Springfield's Recycled Records - Will The Beat Go On?

Mar 29, 2018

One of the capital city's oldest businesses is for sale. Recycled Records in downtown Springfield has a lot more going on than just what’s in the name. Old beer signs line the walls. There’s stereo equipment, collectible toys, historical books, vintage knick-knacks and more. It’s the kind of place you could get lost in for a day.

The shop is anything but pristine and sterile. The more-than-a-century-old building has its own kind of style and might appear disorganized with various items piled all over. But the regular customers are used to it.

And of course, there’s plenty of music. Cases of CDs and tapes are everywhere, with vinyl records on the second floor – to find them, all you have to do is climb some rickety steps, known in the store as the "Stairway to Heaven."

"We accept all customers who come through the door," said owner Mark Kessler during a recent visit. "We start young and we go to old, but most (customers) have a sense of humor. I mean, we're a store for people who love music and musicians and I would say our average customer is kind of funky.”

Kessler's parents and grandparents worked here. They started selling furniture around 1910, before expanding to records, and eventually tapes and CDs. Kessler is 70 now, and his younger brother Gary, who works here too, is also nearing retirement age. They’re ready to hand it off to a new entrepreneur.

Credit recycledrecords.com

Kessler said the transition of the family business into a well-known destination for audiophiles was slow, but eventually the music started to take over. “We put a pole from one wall to the other and had a giant tie-dyed curtain made. And we put that up and then when we added more cabinets and took over more, we just moved the curtain back farther. And eventually we had the upstairs surrounded," he explained. Kessler said after his father passed away, the increased focus on music meant the first floor was taken over too.

After spending a decade in Chicago and moving back to Springfield, Kessler was a regular at garage sales with his brother Gary. They searched for rare and collectible records, deciding Springfield needed a shop specializing in music. In 1978 they started the new part of the business with their collection of 800 or so albums. Now, the used furniture is only in the basement. And there are about 30,000 LPs for sale, said Kessler.

There’s still a bit of something for everyone. The Kesslers' mother loved costume jewelry, evident by cases of brooches, necklaces and other vintage wares in the back. At the front of the store is higher-end jewelry, and, if you peek in one corner, some Girls Gone Wild DVDs.

Kessler is the first to admit there’s a bit of a “good ‘ol boy” atmosphere. “I've told my wife … if they ever put you in jail for calling people 'sweetheart,' I said you should just divorce me, because I've done that for 35 years."

The environment is about more than just shopping. People congregate and talk with the brothers, often engaging in conversations that go far beyond music. It’s an experience you can’t get through a website like Amazon.

Stu Kainste appreciates the vibe. He’s a regular and considers Kessler a friend. “For me it's an important place. You know, I come here – I give them grief. Everything's funky in here. No matter what you're into, as long as you're not into white bread, you'll find it here," he said.

Kainste used to manage a local business, the health food store Food Fantasies. He said there’s a reason the Kesslers have been so successful. “It’s about having a niche, you know, and it's about figuring out what your niche is and meeting people's needs," he said. "It's not easy, but this is old school retailing though.”

Stu Kainste and Mark Kessler look over newly acquired records
Credit Rachel Otwell

Kainste spent part of a recent visit looking over some newly acquired goods. A jazz collector passed away and Kessler ended up with the albums, some of which he priced for several hundred dollars. Kessler’s music knowledge covers different genres and eras. He has helped many collectors track down that missing album they had been searching for. This most recent purchase includes some rare finds, like a Sun Ra record featuring experimental Afro-Futuristic jazz. Recycled Records doesn’t put a ton of its stock online, but rarer items like this might end up on eBay.

The store is considered a Springfield staple, says Lisa Clemmons Stott, the head of Downtown Springfield Inc. As many local shops have come and gone over the decades, their longevity is unique. “They are voices that other businesses listen to because they’ve been there they’ve seen that, and yet they’ve still prospered and done very well," she said. Stott said around 30 new downtown businesses have materialized in recent years, and she hopes someone is willing to take the Recycled Records brand and keep it going.

Over on the corner of South Grand Avenue and 11th Street sits another independent record shop, Dumb Records. Brian Galecki runs the co-op, which is helped by volunteers and specializes in alternative and punk music. He said he's been a regular costumer at Recycled Records and doesn't see the shop as competition. Any local business specializing in music is an important thread in the fabric of Springfield’s cultural scene.

“More record stores is a good thing in Springfield for sure. I would say if anything for us, competition is people buying from Barnes and Noble, not independent record stores. So we’re all for people supporting that," said Galecki.

Recycled Records certainly lacks any sort of corporate feel. “I think it's a unique music store. I think it's probably the most unique music store south of Chicago and north of St. Louis," said Kessler.

Brian Galecki in Dumb Records
Credit Rachel Otwell

Kessler said while music listening has changed over the years, vinyl has won out as a constant. It's something with a cult following. "Everybody wants vinyl. It sounds better, clearly it sounds better everyone knows that. The best thing we did was in the eighties when CDs got really big, and everybody said we don't need albums anymore – we bought them all," said Kessler.

After decades of being a destination for music lovers, Kessler said it’s time for this chapter to come to a close, and he’s hoping a new one will begin. He said there’s been some interest in new ownership, but nothing official. Kessler wants to spend the coming years traveling with his wife, a luxury not often afforded to the independent business owner. 

“If nobody buys it we’ll continue to run it as is. Then I'll probably just sell everything and close it, and sell the building. I mean, I don't really want to do that. That's kind of a last ditch effort. I also don't want to be here when I'm 82.”

When he finally turns over the keys, Kessler wants the next owner to bring Recycled Records into the 21st century – with more social media presence and online sales, for instance – but he also hopes some of the original atmosphere remains. "I just think if you're looking for an old fashioned throwback music store, you're not gonna do any better.”