Robin Amend, of Amend Music Center, with a 1950s-era tuba. Instrument repair requires one to be a perfectionist, he said, “particularly if you’re working with professional musicians’ instruments.” (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Michael Guilfoil
For The Spokesman-Review
Business at Amend Music Center was brisk one afternoon when co-owner Robin Amend noticed a man seemingly entranced by the shop’s classic marching-band uniforms, vintage posters and photos, wooden files and all manner of musical instruments.
When Amend asked if he could help, the man said he was from Seattle visiting his mother, and that every time he came to Spokane he made a pilgrimage to 1305 W. 14th Ave.
“I didn’t realize places like this still existed,” he told Amend. “It feels different than anywhere else I’ve ever been.”
Cue the French horn-laden overture from “Field of Dreams,” and you get the idea.
“In Celtic Christianity,” Amend says, “there’s a term – ‘thin places’ – where the distance between heaven and Earth narrows. That’s what we shoot for.”
Amend and his wife, Debbie, have been hitting that mark for almost four decades – most recently with the help of their two sons, Paul and Mark, plus college and high school students working part time.
Besides selling instruments and sheet music, the Amend clan repairs more than 1,000 school band instruments each summer.
During a recent interview, Robin Amend discussed long hours, retirement, and how underwear can end up inside a tuba.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Amend: I was born in Portland (Oregon). After my dad finished his three-year medical residency in North Carolina, we moved to Spokane.
S-R: What was your first job?
Amend: My family owned a farm, so by the time I was 11 I was driving a truck and bucking bales.
S-R: When were you introduced to music?
Amend: I learned to read music before I could read words. I started clarinet lessons when I was 6. I switched to oboe in the fifth grade when other kids were just taking up instruments, then learned trombone in sixth grade and saxophone in junior high. My main instrument in high school orchestra was oboe. I played trombone in marching band, tenor sax in jazz band, and sang in the All-Northwest Choir.
S-R: What high school did you attend?
Amend: Central Valley.
S-R: Any interests besides music?
Amend: I was an all-league basketball player.
S-R: Did you envision a particular career?
Amend: No. Making a living with music never occurred to me. I thought music was just what you did.
S-R: Where did you attend college?
Amend: I started out at Whitworth, then switched to Spokane Falls when they offered an instrument-repair program.
S-R: Then what?
Amend: After graduating, I worked at a repair shop in Colorado for a year, then came back here and worked for an electronics manufacturer. Two years later I went to work for the guy who taught me instrument repair at Spokane Falls – homebuilder Gary Roth – and bought the business in 1980.
S-R: How much did you pay?
Amend: Six thousand dollars – the value of all his tools.
S-R: Were you successful from the start?
Amend: No. We went many years without making money.
S-R: Why didn’t you quit?
Amend: My wife, Debbie, and I never considered that. It was going to go, no matter what. We moved from downtown to the South Hill in 1985, and the business gradually grew. In 1991 we bought our building on 14th (which began life in 1911 as a mom-and-pop grocery, pharmacy and soda fountain). Later we added another shop at 6301 N. Regal.
S-R: Looking back, what lessons learned working on the farm transfer to this career?
Amend: We would be out in the field before dawn, waiting for it to get light so we could start bucking bales. And we weren’t done in the barn until after dark. That taught me that if someone had to work hard to get something done, why not me?
S-R: What business advice did you glean along the way?
Amend: I liked to play music – I still do. But my dad advised me to spend most of my working hours on things that made me the most money.
S-R: How has the business evolved since 1980?
Amend: We were just doing repairs then, and now we have instrument and sheet music sales, an instrument rental program, private lessons, and other tenants in our building – a Rocket Bakery, Teresa and Richard Birch’s Kindermusik studio, and Kelly Bogan’s basement event venue.
S-R: Did the recession impact your business?
Amend: No, because if the economy is good, people buy instruments, and if it’s bad, they get them fixed.
S-R: How about the internet?
Amend: It probably affects other music businesses more than ours, because we’re so hands-on.
