by Will Lindner
St. Albans might be a center of musical culture
Jim Peters, David Norbeck, and Peter Ford run a thriving mail-order business from their St. Albans home. Norbeck, Peters & Ford LLC deals in recordings of historical performances from the beginning of recorded sound through the 1960s.
Things bother Jim Peters when he listens to a performance of classical music, chamber music, or opera, that few other people would notice. By the same token, there are elements of purity, character, and individuality in other performances that inspire him and for which he is grateful, but which, alas, might also escape most listeners.
He finds these positive qualities, almost exclusively, in recorded performances from the 1920s through the 1960s, with an emphasis on the earlier decades within that range. Discriminating listeners who are attuned to those subtleties and equally appreciative of them are Peters’ — and David Norbeck’s and Peter Ford’s — customers.
In a house on Congress Street in St. Albans, close to downtown but with a barn and the earmarks of a former farmstead, is where the three men live and conduct their business. The house dates back to at least the 1850s, says Ford; he has seen references to it in local historical records.
Now, as the headquarters of Norbeck, Peters & Ford, it is a dispensary, quite literally, of “historical records”: 78 rpm phonograph records that contain within their aging grooves sounds of music captured 50, 80, even 100 years ago.
Of course, it is the music, more than the technology, that matters most — despite Peters’ nostalgia for those days in the 1950s when he listened by the hour to 78s on his grandmother’s Victrola in Burlington. Nowadays, Norbeck, Peters & Ford deals primarily in compact discs, which, despite their digital format, deliver precious performances from a bygone era.
“We started in this business of phonograph records in 1972,” says Peters. This was before Ford joined the company. “Old 78s. This was in Woodstock, N.Y. I was doing the research, buying the records, and assembling the catalogs. David was the bookkeeper.
“Around 1984, it was David who stated that we ought to carry CDs, and I about had a fit! I wanted no part of them; didn’t consider them records; still don’t.”
Rather than going to war, Peters compromised. “We would carry a few CDs,” he allowed, “historical recordings from original 78s.”
Their first catalog in the “new” era contained about 50 pages of 78s and half a page of compact discs. “I was so sure they wouldn’t sell,” says Peters. “Lo and behold, they all sold out overnight. Now I had to order more, and just to prove how wrong I had been, I had to order them by the box-load. We wound up being overtaken by them.”
CDs constitute the majority of their business, such that they do only one 78 rpm catalog per year (still quite impressive for a technology that almost predates the concept of “technology”).
In this regard, Peters allowed himself to be hauled forcibly into the modern era. The company has a Facebook presence, too, and its website, www.norpete.com, is an exhaustive virtual catalog of assiduously chosen symphonic, instrumental, and vocal music. Through it, they conduct business nearly everywhere in the world.
But Peters will brook no intrusion of modernity upon the content of their inventory. That — historical performances by, for the most part, long-deceased artists of exalted talent, dedication, and artistry — is untouchable.
They hearken from a time, Peters says, when an astute listener could identify the conductor of a symphony from the style of its performance, before they became globe-trotters leading homogenized orchestras in far-flung cities with diminished cultural identities; and when singers and instrumentalists lived, emotionally, completely upon the stage, rather than rushing back to the green room to check their text messages.
When life, in short, did not intrude upon the music.
Norbeck, Peters & Ford traces its origins to the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Peters, who is now 70, and Norbeck, now 73, moved from Boston to New York City.
Peters grew up in Burlington and graduated from Burlington High School. He then moved to Boston and earned a bachelor’s degree at Emerson College, all the while immersing himself in Boston’s classical music scene and frequenting the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In Boston he met Norbeck, a young educator from Maine who had grown up in Caribou and attended Bowdoin College. Upon graduating in 1959, Norbeck served in the U.S. Army for three years, after which he took a teaching position in Chelmsford, Mass.
