Spokane Journal of Business

Staying in tune for a century

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-—Staff photo by Treva Lind
Hoffman Music Co. co-owner Earl Smith, 80, says the musical-instrument retail shop will celebrate 100 years in business this fall.
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Through 10 decades of shifts in popular music, Spokane-based Hoffman Music Co. has stayed in tune with what customers need for instruments, ranging from swing bands of the 1930s to the high school clarinet player of today.

While pianos were the must-have instrument in the early 1900s, guitars took center stage by the late 1940s and have remained popular along with other standard band and orchestra instruments, says Hoffman Music co-owner Earl Smith, 80.

Smith and co-owner Ernie McLeish, 74, are marking the business's 100-year anniversary on Sept. 7, and the store at 1430 N. Monroe continues to carry a full spectrum of instruments and accessories. Hoffman Music always has kept in mind the popular music or classic sounds of the times, Smith says.

He still works in the 15,000-square-foot store, ordering all of its products, while McLeish mainly does accounting and financial work for the business from his home.

"The major reason that the store has continued over all these years is we've changed with the times," Smith says. "We are a full-line music store. About the only things we don't carry are pianos and organs."

Today, the company's store on Monroe Street is filled with thousands of music books and musical instruments, including trumpets, saxophones, French horns, flutes, clarinets, cellos, violins, violas, and string bass, among others. Separate display rooms hold a vast assortment of acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, ukuleles, banjos, and amplifiers.

Smith adds, "Pianos were the backbone of the business up through the 1940s and 1950s, as were other instruments that came and went. Banjos were in the '20s and '30s. Ukuleles were popular around the same era, particularly in the '30s."

The owners also operate a 9,000-square-foot sister store, Hoffman Music Connections, a few blocks away at 440 W. Sharp. It offers mostly used instruments sold on consignment, but also carries new drum sets, cymbals, and other percussion-related accessories.

The company owns both buildings. Nineteen employees work in the main store on Monroe, while three employees are based in the sister store.

Smith says Hoffman Music stopped selling pianos and organs around 1969. "The business in general shrunk," he says. "Organs just went away. They lost their popularity almost completely." Eventually, he says, Spokane didn't generate enough sales of pianos to support a number of retailers.

Accordions also lost their luster after the 1950s, he says. Other parts of the business that came and went were record players and stereo equipment, which the store sold up until the late 1970s, and it also briefly sold camera and photography equipment around that time, Smith adds.

"With competition, we couldn't be two or three different kinds of businesses," he says. "We dropped back to music, which has always been the backbone. We figured we better stick with what we know best."

He says the company was founded around 1913 by William Hoffman and business partner I.R. Van Ausdle, under the name Van Ausdle-Hoffman Music Co., in downtown Spokane. Over the years, the store changed locations a few times until a move to the Monroe property about 25 years ago.

At age 18 in 1950, Smith started working for the man whom he still calls "Mr. Hoffman."

"I was pretty much janitor and apprentice instrument repairman," Smith says. Earlier, when Smith was around 12 years old, he took trumpet lessons at the store.

"The only lessons we offer at the present time are guitar lessons," Smith says. "We don't have enough room to offer studios for practicing."

Smith says Hoffman remained with the business for decades until his death in 1967. Hoffman also worked with a few different business partners over time, including a brother, Chris Hoffman, and the store was renamed Hoffman Brothers Music Co. for a number of years, Smith says.

In 1965, Smith says, the company incorporated as Hoffman Music Co., when Hoffman partnered with employees Smith, McLeish, and Bill Grafmiller. Grafmiller died in 1987.

Smith says a large part of Hoffman's business then and still today is offering instruments for rent or sale to elementary through high school students who are in school bands or orchestras. For the students, the store offers rental arrangements that can apply toward buying the instrument, he adds.

"If they quit, they just return it and it's all done," he says. "We rent maybe a thousand instruments during the year, mainly to students."

Other repeat customers are adults here who play music as a hobby, aspiring career, or in professional bands and orchestras here, he says. Additionally, many famous musicians while performing in Spokane have dropped by the store over the decades, Smith adds, including Eddie Van Halen, Pat Benatar, the Monkees, and Merle Haggard.

"The rock 'n' roll era was the big thing that hit early in the '60s, but it really began in the late '50s, and then kids in Spokane got into bands," Smith says. "There were dozens of small garage bands, and we supplied that market for years—even now."

"Of course there's the standard jazz musicians, symphony and band musicians, and we supply many of them," he adds. "Country-western musicians are always a strong customer base."

Hoffman Music also offers instrument repair and appraisal services.

Additionally, it operates a division called Hoffman Pro Systems, for commercial sound installation in theaters, churches, and other businesses. The division this month installed a digital sound processor and made other upgrades to the sound system at Avista Stadium.

Smith says the company will continue to watch for changes in the music industry and what's popular among people who play that music.

"We always have to be alert for new trends in the market," he adds. "Internet sales have a great effect on sales, and we have to have a Web-based presence and be on social networks, and we are. It's playing a bigger role every day."

Plus, some instruments of old can enjoy resurgence today, he says.

"All of a sudden, ukuleles have become real popular, probably in the past two years now," says Smith, who still plays trumpet in a band. "I'm not sure why."

Both Smith and McLeish plan to continue working in the business, but Smith says eventually each of their sons will take over.

McLeish's son, Kevin, works in the office and takes care of the store's computers, while Smith's son, Allan, has managed Hoffman's band and orchestra department for a number of years.

"My partner's son and my own son are destined to take over the business as owners," Smith says. "We don't have set plans how much longer we'll both be in the business. I don't have any specific plans to retire any time soon and neither does Ernie."

Treva Lind
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Reporter Treva Lind covers natural resources and technology at the Journal of Business. A Nevada transplant and recovering swim mom, Treva has worked for the Journal since 2011.

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