For kids like us, it was a magical place. A place you could go on a Saturday morning and transform into someone else, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Buddy Rich. When you dream of music, getting to play an instrument is the first rung on your fantasy ladder. And in this place, you could play to your heart’s content.
Any wannabe rock star knows what I’m talking about.
The music store. An endless line of gleaming guitars. A wall of amplifiers, like fat sentinels with screens for chests. The keyboards, one after another, smiling at you with their white and black teeth. And the drum sets. Oh the drum sets! Maybe if you just sit down, start tapping lightly, see if anyone notices, then maybe a little harder, then tap the cymbals, and your foot, there it goes on the high hat or the bass pedal, and look here! You’re keeping a beat!
That’s what the music store was about. Diving in. Sampling the fantasy. Didn’t matter where it was, or what was around it. Maybe a strip mall. Or a converted barn. Or a shop down by the car wash. Or a crowded city location where you had to climb steps to get to various levels of instruments.
Every music store was different, and every music store was the same. Practice rooms. Instruments. Every spare inch covered by amps, cymbals, cords, microphones. Some long-haired kid in the corner playing “Stairway to Heaven,” his head down, staring at his fingers.
For many Michiganders, that music store was—and still is—a place called Huber Breese Music on Groesbeck in Fraser, built 50 years ago out of an 800-square-foot former laundromat. The owners, Paul Huber and Terry Breese, had worked together teaching music at another store that went out of business. So they partnered up, opened a tiny new place, and before they knew it, many of the teachers from the old store were working there.
One band breaks up. A new band forms.
It started with one lesson
“The backbone of our store has always been teaching,” said Huber, who this weekend is celebrating 50 years in business. “At one point we had as many as 600 students. The kids come to learn and it’s good revenue, but it’s also that many people who are walking in your store every day, ready to buy instruments.”
In the beginning, Huber and Breese didn’t have the money to stock anything. “Not until a year later,” Huber said, did they even begin to carry items.
But eventually, Huber, a guitarist, and Breese, a drummer, built an inventory that would make Jimi Hendrix jealous. They added space and more space, including a second level.
Guitars were their backbone. They carry over 1,000 today, everything from wooden starter acoustic models to collector’s items from makers like Gibson and Les Paul.
They’re also loaded with drum sets, keyboards, saxophones, trumpets, flutes, string instruments and percussion. These days, all music stores carry recording equipment for home studio use, and Huber and Breese are no exception.
But the heartbeat, as Huber says, is still the teaching. “We have kids as young as 7 or 8, and of course we have teenagers. But there’s also a lot of people who are older. They retire and say, ‘I always wanted to learn how to play guitar.’ ”
They enter, lugging their cases. But they exit feeling lighter, because they’re a bit closer to their dream of playing well. This is what separates music stores from other retail outlets. Most stores, you go in to buy something.
Music stores you go in to be something.
And the beat goes on
By now you’ve surmised that I was one of those music store kids. As a fourth grader, I took guitar lessons in a cramped back room of a shop in New Jersey, and after I was done, I would hang around, staring enviously at the teenagers who seemed so cool with their jeans and tie-dye shirts, effortlessly playing “Magic Carpet Ride” by Steppenwolf.
If I worked up the nerve, I’d find a corner and plug my guitar into various amplifiers, trying a knob called “tremolo” that created a warbly sound, famously used in Tommy James & the Shondells’ “Crimson and Clover.” Later, when I became a piano player, I would try the various keyboards with a specific jazz piece that I had memorized just for the occasion of playing in a music store, not wanting to look like an amateur.
Even so, I was no more than average. But the whole point of those long isolates in the music store wasn’t how good you were; it was how good you might become.
It’s no surprise that Huber and Breese were both musicians themselves, and both jammed together after they were done working. Breese passed away 12 years ago, shortly after playing a gig with his musician friends. Huber, who always sported long wavy hair and still looks like he’s on tour with the Doobie Brothers, soldiers on, honoring his dear friend this weekend.
“Why was it Huber-Breese and not Breese-Huber?” I asked Paul.
“Terry used to ask the same thing,” he laughed. Ultimately, they decided that “Huber-Breese” was more rhythmic, two syllables followed by one, which is just about the perfect way to decide what to call a music store.
Paul Simon eleven wrote a lyric:
“Here’s to all the boys that came out early,
carrying soft guitars in cardboard cases,
all night long,
do you wonder where those boys have gone?
You don’t have to wonder. Those boys — and girls — can still be heard in the rafters of stores like Huber Breese. Sit down. Pick up sticks or a guitar pick. Put your hands on the keys. And play, man, play.