My brother in law Kirk Walther passed away on Sept. 24. He died of cancer. For over 35 years he sold records in Iowa City.
In the beginning, he sold one small row of records out of a comic book store called Barfunkles that used to be on Burlington Street. I know this because well before he was family I walked in there and didn’t much like his inventory. It was mainly rock, and I was a jazz collector. From his tiny corner at Barfunkles he moved to his own location, put up a sign that read “The Record Collector” and then over the next 30-something years took the name with him through four or five different places — Prentiss Street, Linn Street, East Washington — until he settled into his last store back on South Linn.
Thirty-five years ago there were more than a few record stores in Iowa City. I couldn’t tell you why Kirk thought he had a shot selling records in a crowded market. Maybe he had no choice, maybe he just had a passion for it, but clearly he knew what he was doing. Eventually all the record stores went the way of the dodo except for one. Kirk’s store survived. I guess it’s obvious he had a passion for it. And that passion spread from him out into the world. That’s how passion works.
Iowa City, the town I grew up in, is a town of passionate teachers and artists, athletes and doctors. It’s world famous for this. I wanted to be a writer. However, coming out of City High School I was a C-minus student who couldn’t spell. One writing teacher at the University of Iowa changed my life in a week. I know the value of someone with passion who shares it with the rest of us. Writing became my life. Music sustained it. Thirty years in entertainment and I’ve never had an office without a stereo and a shelf of records. In those terrible, terrifying hours after midnight on a writing night at "Saturday Night Live" when nothing was working and my mind was tired and empty, I would put on my headphones and play records. Eventually, a song or maybe just a line or even a trombone solo was all I needed to get started on an idea. Music does that. I wrote a lot of sketches in my 13 years at "Saturday Night Live" listening to records.
A good used record store gives new life to old passions. A kid walks in and sees the posters, she flips through records she doesn’t know — something catches her eye or maybe they’re playing something she’s never heard before and she walks out of the store holding it. It could be the left turn she was hoping for. One song. This happens. I know it happens because it’s happened to me over and over again. For 35 years people walked out of Kirk’s record store with this chance at inspiration — a song or an artist gave them the courage to be who they wanted to be. Music, dumb pop music, classical music, punk, even barbershop quartet music moves us to kiss the girl, to hit the dance floor, to come out, to march for a cause, to dye our hair, to be vulnerable and share our passion, maybe even write a stupid sketch for "Saturday Night Live."
I know for an absolute scientific fact that more lives were changed walking out of the Record Collector than any class taught at the University of Iowa. Of course, this is coming from a comedy writer and not much of scientist, but I’ll let the statement stand. So often we forget that a seemingly banal and simple business hiding in a building can have as much influence on our community, on ourselves, as any one person. The Record Collector was one of those businesses.
Over the years Kirk’s store evolved. I’d drop in every once in a while to see what kind of stuff he was selling. He knew his market but more than that he loved music. His store was vital. He hired students. Visiting bands stopped by. He stocked their music. He had a cool store. He even got into jazz in a big way! After he married my sister, I always stopped by the store to talk records. Last spring I was in his store and he went to the back to get a record he wanted me to hear. He knew I liked female jazz singers, and this lady was unknown to both of us. He put it on the turntable and we both listened to her and then he said, “Can you believe it? I mean, just listen to her.” The astonishment, the excitement, the love of her voice, of the song, that’s how you keep a business alive for 35 years.
About a year ago I decided to dump around 2,000 records. A friend hooked me up with a kid in his late 20s who owned a record store in Brooklyn and worked at WFMU radio, one of the hippest radio stations in the country. He drove up to my barn in upstate New York and loaded 25 boxes of records I no longer needed into his truck. We got to talking about great record stores, The Princeton Record Exchange, Rasputin Records in San Francisco, Jazz Record Mart in Chicago to name a few, and then I told him about my brother in law’s record store in Iowa City, The Record Collector. His jaw dropped, “That’s your brother in law? I know that store. That store is legendary.”
I haven’t lived in Iowa City for over 30-something years. I live in New York and Los Angles. But there are people all over the world who felt the influence of Kirk Walther’s passion. It was legendary.