All was well for Peters and Norbeck in the Boston area, but they were drawn to New York — Peters, primarily to follow his classical music muse. Norbeck had landed a teaching job at a private school on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. But Peters needed a job, too, and, almost incredibly, an employment agency found a placement for him in concert management.
“It was a matter of right place, right time,” says Peters. “It took off like wildfire.”
Soon he was representing some of the premier artists at the Metropolitan Opera, including soprano Eileen Farrell and baritone Sherrill Milnes. He describes his duties as “gopher work,” serving as liaison between the performers and the organizations around the U.S. and Canada that hired them.
Those were heady times for Peters, but eventually the city became a bit much for the sophisticated but, by their roots, small-town young men from Caribou and Burlington.
In 1972 they retreated to Woodstock, some 70 miles north of the city. It was three years after the iconic rock festival, and Woodstock was a place where art and community were valued and life was serene.
But the city was not about to let Peters go so easily. Sherrill Milnes had been abroad when Peters and Norbeck fled to Woodstock. When he returned and found Peters gone, “he was not pleased,” as Peters puts it.
Milnes phoned and offered a position as his secretary, and Peters soon found himself performing similar offices for violinist Pinchas Zukerman and Peter Schickele of P.D.Q. Bach fame.
“I tried to leave New York, but it kept calling me back,” he says.
While in Woodstock, Peters and Norbeck began collecting and selling records of vintage historical performances, and as their specialty business grew it afforded Peters the opportunity to finally sever ties to the city.
In 1990 they met Ford, newly arrived in Woodstock but a lifelong resident of the Hudson River Valley. Ford had briefly taught English literature at SUNY New Paltz, but left that profession to work as a paralegal for the Legal Services Corp. (known as Legal Aid).
“That was my career,” Ford emphasizes. “I’ve always been concerned about issues of social justice. I worked with legal services for the elderly poor, and to me that was fascinating and very important.”
Eventually, however, Ford was unable to balance the demands of a full-time job with caring for his aging mother. When he moved to Woodstock he was looking for work, and found Peters and Norbeck “living in the woods, which was typical there for creative people,” he says.
“They needed someone to do the practical things for the business, such as filling orders and talking to people on the phone. From my point of view, it was a perfect match.”
A threesome now, Norbeck, Peters & Ford had their bases covered: Peters searching, researching, and collecting; Ford handling communications and publicity; Norbeck keeping the books — while around them their beloved Woodstock was, in Peters’ words, becoming “crowded and yuppified, full of Mercedes and Lexuses.“ The town’s proximity to New York led to a steady immigration of affluent urbanites, particularly after 9/11.
After 30 years in Woodstock a move was in order — and Vermont beckoned.
“I always loved Vermont — always,” says the trio’s Vermont native, Jim Peters. “I nursed the idea of returning for many, many years. My goal had to been to arrive in Vermont by the age of 60, and we got here three months after my 60th birthday.”
Now 10 years into their Vermont domesticity, they live among the recordings and “ephemera,” as Ford calls the collection — signed and unsigned photos of historic artists, programs from the turn of the century (19th to 20th, obviously) — stashed in the barn and in most rooms of the house.
They have one employee, someone with the requisite computer skills for running a 21st-century business (dealing with, in some cases, 19th-century product). Ford, 65, serves on the city’s planning board.
“Vermont is such a good place to do business,” says Ford. “We can do our work very well from here — but it’s intriguing that we have so few customers in Vermont.” There are exactly two by Peter’s reckonong. “We’d like to make more connections in Vermont,” Ford continues.
Norbeck, Peters & Ford is a going, and apparently growing, concern. Voicing his one regret, Peters says, “We just don’t have time to listen to so many of the things with which we surround ourselves — these beautiful CDs and 78s. One always hopes that in retirement you’ll have time.”
Did someone say retirement?
“I’ve never been happier,” says Peters. “I love what we’re doing, and I don’t know how to spell the word ‘retire.’” •