop collecting, he says. While institutions like the Smithsonian and the University of California, Santa Barbara, have vast collections of 78s, “I’ve got a bunch of stuff they don’t,” Holthus says. When he’s gone, his kinfolk might donate his records to these institutions. Not yet, though, Holthus notes.
“It’s not complete. My research isn’t done.” He pauses and adds: “And I want to listen to them!”
Staff photographers David Joles and Matt Gillmer contributed to this report.