Victrolas crank out profit for lilelong enthusiast

Friday, July 19, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 29
By Joe Morris

Carl Zehner began collecting, restoring and turning a profit on Victrolas at a young age. He’s continued his hobby/business for 60 years.

-- Photo By Joe Morris |The Ledger

In the world of estates and antiques, there are always niche markets. Costume jewelry, particular types of furniture and appliances and collectibles of all kinds can always find a home.

For several decades, Nashville-based antiques dealer Carl Zehner has capitalized on being in Music City to tap into a different group: phonograph enthusiasts.

Zehner began his career in the antiques business more than 60 years ago when he saved lawn-mowing money earned during Ohio summers to hit yard sales and auctions and pick up furniture and knick-knacks on the cheap.

“I stored it all in our basement until I had spent $150, then called in an auctioneer to pick it up,” Zehner recalls. “He loaded up a truck, sold it, took his percentage and gave me a check for $900. After that, my parents let me take money out of my savings account to buy things.”

He agrees with estate sellers’ assessment of the market now for big pieces of furniture, as well as crystal and china. But one item, he says, will always be of interest: the phonograph, better known as the Victrola (although that name refers to phonographs made and sold by the Victor Talking Machine Company, it has become a generic term for phonographs).

Zehner has been collecting and restoring them for years, first selling out of the Harpeth Antique Mall, which he owned and operated until a few years ago, and now both from home and at Bright’s Antique World in Franklin, Kentucky.

“People talk about how things come back around; Victrolas never stopped,” he says. “People still want that antique phonograph, because they look neat and the sound is great. It doesn’t just sit there – it has a function.”

He also services what he sells, having learned how to rebuild the devices at an early age when he was a budding antiques entrepreneur. Need new needles (for both loud and soft sounds)? Or a stack of new records? Maybe you’ve found a phonograph but it’s lacking innards? He’s your guy.

“We had one in the attic that I brought down when I was around 10, and it needed parts,” he recalls. “I put an ad in the newspaper to buy more, and so by the time I was in high school I had a bunch of them that I had been able to fix up.

“I put them all on display during a big festival and charged a 15-cent admission for people to look and listen. This was the late 1950s, and I ended up making about $2,000 between the admissions and on selling some of them.

“I still love working on them, fixing them up and finding good homes for them.”