Throwback hits keep historic bank-turned-cultural center alive.
Some people take great pride in their music—meticulously cataloging their collection, insisting only upon the highest quality listening experiences. But few go to the length of housing their beloved records inside a bank vault.
Steve Cotherman, the extroverted manager of the Washburn Cultural Center, jams to his own rhythm. That asymmetric style may explain why he decided to open a record shop inside a room only big enough for two occupants at a time.
A tall man with a graying beard, Cotherman keeps his shoulder-length hair pulled back in a ponytail under his baseball cap. He spent several boisterous minutes explaining with wild hand gestures that he is “a talker.”
When asked why he moved from Wyoming to a small town on the shore of Lake Superior in Wisconsin’s Bayfield County, Cotherman launched into a 10-minute monologue that touched on topics as diverse as profane advice from his mother and a local celebrity famous for dancing.
Cotherman is proud of the community he calls home, so much so that many of his answers were interjected with suggestions of Washburn neighbors who he felt would be compelling subjects of future stories.
This eclectic champion of Washburn is a perfect reflection of the Washburn Cultural Center where he chose to set up his record stand.
The three-story brownstone building, located along Highway 13, used to serve as a bank for the lakeside community of 2,000. Today, it serves as equal parts art show, history museum, and antique shop.
In the 1990s, the structure faced the possibility of demolition after many years of ill care until wealthy benefactors stepped in, saved the structure, and established the Washburn Cultural Center.
Perfect Place for Records
Cotherman and his Vinyl Vault did not enter the picture until 2016. After semi-retiring from a longtime job working for the state on nearby Madeline Island, Cotherman took one look at the vault space inside the building and knew it needed a purpose.
“There was a bunch of hodgepodge stuff sitting in here for a million years,” Cotherman said. “It wasn’t selling, and nobody went in this little space because it was kind of creepy.”
Cotherman knew he wanted the vault to offer a product difficult to find in Wisconsin’s North Woods, yet with plenty of untapped demand. It did not take him long to find the answer in one of his own passions: music.
Cotherman recognized a resurgent interest in vinyl in his kids’ generation–a phenomenon he chalked up as a reaction to the frictionless listening offered by online music streaming.
“People are collecting vinyl again because it sounds better, because it’s a tactile experience, because you have to get up out of your chair to flip the record over,” Cotherman said. “You can’t just turn on your phone and be passive about it.”
The old bank vault, still equipped with its thick metal door, is labeled with large white letters that read “VINYL VAULT.” Inside is a collection of hundreds of records from a diverse set of genres.
Cotherman is proud that his collection does not include “junk,” and that it offers value to both the aficionado and record novice alike. He said that anyone looking to start listening to music on vinyl could come into the shop and leave with a solid foundation, replete with a record player.
Sales from the vault and the antique shop that surrounds it are important because they support the Cultural Center and the building it inhabits. The art shows, community space, and museum are free to the public. Any maintenance and other expenses incurred by the building are paid, at least in part, by sales from the tiny record stand, according to Cotherman.
While the Vinyl Vault is the draw to the Cultural Center, Cotherman is the real prize. Always good for a story or 10, he is the perfect guru for any wayward wanderer off the street, ready to extol the virtues of his community and his music.
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