"You get a sense of time, in the immediacy of the voices," adds archivist Tim Brooks. "In 1895 there was literally someone standing in the room, literally speaking or singing to you."

Around the turn of the century, wax cylinders were supplanted by shellac discs, which offered better sound quality and were easier to mass-produce and store, but the recording process remained unchanged. Carell has a photo of a group of singers and musicians, all dressed in formal attire, huddled around a single phonograph, leaning toward the horn. He cues up an opera disc to demonstrate the immediacy of the old recordings. "This is from Lucia [di Lammermoor]," he explains. "The title translates as 'What Restrains Me.' It's a nice orderly piece of music, and they're all going ape!"

Alan Carell received his first three 78s in 1953, when he was eight years old, as a gift from his grandmother. "A minute and twenty seconds later," he recalls, "she had a serious collector."

Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder device. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
Bruce Stinchcomb's wax cylinder device. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
A late 1800s gramophone. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.
Jennifer Silverberg
A late 1800s gramophone. Video: Meet the Men Who Own 50 Tons of 78s. Literally.

One was a song called "Apple Blossoms," another the violinist Jascha Heifetz's rendition of "Waltz of the Flowers" and the third soprano Alma Gluck singing "Listen to the Mocking Bird." He still has them.

It wasn't just the music. "I liked the boxy, wooden sound of earlier recordings," Carell says. "I thought, 'It sounds like the inside of my head!'"

As the youngest member of a four-generation household, the eldest of whom had been born in the 1850s, Carell grew up among people who had lived through the acoustic age. His grandmother and uncle indulged his taste for old records and took him to junk shops, where he bought as many as he could. By his teens he had firmly established his mission to collect what he calls "a document of things that no longer exist." The things he was documenting weren't the records themselves, but the bits of culture they contained: the songs, the slang, the historical references, the way people sang and spoke.

This wasn't hard to do. By 1914, annual production had increased to 25 million platters. Not even the threat of radio — it was free! — could stop the record industry. Stealing its rival's amplification technology, recording went electric in 1925. Overnight, everything changed. Singers no longer had to belt their songs. The electronic recordings allowed for a much wider range of pitch and tones.

"Music from the 1920s sounds modern," Stinchcomb reflects. "The world changed from the early to the late '20s because of electronics. It got noisier. People born in the 19th century complained about the noise."

The noise stopped, briefly, during the Depression. Record production and sales, particularly at small labels, dwindled. Some records sold as few as 200 copies, of which only one or two might survive today. If Carell and Tussey had intended to make money off their collection, those were the records they should have sought.

But Tussey, the electronic-era expert, first became interested in records in the form they took after World War II: as fodder for jukeboxes.

"I would go over to a friend's house," he remembers, "and he had all these jukeboxes and pinball machines in the basement. I asked if I could play a song on the jukebox. I thought it was neat. I'd never heard a song on a 78 before."

Jukeboxes were the last gasp of the 78s. Vinyl LPs emerged in 1947, smaller and lighter and able to hold a lot more music. "Between 1950 and 1956 was the end of 78s," says Lew Prince, co-owner of Vintage Vinyl and the house specialist in 78s. "There was a big switch to 33s. The last 78s were on Southern jukeboxes: jazz, Chicago blues, Hank Williams, rockabilly, because that was what those people listened to."

Tussey's first 78, which he still has framed on his wall, falls neatly into that category: Sam Cooke's "You Send Me." He got it from the friend who had the jukeboxes in his basement. He quickly became an obsessive.

"I used to go out and take a record with me and stop at every store and ask, 'Do you have any of these?' I bought a lot of records I knew nothing about. At first I wanted to collect rock and Elvis, because that's what I knew about. But then I started to travel back in time." He collected Ada Jones. He collected ethnic dialect songs. He collected European versions of Tin Pan Alley hits. ("Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" translates to Swedish as "Halluluja I' A' Koling.") He collected a roomful of kiddie records. He collected British music hall (a cousin to American vaudeville) and novelty records, including a dozen songs about snoring. He's working on a book about the history of record labels and sleeves.

Tussey and Carell met in Portland in 1996 — but not over records. Tussey'd answered Carell's classified ad offering VHS movies for sale. The two got to talking, and Carell confessed he had a basement filled with 78s. "We fast became kindred spirits," Tussey recalls. "I was happy to find Al. People who are serious record collectors are few and far between."

In 2000 Tussey returned to St. Louis, where he'd grown up, and became acquainted with Stinchcomb through the Gateway Antique Phonograph Society. They realized they shared an important philosophical difference from other members of the group: They didn't care about the machines. They believed, as Tussey puts it, that "the real treasure of collectors of records and phonographs is in the grooves."

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