With today's youth rediscovering the pleasures of the vinyl record, it's only a short walk across the hall to travel back into history and explore their great-grandparents' version of hi-fi. In early April, Willie Weber, son of the owner of Squirrel Hill-based Jerry's Records, opened Whistlin' Willie's, a 78 RPM emporium which stocks thousands of the shatterable shellacs -- jazz, blues, country, big band, classical, pre-war "old-time" and early rock 'n' roll.
Weber, 31, grew up working in his dad's warehouse and venturing on record-buying missions. "I started finding so many good 78s that I started collecting them," he says. When 720 Records and Heads Together closed their Squirrel Hill locations in Jerry's building, Weber used the space to turn his obsession into a business. He keeps prices under $3 per disc (most are $2), but an Elvis Presley can be worth $20-30, while a Hank Williams could go for $7-8.
Most modern turntables, however, don't have a 78 setting -- the format was out of production by the early '60s -- so Weber also proffers solutions for the budding collector. Esoteric Sound makes vari-speed turntables in the $500 range, and Numark DJ models can also play 78s when the 33 and 45 buttons are both pushed. There's a company that retrofits Technics 1200s to play 78s, but Jerry's already offers a cheaper option: three-speed Califones with cute little handled cases. "We sell them every day for $50-60 -- you can get one to bring records over to your friend's house."
The young entrepreneur is also trying his hand at making his own records with a Presto electric cutter from the late '40s. With a quarter-inch microphone jack, the machine records a master on the spot using a blank disc. He aspires to eventually create a 78 RPM label. "We'd need a studio, but I'd like to put out some bluegrass, blues and jazz. We could offer a service where you'd come in, make a record, then send it to a plant to get it pressed. There's a customer of mine who's pressing a three-record set of ragtime with a company in the Netherlands."
Since 78s only hold three to six minutes of music per side, the product can get unwieldy -- Weber's 19-record album of Handel's Messiah, weighing in at 20 pounds, is the opposite of a "compact" disc. The trade-off, Weber explains, is fidelity: "The quicker the speed, the more information the groove contains, so there are more highs and lows. With a good, clean copy, the sound blows you away."
Investigate the possibilities of the 78 RPM format at www.whistlinwillies.com.