MARK KESSLER Nov. 16, 1947-April 24, 2022

“It’s a lot quieter”

If Adams Street had a mayor, Mark Kessler qualified.

Genial? Could be, depending on circumstance. Genuine? Always. Shrewd? In spades, and bridge.

As co-owner of Recycled Records, Kessler could, gently, tell a hopeful customer that her late grandfather’s trove of Terry Baxter LP’s might be best off at Goodwill. He was sharp with the sketchy, ordering suspected shoplifters off premises in a voice leaving no room for argument before returning to the nice lady with the Baxter records. For trusted customers, Kessler, with a scale accurate for precious metals, would double-check the weight of purported grams of weed sold across the street at a pot emporium with which he had a love-hate relationship: He liked businesses that drew people downtown, but not everyone was welcome.

When nearby business owners got ga-ga over the prospect of Adams Street permanently becoming pedestrian only, Kessler asked how customers could deliver heavy boxes of records to his store if cars were banned. He loved to talk – parking issues were perennial, and he was quick to give a quarter so that customers absent change wouldn’t risk a ticket.

Kessler didn’t suffer for his opinions, witness when he won the 2019 Wally C. Henderson Award from Downtown Springfield Inc. for lifetime achievement. Only by insistence did Kessler attend the banquet – he showed up because the group’s executive director, according to a State Journal-Register story, told him that he must be there, without telling him why.

He had at least one acknowledged weakness: He never gained online savvy, and so Recycled Records always was a local game. If you wanted spoken-word instructional LPs for airplane pilots, or a deeply discounted disc of (Turn On) The Music Machine, you had to visit Kessler’s shop.

Kessler spent nearly a lifetime in the Adams Street building where his grandparents opened a furniture store in 1910 after immigrating from Russia. Upon graduating from high school, Kessler went on to Southern Illinois University, where he fell prey to bridge.

“He learned to play bridge with a great player, with three or four other people who became incredible bridge players,” says Gary Kessler, Mark’s brother and Recycled Records co-owner. “Bridge causes more divorces and more dropouts than any other thing in this world – anybody who plays bridge is going to do something bad. It’s more addicting than any drug. You find yourself playing with other fine players, you find yourself playing bridge all night and sleeping all day. That’s what happened. He also played a lot of pool – he almost put himself through college hustling pool and playing bridge.”

But cards got the better of him, Gary says, and so Kessler left SIU for Simpson College in Indiana, where the campus was quiet and all-night bridge sessions rare. After graduating with a degree in business, Kessler got married and landed a job running a hardware store in Maywood. The marriage didn’t last. By the late 1970s, Kessler was back in Springfield. His brother, who’d been studying zoology in Pennsylvania, returned about the same time.

By then, Kessler had developed an affinity for secondhand treasures, and he was familiar with Chicago-area record stores. “One of the things he was trying to do at flea markets was sell records,” Gary Kessler says. “Mother said, ‘Throw them up on the balcony, maybe someone will buy one.’”

So was born the sign outside the Kessler store. “Springfield Furniture” still has top billing, with “Recycled Records” underneath. Only the upper floor is devoted to vinyl, with bins full of classics and the obscure amid scant decoration.

Downstairs is a celebration of records, posters, neon, antiques and sundry weirdness. Chairs and other furniture are in the basement.

Lack of air conditioning notwithstanding, you could tell the season by Kessler’s hair. During fall and winter, his white locks were straight; come summer, he favored tight-curled perms. It was, says his widow, Kathy, a matter of practicality for someone who knew that the second person to a good yard sale was the first loser. “In the summertime, he was up at 5 and out the door by 5:30,” she says. “He didn’t have time to fuss over hair.” Kessler was picky, his brother says.

“There was no one who was more particular about his appearance than Mark,” Gary Kessler says. “Even when he wore T-shirt and jeans, it was really wonderful jeans and a good T-shirt.”

Kessler met Kathy in 1981 at the Crow’s Nest during a Vanessa Davis show. “She had quite a following,” Kathy recalls. “We ended up being squished together.” The relationship begun in a mosh pit became a marriage in 1984. Kessler was raised Jewish and graduated from Springfield High School; his widow is Catholic and went to Sacred Heart-Griffin. Kessler could size up a garage sale in minutes. She had to pick things up and ponder. He liked to talk, she did not. Those differences didn’t matter.

“I think we had a lot of the same core values,” Kathy Kessler says. “The artworks we had, we both loved. We were so happy when we were on vacation and spent time together. Mark is larger than life, I’m quiet. We just meshed.”

But not on everything.

“I remember one time he brought home a scale, one of those porcelain scales,” Kathy Kessler says. “I said it is absolutely not coming in the house – it was a counter scale, heavy and ugly. He loved it. He couldn’t believe I didn’t love it, too.” The scale lived in the garage awhile before disappearing – Kathy suspects from a Recycled Records shelf. Eventually a rule was established: If Kessler brought one thing in the house, two things had to go. She thinks he cheated, having found a vintage get-the-tiny-ball-in-the-tiny-hole toy stashed on a shelf.

Kessler’s knowledge of music defined vast, and employees knew at least as much as he did. His favorite artist? That’s easy: The Who, at high volume. His home listening room was small, Kathy says.

“I’d be upstairs, yelling ‘Turn it down! Turn it down!’” Kathy Kessler says.

The end came sudden. Kessler had fatigue. Losing weight, he went to a doctor. When lab test results came in, the doctor called: Go to the emergency room, we think you have a pulmonary blood clot. Kathy figured he’d be home soon. He died nine days later from lung cancer. Once a heavy smoker, he’d quit five years ago.

The sign outside the store remains, as does kitsch inside. But one thing has changed.

“It’s a lot quieter,” Gary Kessler said.

About The Author

Bruce Rushton

Bruce Rushton is a freelance journalist.

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