Millions of baby boomer musical memories connect to Terre Haute.
In their teens or twenties, they sent their 12-album forms for a penny to the Columbia House Record Club at 1 Music Lane in Terre Haute, Indiana. In pre-internet days, record club ads on the backs of magazines sounded like a sound smörgåsbord to the FM radio crowd. Just pencil in the code numbers for “Fragile” by Yes, “Harvest” by Neil Young, “The Greatest Hits of Simon and Garfunkel” and nine others – Holy cow! – and in a matter of weeks, a box of vinyl records arrives at your doorstep. “Don’t send money.” “No tampon is needed.”
Young Americans have worn out their headphones.
The days of penny music are over. Columbia House left town in 2009, consolidating its operations in Indianapolis. On Monday, the latest iteration of the company – which now markets only DVDs and is owned by Filmed Entertainment Inc. in Los Angeles – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, according to the Wall Street Journal. An iconic former giant of the industry who once employed generations of Hauteans is dying out.
At its peak, Columbia House employed more than 1,200 people in its distribution plant, while more than 5,000 worked in the huge associated Columbia Records factory on Fruitridge Avenue. The record club connected the world to both facilities.
“If you weren’t a member, you remember being asked to become a member,” said Steve Witt, president of Terre Haute Economic Development Corp.
Of course, for record buyers, the Terre Haute connection didn’t end with the offer of the dozen albums for a dime. Columbia House, after all, was a business. To close the deal, he had to join the club and agree to buy 10 more albums at “regular club prices” over the next two years. Some returned unwanted “record of the month” selections. Others, according to legend, tried to rip off the system by using fake names to get a dozen free albums. For most people, however, Columbia House offered the world a mail order record store – a concept considered routine today, but revolutionary in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We were number 1 in music,” said Judy Hesler, who retired from Columbia House in Terre Haute six years ago.
Hesler started at the warehouse part-time in 1973 and worked there until a month before operations moved elsewhere in 2009. Over those 37 years, she has seen music come out of Columbia House in the form of vinyl records, reel to reel tapes, 8 track tapes and cassettes, before embarking on DVD in its last era. His first job was to hand-pack cassettes into shipping boxes.
“The first one I remember was Bread,” Hesler said. (For those under 40, ’70s band Bread played soft rock.)
Hesler later worked in Columbia House’s installment sales department, which dealt with music and pop culture products like book sets, shirts, key chains, and calendars. Towards the end, she was taking care of the employee store, where Columbia House employees and a guest could purchase the returned products.
For many years, she worked at the Columbia House sales warehouse, which opened the distribution center to the general public to purchase albums, tapes, and posters. “These were huge,” Hesler said of periodic sales. “They were lining up all night. You would think they were going to a rock concert, they were so popular.
I can attest to that. I stood in these lines.
Columbia House, as well as Columbia Records, were local institutions in the second half of the 20th century. The record factory opened in 1955 and the record club moved to Terre Haute from New York the following year. In 1963, 10% of American music purchases – nearly 24 million albums – came from the Columbia House Record Club. Occasionally, Columbia Records artists such as pop rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders and singer Tom Jones have toured the facilities. In 1996, its revenues peaked at $ 1.4 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, but fell to $ 17 million last year.
Today, companies like Spotify and iTunes deliver music digitally, replacing the physical sound format that Columbia House once ruled.
Yet the place has created a legacy here that endures. When potential employers, especially storage companies, visit Terre Haute, Witt and business development officials here highlight the success of Columbia House and Columbia Records. “The company has a lot of notoriety and prestige,” Witt said. “And the fact that he belonged to CBS and that he had such a large presence in Terre Haute was a point of pride.”
This town provided labor for a company, as Witt put it, “which served the whole country, if not the world.”
The former Columbia House building, owned by Sony, is vacant and available. “It’s in excellent condition,” said Witt.
And the address remains the same.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or [email protected]