“There are collectors that like to keep it just the way they find it,” he said.
Lee prefers to rehab his Edison, Columbia and Victor phonographs so they appear like they might’ve looked in someone’s home after a few years of use.
“I don’t want it to look like it just came out of the store,” the 45-year-old Tupelo resident said.
Lee has about 105 machines, as well as accompanying flat records and wax cylinders, from the early part of the 20th century.
His garage was converted into a museum, though some of his prized pieces, including the one that used to be part of a chicken coop, are located throughout the house.
In one room, there’s a painting of Lee’s four children with a Victrola.
“I told my wife, ‘If your babies are in there, my babies are in there,’” he said.
Lee’s passion for old-timey entertainment began when he and his wife spent their free time visiting yard sales.
“We started buying older stuff,” he said. “We were fascinated by anything that doesn’t require electricity.”
He’s gone “digging” for old phonographs throughout the state, but the South isn’t the most fertile territory.
“For one thing, because of the Civil War, most people were broke,” he said. “Most of the ones you find are from people who retired down here and brought their machines with them.”
Lee gets about one-third of his machines on eBay, another third at conventions and the final third come from digging. He’s traveled to Nebraska, Texas and North Carolina to add to his collection.
People don’t always know what they have. He’s had people sell him the phonograph and throw in the cabinet for free. Often, the mahogany cabinets are worth more than the players.
“At times, you can buy a machine and it has records in it that cost more than the machine. I sell them, so I can buy more,” he said. “Sometimes, a brochure will be worth more than the phonograph.”
He doesn’t work with the guys on the TV show “American Pickers,” but there are people out there who know what Lee wants.
New finds need to be special. Lee realized his collection was threatening to overrun the house, so he’s put a limit on what he takes in.
“I promised my wife I wouldn’t add one unless I sold one,” he said.
Steel needles and replacement gears are fairly easy to find. In part, that’s due to the large community of people who share Lee’s fascination for the old and somewhat magical.
“The mechanics of it gets the engineers. Music lovers like them for the music, obviously,” Lee said. “And there are people like me, who like old stuff. I just love them.”
One The Web
TO SEE AND HEAR: some of Jeff Lee’s antique phonographs in action, go to www.youtube.com and do a search for “moooperator.”