Remembering Ross Kolhonen

Ross Kolhonen’s life was celebrated yesterday morning at Conway, Cahill-Brodeur Funeral Home. The Peabody native died at age 71 on December 1, from complications of heart disease. It’s inconceivable that it was his ticker that gave out, because there’s never been a bigger-hearted soul than Ross Kolhonen.

To many, the mention of his name will elicit a puzzled look. Who’s he? But for those who love music, play golf, worship the Celtics, worked out at the Salem Y, run marathons, enjoy discussing current events or traveling the world, Ross was The (Renaissance) Man.

I first met Ross, whom I knew as “Skip,” back in the mid-’70s at the Record Exchange, the tiny store for music lovers and collectors he opened on the first floor of the Lafayette Hotel in Salem. One Saturday, I was visiting my mother’s aunt, who ironically lived in the very Washington Street building that the Record Exchange has called home since 1989. She wanted to grab a Schlitz at Lonnie’s, which was across the street from Skip’s store. Later, after walking a pickled Aunt Alyce back to her apartment, I returned to spend most of the day chatting with the owner and eagerly checking out bootleg albums and obscure vinyl.

The Record Exchange was home away from home for music-loving misfits like me. We’d spend hours talking about our favorite musicians and turning each other on to little-known bands we’d discovered in the days before The Interweb and The Google. Cool music was always playing. One day an album by The Collins Kids, an obscure rockabilly brother and sister, rocked from the speakers. “Bill. what do you think of this?” asked Skip. It, along with dozens of other records he recommended, are still in my collection.

Woolworth’s used to sell boxes of 10 45s for, I think, 99 cents. One day, I rushed into the Record Exchange clutching a single of “The Witch” by a band called The Sonics. It was raw, wild garage rock. I couldn’t wait to share it with everyone. Skip walked over to where the “S” records were, and, right between albums by the Small Faces and Spirit was a copy of the Sonics’ debut. I didn’t buy it; I wish I had.

Occasionally I’d bring a young lady I was romancing into the store. One, after about 20 minutes,  had had more than enough of my looking at the backside of record albums rather than at her’s. Skip noticed her agitation. “How long have you been married,” he asked as I approached the counter with that day’s bounty. “We’ve been dating a couple of weeks. How come?” Skip just smiled. Within a week the romance fizzled, and I was soothing my wounds listening to Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours” and Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out the Lights,” two albums that I first heard at the Record Exchange.

The Kinks are my favorite band. Skip knew this. During my visits, at both the old place and the current store, a klassic Kinks album always seemed to show up on the turntable. Years later, Skip reached behind the counter and handed me a Japanese copy of The Kinks’ debut record in orange vinyl. “Haven’t seen you in a while. I’ve been saving this for you for months,” he said, refusing to accept any money for his rare find.

Years went by, and I lost touch with Skip and my Record Exchange family. A few years ago, out of the blue, Skip phoned me at the Boston Herald, where I was then working. He saw my byline on a story about Tom Jones. “Liked your review, Bill,”  he said. I was stunned, not so much that he called, but that liberal Democrat Skip had read the Herald. “Oh, someone left it on the counter at the Little Depot Diner, and I saw your name,” he said. Turns out, Skip had his own stool at the downtown Peabody hotspot, one of his favorite hangouts.

I’m not alone in thinking that Skip was a remarkable person. His sister Faye wrote a most extraordinary obituary that captures the essence of the Tao of Skip; it can be seen at legacy.com. Paul “Baz” Bazylinski, who started at the Record Exchange in 1984, posted a heartfelt tribute on the store’s Facebook page. Dozens of individuals from all walks of life shared their condolences  on social media.

Baz, a former teacher at St. Mary’s in Lynn and other schools, got to know Skip in 1977-78 during his many visits to the Record Exchange. “In 1980, my first year as a teacher, I also got a job at Rockit Records in Saugus. I left Rockit in ’84, and Skip contacted me. ‘There’s a job here if and when you need one,’ he said. Once you were in Skip’s orbit of the Record Exchange, you were part of the family.

“Skip passed on a Friday. The next day, people were in and out (of the store) all day. They brought food, shared memories, laughed, shed tears and shared hugs,” added Baz, who traveled with Skip to Belgium last summer. “I’ll treasure those memories forever. For me, it was a wonderful personal relationship. He was the older brother I never had.”

Barrence Whitfield, a Beverly resident who has a successful career as a powerhouse R&B singer/bandleader, has worked at the Record Exchange off and on since 1991. “Oh, the stories we shared riding around in his 1949 truck … Skip was a good person. He was the most genuine, generous, compassionate guy. He went out of his way to get to know you.”

And the Record Exchange will soldier on under Baz’s guidance. “All of us who work here are committed to keeping Skip’s legacy and spirit alive.”

Skip’s spirit does indeed live on. When I dropped by the store last week, Barrence popped The Kinks’ “Face to Face” into the CD player. “I remember ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ is one of your favorite Kinks songs,'” he said with a smile. Yup, Skip’s baby is in good hands.

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