Tambourines. Boxes of vinyl records. Mixing boards. Dozens of guitars and hundreds of varieties of guitar strings – and even guitar string lubricant.
Holloway’s Music Center in Monroe has been in business since 1912, and it appears that in the past 106 years, the owners have never thrown anything out. On a Monday morning in May, a customer came in, browsing for microphones and monitors. “If you don’t see what you’re looking for,” employee Robert “Skip” Jackson advised him, “move a box or two.”
The air conditioning was busted, so an industrial fan blew cool air over the water-stained carpets. A giant sagging yellow sign outside the store advertised “LIQUIDATION SALE.” The store’s proprietor, Marion Holloway – a silver-haired man of 71 with a smile for everyone – said of the sign, “That gets more attention than ‘OLD FART RETIRING.’”
Holloway’s two adult daughters have other careers, so he’s looking for an outside buyer to take over the store. The liquidation sale started on Black Friday 2017 and has depleted the store of its ukuleles and mandolins and many of its guitars. Holloway is hopeful that if he sufficiently reduces inventory, the store will be appealing to an outside buyer. (Somebody new would probably get rid of the box of decades-old sheet music, featuring second-tier hits by Styx (“Show Me the Way”) and Richard Marx (“Now and Forever”), and the VHS copy of “Herschel at Georgia,” about the 1992 Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker.)
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He didn’t know how long the slow-motion closing might take: “We’ve never done this before,” he said with a smile.
Pianos delivered – by mule and wagon
The store was founded by Holloway’s grandfather, J.T. Holloway: one of eight brothers who had a brass-and-woodwind band, then scattered across the country, opening musical instrument stores. J.T. Holloway settled in Monroe when he saw how many railroad lines came through the town; family lore has it that he opened the store the same day the Titanic sank.
At first he exclusively sold pianos, delivering them by mule and wagon. In 1923, he upgraded his transportation to a Model T Ford truck; the product line also changed with the times, featuring crystal radios and Victrola record players before eventually including electric guitars and synthesizers and karaoke machines.
For the owner of a third-generation family business, Holloway has little time for nostalgia. Although Holloway’s is the only musical instrument store for some distance and has a robust customer base, there’s always been competition: in his father’s day, from the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, and now, from big-box stores and the internet. Many musical instruments are now made in China, which has been bad for American manufacturing but has meant cheaper prices for consumers.
“The good old days were no air conditioning and only AM radio,” Holloway said with a shrug.
Yet Holloway managed to do, for decades, something that such illustrious instrument makers as Gibson Guitars deemed crucial. When that iconic American manufacturer filed for bankruptcy last month, CEO Henry Juszkiewicz blamed modern guitar stores: They narrowed their focus too far, he said, and lost the commitment to making customers comfortable, and offering them expertise.
“In the ’50s, music retailers were neighborhood family stores. If Johnny wanted to play an accordion, and Suzy wanted to play saxophone, there were full line stores. They weren't big, but they carried most instruments, sheet music even. It was a neighborhood staple. Those days are gone,” Juszkiewicz told Billboard.
They weren’t at Holloway’s. As recently as 2014, it was named the single-store dealer of the year by the National Association of Music Merchants.
Holloway said he grew up in the store.
His father and his uncle would arrange the boxes so he could race his tricycle around in circles. But although he considers its 3,400 square feet his second home, a health scare two years ago – a cancerous growth on his kidney – made him and Mary Helen, his wife of 50 years, plan for retirement. “It’s been a fun ride,” he said.
Service, expertise and salesmanship
Holloway was recently elected to the Monroe city council. The way he greets everyone who walks through the door of his store, even if he is just selling them a saxophone reed, you can see why. “I was in here a couple of years ago,” said one visitor, speaking as if he was picking up a conversation from last week, “and you told me about instead of hanging microphones over the choir, having boom mics. You got any of that left?”
The answer was that it’s a special order, but Holloway gave him a quote. Installing and maintaining audio systems (and video systems) for local churches has become an increasingly large part of his business. He also rents out equipment and has some practice spaces available; young musicians learning their first instrument account for about 15 percent of his business, he figures—for a couple of weeks every fall, flutes and clarinets and violins come out of backroom storage. The store has a “Play it Forward” program, where people quietly donate funds to help financially strapped kids to buy an instrument.
A first-time customer, dressed all in black, walked in, looking for monitors for his home studio. This bearded man, it turns out, was LaShawn Daniels, a Grammy-winning songwriter who’s worked with Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Whitney Houston—and who recently relocated to North Carolina. Jackson set up two competing speakers on the sidewalk outside the store. “You never opt for the comparison,” Daniels said cheerfully, knowing that he was about to be convinced to spend some extra money. Sure enough, after doing an A/B comparison of how John Mayer’s “Gravity” sounded on both speakers, he picked the more expensive model.
Retired Navy, Skip Jackson came to work at Holloway’s 16 years ago, when his airplane-related business foundered in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Consulting the Yellow Pages, he cold-called the store, and got the job because Holloway’s mother got a good feeling about him on the phone. “I feel like I’m a Holloway, even though I’m from Pennsylvania,” Jackson said.
“He’s got a soft heart,” Holloway said of Jackson.
“I got the luxury of working for my friend,” Jackson said of Holloway. He’s pledged that he’ll work at the store as long as Holloway owns it, but he’s looking forward to semi-retirement. “I want to start fishing,” he said.
Holloway and his wife know they want to spend more time with their grandchildren; they’re not sure whether they want to travel very far. “There are places in Monroe we haven’t been,” he said. And in retirement, Holloway has a project planned: a hobby that he’s meaning to take up for years but somehow never got around to. He’s going to learn to play guitar.