‘Still weird after all these years:’ Burlington record store celebrates 50 years
Music has changed through the years, and so has the way we buy and listen to it. But one thing that’s remained constant is Weird Harold’s. The record shop in downtown Burlington is making plans for a 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday, Nov. 19.
Weird Harold’s opened in a tiny building on Central Street in 1972, a time when the likes of The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Stevie Wonder ruled the music charts.
Danny Bessine was Weird Harold’s original owner. He said he started out selling 8-track tapes because only one other store in town was selling them. He also had some vinyl.
Bessine said he was not a huge music fan when he opened Weird Harold’s.
“Nope, not at all. I was just an entrepreneur looking for a business, and I felt that this was a business that we needed in this town,” he said.
But Bessine did become a big music fan over time. He especially enjoys classic rock acts such as The Eagles and Eric Clapton.
Bessine said one of the best things about running the store is meeting the variety of people who come in to shop.
He said it’s also fun to meet celebrities. He said Johnny Cash and Roy Clark have come in to the store, as did members of Guns ‘n’ Roses.
“Their very first tour, they stayed in Burlington for a week, so they were in the store a lot,” Bessine said.
He said Weird Harold’s used to sell tickets for concerts throughout the region, and concert promoters would give them two free tickets, which means he got to see a lot of shows.
Weird Harold’s moved to a couple other locations before eventually settling into its current storefront at 411 Jefferson St. in the mid-1980s.
Why the name Weird Harold’s?
Bessine said Weird Harold was one of the characters from the Fat Albert cartoon.
He wanted an original name that people would remember, and didn’t think “Danny's Record Shop" was a memorable name.
Looking for a job
Andrea Fritz started working at Weird Harold’s in 1994.
“I was 16 and I needed a job, and I was hired. And I’ve never left,” she said with a laugh.
Fritz said she had the most coveted job when she was a teenager and considers herself very lucky.
Yet, like Bessine, she was not a particularly big music fan when she started at Weird Harold’s, but she’s developed a passion for music through the years. Some of her favorites include Johnny Lang, Doyle Bramhall II, Tommy Castro, and Prince.
Fritz said she has stayed at Weird Harold’s all these years because it never felt like a job, and it eventually led to a significant change for her and the shop.
Bessine sold the store to Fritz in 2019.
“She is now the owner and I just kind of come in and help out,” he said. “Do a little book work and don’t do a lot of labor but just do book work and that kind of stuff. The last couple years it’s been that way.”
Fritz added, “We switched roles. Everything’s different but everything is still the same kind of situation.”
They didn’t tell anyone, and made a quiet transition. They said everything has worked out fine.
Bessine said the first few years of running the store in the early ‘70s were rough, but he stuck with it and, even in retirement, he’s still showing up every day.
“During this last 50 years that we’ve had the store, it’s been enjoyable to go to work. It’s not what I would consider work. It’s just been fun. That’s why I’m still here even though I’m retired. I still come in because I enjoy it,” he said.
Fritz and Bessine said they get customers from around the world. Some people stumble across the store but others hear about it from fellow collectors or come across their online presence.
And first-time customers are often impressed when they come into the shop.
“A lot of times they’re like, ‘Oh my god, this is my first time in here, this is so cool.’ And then I’ll be like, have you been upstairs to see the 50,000 records upstairs? ‘No, oh my gosh’ and then they’ll come down like, ‘I’ve never seen so many records in my life,’” Fritz said.
Fritz said the store adds to its used record collection every day. They don’t need to seek out records because people are always bringing in stuff.
They’re seeing more vinyl than CDs now. The shop sells 10 vinyl albums for every CD now. That used to be the other way around.
Why do people still buy vinyl records when they can download albums and have them right away?
Bessine said there are many other ways of getting music if you just want the music.
“But if you’re a collector and you want to have an experience, you buy vinyl. It’s a whole different experience,” he said.
“When you’re listening to a vinyl record, you don’t just turn it on and listen to one song and shut it off. You usually listen to the whole side of a vinyl. You sit down, you listen to it, you look at the cover. It’s a while different experience.”
Fritz said there’s a difference between someone who just listens to music and someone who loves music.
A music listener might hear a song and download it if they like it enough.
“But a music lover loves a band, loves an artist, they can tell you everything about it. They know all the words to all the songs. They collect everything. They go to the shows. They know the band members. They know the triangle player in the touring band. They know all that,” she said.
One long-time customer is Jordan Garnjobst. He was born and raised in Burlington, and bought his very first album with his own money at Weird Harold’s many year ago.
“It was Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out,’” he said, adding he played it every day as loud as his little stereo would go.
Garnjobst now lives in Macomb, Ill, about an hour drive from Burlington, but he still goes back to southeast Iowa to visit family. And when he does, more likely than not he will stop by Weird Harold’s.
“It’s just important to me that every town should have a record store. It’s been there my whole life and I’ll continue to buy from there,” he said.
He estimated that he bought his first 100 albums at Weird Harold’s.
He does shop at record stores in other communities, but finds himself coming back to Weird Harold’s. He said it is rare and amazing to see a record store last this long.
“It’s been around almost 50 years. Almost what, 50 years in November? How can you not support something like that?” Garnjobst said. “And (they’ve) adapted to the internet and sell stuff online and kind of just kind of have survived.”
Diversify, diversify, diversify
The store was closed for about six weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, but Fritz said she was still coming to the store fill out orders for their eBay store.
“And I would see people come to the door, and if they wanted something, I’d go get it for them and sell it to them and take it to the door to them,” she said.
The store sold a lot online during that time, and Fritz also had to keep their correctional facility orders flowing.
Bessine said Weird Harold’s has been selling music to prisoners for close to 30 years. They sell to prisons all around Iowa, Nebraska, and other states. He said it’s helped keep the doors open.
It’s not something they set out to do. It started with the Iowa State Penitentiary in nearby Fort Madison.
“At that time it was cassettes. They were only allowed to get cassettes, and at that time they were buying them from a store down in Fort Madison. That store went out of business so they started looking around for somebody else to take over and that’s when we took over,” Bessine said.
Now it’s become a big part of the business. They send out stuff to prisons every day, though now it’s CDs rather than cassettes.
The store has also diversified in other ways through the years.
When CD sales started to decline, the store added more music-related items such as t-shirts, posters, and stickers. Now those items have also become an important part of the business.
He said about one-third of their sales are accessories, one-third comes from mail orders, and the other third is what’s sold in the store.
Fritz said business has been steady since the pandemic, and she anticipates continuing Weird Harold’s for the foreseeable future.
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