S-R: Do you have what you might call a business philosophy?
Amend: High school and college students who work for us have commented that other music stores have a different business model. We don’t make as much on instrument sales, and our repairs cost less. But our main goal is to help people play music. We care more about that than how much money we make.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Amend: From now until the end of September, I’ll often work 13- and 14-hour days. I just picked up Gonzaga University’s pep band instruments, and in June I’ll get all the instruments from area school districts. The most hectic time is early September, when people who didn’t bring their instruments in earlier suddenly want them fixed. Plus it’s rental season, so we have customers all day, then in the evening travel to towns such as Ritzville or Kellogg for rental nights.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Amend: It’s always different.
S-R: What do you like least?
Amend: Hmmm…. We pretty much have it set up the way we like it. If we don’t want to do something, we don’t have to.
S-R: What don’t you do?
Amend: Complete overhauls, where you tear instruments apart and lacquer them. We don’t want to breathe all the fumes, so we don’t do that.
S-R: What’s been the biggest surprise?
Amend: When I got a $25,000 federal grant to build a prototype device I invented to allow a quadriplegic student to play his euphonium using an electronic joystick. (See www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ_qLzEq_LI) The whole thing was one miracle after another, starting with a magazine I bought that talked about grants for “innovative ideas to help disabled people in the arts.”
S-R: Didn’t your grandfather do something similar?
Amend: Yes. He lost his arm in a lumber-mill accident when he was 20, and went on to invent a whole bunch of really cool gizmos – what we now call “assistive technology” – that allowed him and other physically challenged musicians to play.
S-R: What has this career taught you about yourself?
Amend: There’s a prayer (of St. Theresa of Avila) that says, “Patient endurance attains all things” – in other words, hang in there no matter what, even when you think things are falling apart.
S-R: Speaking of falling apart, what goes wrong with instruments?
Amend: Lots of things. Solder connections break. Instruments get dropped, or the big horns bump into things, and dents need to be taken out. And if instruments are not routinely taken apart, they can get stuck together. Smaller instruments – flutes and oboes – require the sort of tools jewelers use.
S-R: How about unusual damage?
Amend: Kids goofing around in band throw stuff into instruments. We’ve removed underwear, paper – all sorts of things.
S-R: What’s it cost to have an instrument repaired?
Amend: To take a trumpet apart, fix dents, give it an acid bath, replace worn parts and put it back together runs $65.
S-R: How about extreme cases?
Amend: I just got through fixing a trumpet from Davenport that had been vandalized. It took me weeks to get the valves moving freely. But to replace that trumpet would have been about $1,500.
S-R: Are there cheaper instruments?
Amend: Sure. Big-box stores charge $200 for a trumpet that’s a piece of garbage. Band directors hate those. Many of our rentals are American-made and the highest student quality. One of our rental trumpets – full retail – costs about $1,000.
S-R: Do band and orchestra instruments need routine check-ups?
Amend: Not if you maintain them yourself at home. When people buy instruments, they often ask, “When should I bring this back in?” I tell them if it’s playing fine, don’t worry about it.
S-R: What’s the career outlook for instrument repair?
Amend: It’s tough. Spokane Falls quit teaching it 30 years ago. I taught my kids, but it’s not like someone else can join our family. And you need to be a perfectionist, particularly if you’re working with professional musicians’ instruments.
S-R: What’s the rarest instrument you’ve worked on?
Amend: A 16th century horn made of pitch, with leather wrapped around the body. The owner couldn’t reach a key, so I had to mount posts on the pitch.
S-R: Besides your business, you play in a band. Do you do anything non-musical?
Amend: I like to sail. We have a 22-foot MacGregor moored at Loon Lake, and in summer we love to take it out to watch the sun set.
S-R: Any changes on the horizon?
Amend: We’re helping our boys learn the business, so they can eventually take over.
S-R: Will you retire then?
Amend: Probably not. But I’m 64 and still working six days a week, so I wouldn’t mind cutting back. (laugh)
Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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