TUPELO – Even if a musician treats her instrument like a holy relic, it’s guaranteed to fall apart in small ways over time.
“After so many years, the pads will rot out,” Joe Holloway, 76, said.
“You’re talking felt, you’re talking cork, and you’re talking about screws that vibrate and turn themselves loose,” said 71-year-old Perry Barker, “and you’re talking about pressure on keys.”
“Normal wear and tear,” Holloway said.
As the owners of The Saxophone Place in Tupelo, the pair have seen instruments in various states of disrepair, and they know many haven’t been treated like holy relics.
“Some kids just throw them down. They get dropped. I’ve seen flutes where kids had had sword fights with them,” said Holloway, smiling and shaking his head. “One time, a boy and his mom brought in a trumpet. The bell was all messed up. His mom said, ‘Did you drop that trumpet?’ He said, ‘Well, I might have.’”
Another kid was so scared after damaging his trumpet that he hid it in the trunk of his dad’s car.
“The band director called over here and everywhere, looking for it,” Holloway said. “Finally, his dad got a flat tire and he found the trumpet.”
Holloway is philosophical about the damage kids can do, partly because accidents are going to happen, and also because he and Barker are there to pick up the pieces.
“I like it. I like people, and it’s a challenge,” he said. “We get some still that you’d swear couldn’t be fixed. We usually manage.”
The Saxophone Place started nearly a quarter century ago, when Holloway worked late nights and early mornings playing saxophone and bass guitar.
“Joe played at J.R.’s and at Bogart’s for years and years, six nights a week,” Barker said.
“I was on ‘The Mornin’ Show’ for 34 years,” Holloway said.
“While he was out, his wife was at home. She started working on instruments, and Joe would help her,” Barker said.
Joe and Rita Holloway started with a bunch of repair manuals in a mobile home, then moved the business into the cramped sun room of a house before expanding to a shop in back of the house.
“I had to move from there because the city doesn’t like home businesses when you’re getting 50 cars coming all day,” Holloway said.
The Saxophone Place eventually settled into a former house on Jackson Street, where it’s been for about a decade. Rita Holloway had to step away from the business because of health problems.
“I’m a partner now because I hung around too much,” Barker said. “They needed someone to take her place here. I moved in as a partner recently. We evolved into a partnership. I started here several years ago.”
They buy, refurbish and sell used instruments. They also repair instruments, and serve as a satellite store for Amro Music in Memphis.
“We’ve got a rep from Amro who goes to Louisville and all around and brings us repairs to do,” Holloway said. “He’ll come back the next week and take them back.”
The pair work with about 60 schools in Northeast Mississippi. Years ago, Holloway advertised for business from as far away as California, but the store’s now focused on local musicians. The vast majority of those are young musicians.
“Professional musicians usually take care of their own instruments,” said Barker, who plays keyboards and drums.
The pair work on a much wider variety of instruments than a name like The Saxophone Place would suggest. If a high school or college band uses it, they probably know how to fix it.
“The name has hurt,” Barker said, “but once you have a name for 20-something years, you don’t really want to change it.”
“We needed a name to order parts, and that was it,” Holloway said.
“But there have been people who drive right past us,” Barker said.
The brass instruments that find their way into the store often endure tough love on the road to repair. One of Holloway’s favorite tools is a magnet and metal ball combo. He put a heavy ball into the bell of a sousaphone and used the magnet to roll the ball around inside to knock out dents.
“The smaller the balls get, it’s not as strong, so the magnet doesn’t work as well on some instruments,” Holloway said.
One of their tools looks like a big piece of exercise equipment, but it has rods of different sizes and shapes to bend brass instruments into place.
“Woodwinds are more delicate, of course. We treat them differently than we do the horns,” Barker said. “There are no hammers for woodwinds. It’s all fine adjustments.”
Both men said they enjoy the chance to take beat-up, busted-up instruments and bring them back to musical life. They keep cellphone photos are some of their toughest cases and greatest triumphs.
“Some of them, even we didn’t think we could fix,” Barker said.
The pair have pulled off dramatic reversals, but they’re not magicians. The backyard of the building is known as the “boneyard,” a collection of the too-far-gone.
Depending on the point of view, the “boneyard” could resemble an art project or evidence of extreme laziness.
The truth is more practical.
“We rob parts to save people money,” Barker said. “We try to recycle when we can. Sometimes, you can’t buy new parts for some of these instruments.”
Tools and instruments have expanded to fit the available space at The Saxophone Place. It’s a losing battle to hold back the sprawl, especially since only one of the partners is doing any serious fighting.
“This is a place of work. It’s not a place of beauty,” Barker said. “Joe tries to keep it as neat as he can. Me? I just worry about getting things done. If it piles up, I just walk over it.”
The mounds get bigger in the months before a new school year, which Barker referred to as the “first harvest,” when band directors, parents and students want their instruments looking and working their best.
There’s also a steady supply of work throughout the year, especially when young musicians are prone to drop, sit on or otherwise abuse their instruments.
When it comes to such damage, Holloway smiles patiently and urges parents to take a metaphorical step back.
“It’s not always the kid’s fault,” he said. “These things happen, and we can fix it.”
“Usually,” Barker said.