Bob Hiemenz, 63, sifts through a stack of popular 1960s and ’70s recordings in a storage shed beside his home in Flora, Ill., searching through jam-packed racks of eight-track tapes for Neil Diamond, Sha Na Na, Gordon Lightfoot and other personal musical favorites.
“Let’s see if this one works,” says Hiemenz, slipping Bobby Vinton’s Greatest Hits of Love into a 40-year-old eight-track player. “I used to listen to him when I was a teenager.”
After “I Love How You Love Me” and “Sentimental Me” resonate from the stereo speakers, the retired newspaper publisher exclaims: “I can’t believe that tape is still playing. A lot of times they grrrrrrrrrr and break. They’re old!”
With 63,000 eight-track tapes and 530 eight-track players, Hiemenz owns what is believed to be the world’s largest eight-track collection, amassed during the last 25 years by a man obsessed with the obsolete—and nostalgic—recordings.
“It’s a challenge to find them and buy them cheaply,” says Hiemenz, a music lover and drummer. “They are harder and harder to find.”
Hiemenz’ collection got its start in 1985 while he was shopping for a stereo speaker at a second-hand store in Fargo, N.D., where he lived at the time. Instead of buying a single speaker, he bought an entire Zenith console stereo with a radio, turntable and eight-track tape player for $15. When he got home, he discovered a few tapes—Lawrence Welk and Big Band music—in the stereo’s storage compartment and began playing them.
A few weeks later, when a neighbor in nearby Moorhead, Minn., offered to sell him a box of 120 eight-tracks for a nickel apiece, Hiemenz was hooked.
Soon he was scouring flea markets, garage sales and thrift stores searching for the classic rock ’n’ roll recordings of his youth and buying boxfuls of eight-track tapes for a couple of bucks. Before long, friends and relatives started contributing to his collection, which doubled in size in 2007 when Bonnie Dorris, of Payson, Ariz., sold her late husband’s collection of 30,000 eight-tracks and 200 players to Hiemenz for $2,000.
“I couldn’t believe I found another collector with as many eight-tracks as I had,” says Hiemenz, who estimates he’s spent between $5,000 and $7,000 on his collection, which includes recordings of artists and bands from Arthur Fiedler to ZZ Top and ABBA to Frank Zappa.
Known by fellow collectors as Tracker Bob, Hiemenz continues to accumulate, organize and catalog his eight-track tapes and players, and he hopes someday to exhibit his vast musical repertoire in a museum in Flora (pop. 5,086).
“The most interesting thing about Bob is that he doesn’t sell any tapes,” says Malcolm Riviera, 53, of Hickory, N.C., and webmaster of www.8trackheaven.com. “Most of the people who collect eight-tracks sell and trade them. Bob really wants to hang onto them.”
Tracker Bob’s ever-expanding collection includes musical genres from bluegrass to boogie-woogie and Christmas carols to truck driving tunes, plus comedy recordings, movie soundtracks, foreign language instructions and some of the world’s best polka music.
“This is a keepsake,” says Hiemenz, after pulling The Six Fat Dutchmen’s Greatest Hits from a large rack of relic recordings. “One of my dad’s brothers played on this tape.”