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Doug Clark: Hoffman Music celebrates century of sounds

Hoffman Music’s co-owner, Earl Smith, has been with the business for the past 63 years. Jane McLeish has worked for Hoffman the past 23 years and is the credit manager. The business is celebrating its 100th anniversary with free concerts in the parking lot on Saturday. (Dan Pelle)
Hoffman Music’s co-owner, Earl Smith, has been with the business for the past 63 years. Jane McLeish has worked for Hoffman the past 23 years and is the credit manager. The business is celebrating its 100th anniversary with free concerts in the parking lot on Saturday. (Dan Pelle)

Earl Smith sold me my first trumpet.

Well, to be accurate, I was merely the benefactor of the transaction. Me being in the fourth grade, it was Mom who wrote the check to Spokane’s Hoffman Music Co., sealing the deal with the lanky salesman with the flat-top haircut.

Although I was just 10 at the time, I still remember the moment with amazing clarity.

Getting that first horn opened up the world of music for me. It also established Hoffman Music as one of the recurring epicenters of my life.

I should be a stockholder considering all the stuff I’ve bought there since that day in 1961.

The Bach trumpet I played in college. The Martin guitar I recorded with and played all over the country. A half dozen other guitars. Amplifiers, microphones, PA equipment …

No wonder Hoffman Music, 1430 N. Monroe St., is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year.

Beginning 10 a.m. Saturday, the store will mark the milestone with live music. Some $15,000 worth of gear will be given away, with all the donations for the tickets going to Second Harvest food bank.

While I’ve never seen any statistics on the subject, I know enough about Spokane to know that few of our businesses ever make it to 100.

Most of the iconic firms I grew up with (Old National Bank, Carnation Dairy, The Crescent department store) have all disappeared for one reason or another.

Hoffman’s is one of the rare survivors, a local business that has managed to change with the times and keep going.

Looking for a history lesson, I drove there Wednesday morning to visit Smith, who is now 80, still flat-topped and chasing his 63rd year at the store.

Smith, a trumpeter, too, started at Hoffman’s as a part-timer right out of North Central High School in 1950. He swept floors, repaired instruments, and gradually worked his way up to become one of the owners with Bill Hoffman, Bill Grafmiller and Ernie McLeish when the store incorporated in the mid-1970s.

Hoffman was the unlikely guy who started it all back in 1913.

Unlikely in that the merchant was a nonmusician who “didn’t know where middle C was on the piano,” recalled Smith with a laugh.

After a couple of partner changes, Hoffman joined forces with Grafmiller, a real-deal sax player who recruited top high school musicians to play in a big band he rehearsed with after hours once a week at the store.

(Back then Hoffman’s was located at 816 ½ W. Riverside Ave., where the Lincoln Building now stands.)

Seeing how reliable and serious-minded his teen players were led Grafmiller to an idea that was quite innovative for the time.

This was to let young musicians purchase instruments with store credit.

It was like a dream come true. If you could get an adult co-signer, a coveted Hoffman Account was yours.

“They all had a horn,” Smith said. “But gradually, little by little, they all wanted a new horn.”

The idea proved to be true genius once the Beatles landed and the Garage Band Era took flight.

Suddenly, every other kid had to have a guitar and an amp or a drum kit or a bass or a …

A conservative economist would’ve probably argued that lunkhead young rockers aren’t responsible enough to handle credit accounts.

Speaking as one of those former lunkheads, however, I can tell you that I would’ve sold my blood to keep up with my Hoffman payments.

Losing your Hoffman Account would have meant no more gear for the band, an unthinkable situation for a generation of teenagers all bent on becoming the Next Big Thing.

“Kids were so interested in music and so eager,” agreed Smith. “It wasn’t just a whim. They were serious about their playing, and they’d do anything to get a new instrument.”

The irony isn’t lost on me that the Hoffman Music I grew up with was located in the space where The Spokesman-Review lobby is today. Hoffman’s moved to that location in 1960, when the Lincoln Building went up.

Every Saturday I would head downtown for a guitar lesson at Hoffman’s and then browse the Mad magazines and science fiction paperbacks in the used bookstore next door.

Eventually, Hoffman’s moved to its current, more modern North Monroe location, where I’ve been known to ogle the instruments three or four times a month.

Someday, Earl, I might even buy me a new trumpet.

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 ordougc@spokesman.com.

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