Story and Photography by Margot Mayor
Years ago, I was speeding along on the highway, going to a meeting at Vermont Castings Stoves in Randolph, VT. On the side of the road sat a trembling Beagle, painfully covered in long and short and tiny, hard-to-see porcupine quills.
I was late to the meeting, I was tense. But I stopped and gingerly coaxed the hurting Beagle into the car. He was so traumatized, he didn’t balk. I inquired in Randolph, found a veterinarian, and as luck (and it being a small town) would have it, the (only) vet knew the dog, part of a group of hunting dogs. I left him in those experienced hands and sped off to the meeting. It was my first up-close exposure to a porcupine’s defense mechanism.
Of course, at the meeting, they all understood why I was late. That’s Vermont!
When I first met him, Bill Schubart had two aristocratic, elegant Borzois (Russian Wolfhounds). I pulled up to the huge barn in rural North Ferrisburg. They looked up with Vogue-like faces, and then, in a blasé fashion, went back to nosing about in the snow. The vision of them was startling. This was Vermont, not Paris. More recently, Bill and I spoke about dogs. “It’s a statement, like the kind of car you buy,” Bill said. “Yes, the kind of dog you get. Yes, the kind of shirt you buy. It’s a way of making a statement about yourself. Or the kind of motorcycle you buy. In Vermont, it is Golden Retrievers. Black labs, maybe? Beagles. When I was a kid, it was mostly hounds. There are not many Yorkshire Terriers in Vermont.” Or Borzois, I noted.
There is that consistent foot-in-two-worlds sense to Bill Schubart. The Borzois embody that. Of an urban New York family, education, and worldliness, he is, on the other hand, of Vermont, down to earth, with no pretenses.
He knows how to split wood and brandish a chain saw, and how to enter an Opera House. Even as a child, he reminisced, he would have a hot dog with ketchup at the fair in Vermont, and then days later, go into the Russian Tea Room in New York with his Grandmother and order blinis.
Bill recalls being a kid trying to live in these two worlds: Park Avenue in New York and Washington highway in Morrisville, Vermont. He was born in New York City, and brought to Vermont. He was raised in Morrisville, but left for visits to NYC, then boarding school and college. Ultimately when he came back, he stayed.
Bill Schubart is one of the most Renaissance-y men I know, anywhere. Music producer, record company owner, board chair, businessman, fiction writer, Op Ed writer, father and husband: the go-to person for more things than I can count.
I met Bill when he owned Philo Records, an internationally-known folk record company. Norwegian, Scottish, Swedish, Irish, Bluegrass, French Canadian music. This diverse, beautifully produced array of international music was respected, admired, and state of the art. The company lived in a huge barn in North Ferrisburg, VT with the Borzois, peacocks, llamas, and its own real caboose on the land. A tiny house before tiny houses
Bill has a documentary-worthy biography. It has always fascinated me, how we get from one step to another in our lives. I asked him how a young guy went from teaching French to high schoolers in Bristol to owning a record company?
As we sat in the third-floor office in his rambling house, he outlined the stepping stones that led to his intriguing career. In his twenties, he had worked at IBM, while attending UVM. But, not to be shoe-horned, he also invented and created hand painted lit-up ping pong earrings on the side. Being Bill, he sold them to the Museum of Modern Art. Of course. Bill has a charm, coupled with an articulate delivery that people listen to.
Bill worked at a Sam Goody’s record store in New York, learning a bit about the music business. NYC wasn’t affordable, so he returned (with his by-then family of four) to Vermont.
Love of family and love of music called to him, so of course, he (and his
brother Mike, a musician) decided to start a recording studio. Bill’s optimism was catching, “I had done some recording at school, and loved recording technology.”
He found out there was a pig barn for sale in North Ferrisburg with six acres. “I was quite encouraged, because structurally, it was beautiful. It was all oak frame, no parallel walls, which would be great for a studio. So all of a sudden I own it.”
“We started in 1969 as Earth Audio Techniques. We bought some basic recording equipment, and it actually did pretty well.” He doesn’t sound surprised.
Bill then decided, “Let’s start a record company. We named it Philo Records after Mount Philo, which was right behind us. And we just started doing stuff. We had no idea what we were doing.”
I asked, how did you learn how to create records?
“I did some research and some engineering, but the lion’s share of great music was done by Mike, the complicated, really, really beautiful stuff. We didn’t focus enough on what’s going to sell. We focused on what we loved. There’d be these funny albums, like Adirondack milking tunes, you know, Gaelic tunes about trees…”
Philo Records journeyed on for years, as did Earth Audio Techniques, the recording arm. I wondered, how did his next adventure start?
“We merged with a company called Blue Jay Films, which was a wonderful little film operation on Church Street in Burlington. And we decided to create an outfit, which we named, ‘Resolution’. We got a little office and went into business; audio, and film production.”
How did you get TIME LIFE to work with you in far distant Burlington?
“This came over a long period of time. We started out just in audio production, and then it began to grow, and our first big client was General Motors Delco Bose. They were putting audio cassettes into their high-end cars and creating these very fancy sound systems. But the cassettes sounded awful, because they were duplicated at high speed. So I flew out and met with Bose. And I said, ‘We can make you a cassette that is going to really sound phenomenal. Here’s an example’. And they played, it and they were blown away.”
And how did he know how to do that?
“We knew that the technology for making high speed tech cassettes made very bad-sounding cassettes. Every once in a while, somebody would come and do an album and they’d order a bunch of cassettes. If we made the cassettes on our machines, they sounded great in real time. If we sent them away to be done in high speed? They sounded terrible.”
“So I told Bose, ‘We can build you a system, and everything will sound like our demo’. We got the contract to make them for the entire North America market.
“And then the video cassette thing began. I bought a bunch of video cassette decks and we’re in the video cassette duplication business. It just went on from there.”
Bill speaks of this growth nonchalantly, as if it were just an everyday occurrence, not realizing somehow, how extraordinary were the relationships he created.
I was still mesmerized. You just knocked on the door of TIME LIFE and said, ‘Hey, we’re doing this?’
“Actually, first I went to CBS and I said, every Sunday you do 60 Minutes and there are three segments, and people are interested in those. How about if you put up an offer, saying they can get a copy of this segment alone? All you have to do is put up our 800 number. We’ll answer the phone. ‘Thank you for calling 60 Minutes.’ And it took off. We sold 30,000 videos.”
“Then someone at CBS went to work for TIME LIFE and called us up.”
And they grew. In Vermont.
Resolution became one of the largest fulfillment companies in the US. Clients included A&E, The Golf Channel, IFC, Bloomberg, AMC, Oprah Winfrey, CBS, Sesame Workshop, NPR, National Geographic, Discovery, The New York Times, Prairie Home Companion, WGBH, WNET, The History Channel, The Nature Conservancy, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, The Criterion Collection, and many other broadcasters and publishers.
This all happened. All from Vermont. Okay, so after Resolution, then what?
“All my work after that was really civic work and writing,” Bill answered. He has written nine books so far, most in or about Vermont. As a frequent speaker at book festivals, libraries, and bookstores, his good advice to new writers is widely appreciated.
“I served on some Vermont boards,” he modestly told me: Shelburne Museum, VT Symphony Orchestra, ACLU Vermont chapter, VT Judiciary Professional Responsibility Board, the Farm to Plate commission. And some others.”
And, if that wasn’t enough, he has been the Chair of the Board for Vermont College of Fine Arts, Vermont Folklife Center, Vermont Journalism Trust / Vermont Digger, Vermont Arts Council, Vermont Public Radio, Vermont Board of Libraries, Vermont Bicentennial Commission, Circus Smirkus, Vermont Business Roundtable, and even UVM Medical Center. He embodies giving back to the community.
Many of Bill’s nine books are steeped in Vermont ethos and give the reader an
often-authentic sense of life here. It can be hardscrabble and can be heart-tender at the same time.
“I grew up with stories, and so I wrote one. It was published in Vermont Life. I did a couple more for VERMONT Magazine. And then I thought, I should just do a collection.” He then created the Lamoille Stories.
From the beginning of his book, Lila and Theron:
Be cold Forage and grow
Haul wood and stone Go hungry
Use hand tools Be bold
Raise children Cure food
Walk without light Keep animals Grow old
Adore someone Greet wildlife
Pay rapt attention Forgive yourself and others
Bill explains, “This was the genesis of my book Lila and Theron. This kind of sums up who I am—or at least would like to be.” When I read these words, (and his books) they speak the Vermont I know. A state of land-awareness, purity, and usually, kindness.
Bill told me, “I’ve lived in Vermont all my adult life. Never wanted to live anywhere else. I just felt at home in Vermont. As much as anything, it’s the landscape and the culture, but it’s also the land, the people, and the persistence of community. Our small communities compress us and bring us together in a way that we think twice about being disrespectful to one another.”
“In a small community, there are people who are on one side of an issue, and people who may not agree, and they live together. They buy from one another, they meet each other in town or at town meeting, and they treat each other with a modicum of respect.”
“You know, you go by somebody whose politics you totally disagree with—and they’re off the road in the winter. You stop, you pull out a chain, and snap it on their frame and on your frame. And you pull ‘em out. And they say, ‘thank you’, because you know they would do the same for you.”
“Since I learned to drive, I have never driven a car anywhere without blockchains, jumper cables, and a come-along in the back, because you often run across somebody who has gone off the road or has a flat tire.”
He muses, “To me, one of the most beautiful things in Vermont is water moving over rocks. Whenever I come upon a brook, and I see water moving over rocks, and moss on the rocks, rippling in the water, and the shadow of trout moving around, that is my idea of the next step for the rest of my life. Or jumping in with the trout.”
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