Terre Haute Remembers Columbia House After Bankruptcy

Millions of baby boomers’ music memories connect to Terre Haute.

As teenagers or twenty-somethings, they mailed their 12-albums-for-a-penny forms to the Columbia House Record Club at 1 Music Lane in Terre Haute, Indiana.

In those pre-Internet days, the record club ads in the back of magazines looked like a sonic smorgasbord to the FM radio crowd. Just pencil in the code numbers for Fragile by Yes, Neil Young’s Harvest, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, and nine others and within weeks, a box of vinyl discs shows up at your doorstep. “Send no money.” ‘‘No stamp needed.”

Young Americans wore out their headphones.

The days of penny music are gone. Columbia House left town in 2009, consolidating operations in Indianapolis. On Monday, the final iteration of the company – now marketing just DVDs and owned by Filmed Entertainment Inc. in Los Angeles – filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. An iconic, former industry giant that once employed generations of Terre Haute residents is vanishing.

At its peak, Columbia House employed more than 1,200 people at its distribution plant, while another 5,000-plus worked at the massive companion Columbia Records plant on Fruitridge Avenue. The record club connected the world to both facilities.

“If you weren’t a member, you remember being solicited to be a member,” said Steve Witt, president of the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp.

Of course, for record buyers, the Terre Haute connection didn’t end with the dozen-albums-for-a-cent offer. Columbia House, after all, was a business. Getting the bargain required joining the club and agreeing to buy 10 more albums at “regular club prices” during the next two years. Some mailed back unwanted “record of the month” selections. Others, as legend has it, tried to scam the system by using fake names to get a dozen free albums.

For most folks, though, Columbia House gave the world a mail-order record shop – a concept considered routine today, but revolutionary in the 1960s and ‘70s.

“We were the number 1 go-to place for music,” said Judy Hesler, who retired from Columbia House in Terre Haute six years ago.

Hesler started at the warehouse as a part-timer in 1973 and worked there until a month before operations moved elsewhere in 2009. Through those 37 years, she saw music flow out of Columbia House in the form of vinyl LPs, reel-to-reel tapes, 8-track tapes and cassette tapes, before branching into DVDs in its latter era. Her first job was hand-wrapping cassette tapes into boxes to be shipped out.

Later, Hesler worked in Columbia House’s installment sales department, which handled music and pop-culture merchandise like book sets, shirts, key chains and calendars. Near the end, she staffed the employee store, where Columbia House workers and a guest could shop for returned products.

For many years, she worked at the Columbia House warehouse sales, which opened the distribution center up to the general public to purchase albums, tapes and posters.

“Those were huge,” Hesler said of periodic sales. “They’d wait in line all night long. You’d think they were going to a rock concert, they were so popular.”

Columbia House, along with Columbia Records, were local institutions in the second half of the 20th century. The record plant opened in 1955, and the record club moved to Terre Haute from New York City the following year

By 1963, 10 percent of Americans’ music buys – nearly 24 million albums – came through the Columbia House Record Club. Occasionally, Columbia Records artists such as pop rockers Paul Revere and the Raiders and singer Tom Jones visited the facilities. By 1996, its revenues peaked at $1.4 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, but shrank to $17 million last year.

Today, firms such as Spotify and iTunes supply music digitally, replacing the physical sound format Columbia House once ruled.

Still, the place created a legacy here that lingers. When prospective employers, especially warehousing firms, tour Terre Haute, Witt and economic development officials point out the success of Columbia House and Columbia Records here.

“The company has a great deal of name recognition and prestige,” Witt said. “And the fact that it was owned by CBS and had such a significant presence in Terre Haute was a point of pride.”

This town provided manpower for a company, as Witt put it, “that served the entire country, if not the world.”

The old Columbia House building, owned by Sony, is vacant and available. “It’s in excellent condition,” Witt emphasized.

And the address remains the same.