LOWELL — “There’s no school for jukeboxes that I ever heard of.”
David Garnick, who says he’s been fussing with these glorious music machines since the Roosevelt administration, stands in the middle of his workshop inside the storefront that’s carried the family name since 1934.
The sign on Middlesex Street says Garnick’s Television Service Center. But TVs are actually a tiny part of the draw. Inside Garnick’s, you’ll find stacks of records, arcade-game cabinets, and at least a half-dozen jukeboxes in various states of repair. Each year, the store services 15 to 20 jukeboxes and sells three or four, says Garnick.
The colorful jukes, resplendent in chrome and glass, invoke a golden age in American music, when kids huddled in record-store listening booths to hear the latest Little Richard, Elvis Presley, or Roy Orbison single.
Garnick’s workshop is tucked just to the left of the register, a table covered in electronic parts. Behind him, amplifier tubes, portable Califone turntables, and jukebox guts cover the floor.
“That’s the machine from ‘Ghost,’ ” says Garnick, pointing to a Jetsons-style 1961 Rowe jukebox near a dusty Asteroids game.
In a world of iPods and unlimited music storage, Garnick is one of the last of his kind.
“A dying breed? I don’t think so,” says Ron Rich, a West Coast-based jukebox repairman, when asked about the profession. “More like a dead breed.”
Garnick doesn’t get too philosophical when he talks about his work.
“The hardest part is if you have to strip down the mechanism,” he says. “It doesn’t look like too much, but there’s a lot there. If the gears go bad, to strip them is a major job.”
Garnick says “major” the way an umpire calls a rally-ending strikeout, drawing out the first two letters.
There is a black-and-white picture of Garnick’s father, Sam, outside the store sometime in the 1950s. He stands next to a shiny dark Lincoln. The store window features a snazzy neon sign and a towering record display.
In a back office now, file cabinets are filled with correspondence, including letters from pioneering local DJ Arnie “Woo-Woo” Ginsburg, Platters singer Herb Reed, and crooner Rudy Vallee. (“He wanted me to go to New York to fix a $50 television,” Garnick recalls, laughing.)
Sam Garnick opened the store in 1934 out of necessity. He was installing jukeboxes and stocking them with records at a time when there were hundreds of restaurants and bars in the area. He needed somewhere to sell his surplus records. Today, his three sons — David, Bob, and Paul, all now in their 70s — run the shop, whose name has changed over the years.
Lowell remains a city in transition, with both handsomely renovated factory buildings and empty storefronts. Garnick’s hangs on, a wood-paneled audiophiles’ paradise where conversation flows as freely as the lime rickeys used to up the street at Pike’s Pharmacy.
Credit the brothers, who seem to know everyone, nurture a regular flow of customers, and love to talk politics, both national and local.
“They’re characters, like the Tappet Brothers from ‘Car Talk,’ but it’s live and in person,” says Anne Ruthmann, a photographer whose husband, Alex, is an assistant professor of music education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Since stumbling upon the shop two years ago, the couple have had a turntable repaired, acquired a stack of records, and bought a portable record player, which Alex brings to class.
At Garnick’s, vinyl is everywhere. Bob, the youngest brother, runs that department. As in most great museums, the bulk of the objects here are in the back of the house. Bob, whose gregarious nature makes him the store’s unofficial greeter, can find you Hoyt Axton, John Coltrane, or the Rolling Stones on vinyl within minutes. He’s always buying records, building an eclectic collection that ranges from original (and very valuable) Sun Records Presley singles to 23 cassette copies of Sting’s 1991 solo album, “The Soul Cages.”
“You go into a store today, they know nothing,” says Bob. “They don’t know a damn thing. They know Justin Bieber.”
Paul, the middle brother, fixes antique radios and turntables and does all the bookkeeping. Paul is also Internet savvy and lists particularly special records on eBay.
The oldest brother, David, whose filing system is the stack of index cards and strips of paper stuffed into the front pocket of his shirt, is the jukebox guy.
Why would anybody need a jukebox, David Garnick is asked. The classic ’50s machines weigh hundreds of pounds, stand several feet high, but play only 100 songs. You can buy an
iPod, smaller than a cellphone, capable of playing 40,000 songs.
Garnick doesn’t hesitate.
“They’re fun. They make music. They look good, they sound good. If you collect a coin, what do you do? Look at it. A jukebox is alive.”
Just inside the front door of Garnick’s, David shows off the “Ghost” Rowe and a 1940s Wurlitzer. Around the corner, in his workspace, is a Seeburg. That’s the same machine used in the opening of “Happy Days.” It’s a beautiful jukebox, all chrome and glass like a ’57 Chevy. The tube amplifier offers a rich sound.
Turn it on, and the arm slides over, picks up a record, and moves it into position, all under glass. On the turntable, the needle strikes and the opening chords of “Earth Angel” fill the room.
“That’s what makes a jukebox valuable,” says Garnick, pointing to the glass dome of the Seeburg. “When you can see the records.”
One of these classics, a 1953 Seeburg, is going to run you about $3,000, but Garnick would sell a 1960s Rock-Ola for as little as $400, he says. Don’t even get him talking about the Wurlitzer Americana. “An ugly looking thing that didn’t work good,” he snickers. “This is the one that ruined Wurlitzer.”
He started cleaning jukeboxes when he was 9. That was in the mid-’40s. Before long, he was fixing them. He went to Lowell High School, served in the US Army at the end of the Korean War, and worked for CBS and Raytheon over the years. But he never abandoned his hobby, those jukeboxes.
Today he still has his brown hair, though his mustache has gone gray. He is also one of the few remaining fix-it guys. And those who aren’t on the Internet — Garnick among them — have to be found by word of mouth.
Bob Trottier, an electrical engineer in Andover who works on jukeboxes, says he knows of very few remaining jukebox guys. There are a couple in New Hampshire and a man in Somerville, he says, though he’s heard that guy is ill. A Pembroke-based jukebox repairman closed his stores because of declining sales.
“The problem is there’s a steep learning curve on any one of these things,” says Trottier. “The manuals are terrible. You’ve got to understand quite a bit to fix them. A guy brought a Wurlitzer over from Cranston, Rhode Island, that he bought in 2003 on eBay and had it for nine years before I could get it fixed. They’re very complicated.”
Trottier talks of our increasingly disposable society, where it’s often easier to replace a broken machine than fix it.
“How many people are fixing televisions?” he says.
Actually, Garnick is. That’s how he makes his bread and butter. Flat-screen TVs are his specialty, and on a recent weekday, the shop is also littered with small wall models from a local hospital.
“It’s hard work and it doesn’t pay much,” Garnick says. “It’s the satisfaction when you’re through that you made someone happy.”
He is sitting now, at his stool surrounded by many of the tools of his trade. An oscilloscope. A soldering iron. A test generator.
“It’s like a guy who is an artist,” Garnick says. “He paints. And he may not make much for his painting, but he loves it.”
Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers