Calling the tune

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WINDSOR, Maine — Elwin Hussey is a successful 83-year-old businessman whose popular general store boasts sales of everything from garden soil and guns to wedding gowns. It’s the collecting of old-time radios, records and phonographs, however, that keeps him perpetually young.

Although more or less retired, the easygoing, unassuming gentleman still shows up at the store every day, but his first love, now as always, is antique radios and phonograph records. Diagonally across the street from the Hussey General Store is a two-story dwelling, a two-car garage and a reconditioned barn. No one lives in the house. There are no cars in the garage. No cows moo in the barn. Every available foot of space in all three structures are jam-packed-filled with boxes, more than 200 antique radios, 40 or 50 phonographs, and, believe it or not, at least 35,000 phonograph records. Among the row after row of neatly stashed and catalogued 78 rpm’s are the early recordings of Bing Crosby, Harry James, Frank Sinatra and the earliest works of rock and roll.

Harland Hussey, Elwin’s father, opened the store in 1923, the year Elwin was born. Two of Elwin’s three children, Jay and Roxanne, run the store now. Drive by the country store at the intersection of routes 105 and 32 any day of the week and you’ll see a steady stream of customers coming and going to acquire groceries, hardware, hunting and fishing supplies, clothing, souvenirs, gifts, toys and appliances. Some just stop to purchase gas at the pumps out front.

As a teen-ager, Elwin repaired his first radio, a two-tube RCA Victor. That launched his vocation and his avocation. A small radio-repair shop was set up at the rear of the store, and he was off and running. With that experience, he became a radio and radar technician for the U.S. Navy and learned even more. Back in Maine, he began to sell and repair Philco radios.

“Philco was very exclusive, “ Elwin said. “You sold Philco radios and no other brand. Then they got into refrigerators. Everybody wanted one. Our waiting list was 20 to 25 customers long. We also sold Philco freezers — 2 1/2- to 5-foot deep. Nobody wanted a freezer, so we began offering a free refrigerator with the purchase of every freezer. That worked pretty well.”

Hussey is a little hard-of-hearing, but his memory for dates and descriptions of phonograph records is nothing short of remarkable. Spry, at 83 years young, he crawls around the clutter in the rafters of the storage barn, pointing out the Silvertones, the pre-war Philco grandfather clock radio, the RCAs and the record players then called gramophones. He told of plans to open a museum, but never got around to the task. The stacks of memorabilia in the barn display no apparent sense of order, but he has little difficulty finding anything. Lucky him! (In conducting the interview, I laid down my notebook to take a photograph. It took us a good ten minutes to find it again.)

Pointing to a round clean circle on a box covered with dust, he explained it had been the site of a pile of 78-rpm phonograph records. “A collector came by the other day and bought ‘em for $500.” There were similar stories of casual sales, but the money seems inconsequential to Hussey, who appears more interested in acquiring stuff than selling it off. Some of the tales of his sales, however, were impressive nevertheless. More on that later.

A beautifully designed radio-repair shop is located at the front of the barn, but goes unused since Hussey got hooked big time on the collection of phonograph records. A well-lighted room adjoins the repair shop and contains rows and stacks of 78 rpms, one of two locations housing his collection of 35,000 strong. A few samples are attached to the walls. Boxes of duplicate and “junked out” records can be found everywhere.

“One day,” he said, “I walked into the barn, and it was 140 degrees. A lot of my records were warped, but I was able to save about 100 a day by placing them on a table in the sun, covering them with glass and black plastic. They flattened right out. It actually took longer to cool them off.”

Moving on to a few tales of his sales, he told of owning eight cases of Bing Crosby recordings. The early ones, according to Hussey, were worth $30 or $40 apiece. As far as Harry James records are concerned, Hussey has all but 10 or 15 known to exist. The first Harry James recording that featured Frank Sinatra as a vocalist went for $500 on the Internet. Two musicians who appeared with the Memphis Jug Band peeled off to record one of the first tunes of early rock and roll. It was the only one they ever made. Hussey came across the recording while paying a social call to a fellow collector. He was offered $10 for it at a collector’s show, but sold it to another collector that same day for $78.

Hussey opened his wallet during the interview and displayed a check he had received recently for an eBay sale of a Batman comic book he had saved from his childhood. The check was for $1,021. The selling price was $1,500 before deducting the commission. “People have a lot of money to spend on hobbies,” Hussey exclaimed. That’s where the interview ended. We had been standing amidst the fascinating clutter for more than an hour and a half. Although younger by far than Hussey, I was exhausted. He could have talked eloquently of his remarkable collection for the rest of the day.

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