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Opinion >  Column

Doug Clark: Singer set tone of humor, humility at Dutch’s

Saying Gary Singer ran a pawnshop is like saying the Clocktower’s just a timepiece.

Singer was a larger-than-life Spokane original. And you didn’t have to patronize his landmark family business at 415 W. Main Ave. to sense this, either.

The now-famous message he composed and placed on the sign over the front door of Dutch’s Inc. speaks volumes to the Singer sense of humor.

“Surly staff.

“Poor selection.

“High prices.

“Terrible quality.”

You’ll never see that at Nordstrom.

And that’s just one side of this quirky marquee. The other side boasts having “175 guitars in stock and three banjos.”

I was thinking about Singer’s originality while sitting in a funeral home on Tuesday afternoon, one of hundreds who had packed the place to standing room only to pay respects to this rare man.

Singer died quietly at home in his favorite chair the day after Valentine’s Day. He was just 66.

What a loss.

You can’t call room service and order up another Gary Singer.

Nor can you replicate the eclectic universe he created within the walls of his store.

With his keen wit and love of puns, Singer would have no doubt mined his own abrupt passing for a “here today, gone tomorrow” gag.

Unfortunately, we must settle for anecdotes in the past tense, like this one told during the service.

One day a woman walked into Dutch’s with her child, who was in the school band.

“I want to look into a clarinet,” she declared.

“Which end?” replied Singer with the timing of a Catskill comic.

Rick Rubin is a longtime Dutch’s employee and the city’s premiere luthier. He described what it was like going back to work the first time without his suspender-wearing boss holding court and cracking wise.

“I felt like I was rattling around in an empty boxcar,” Rubin recalled.

“His presence is such a part of this place.”

I met Singer through Rubin. Like many Spokane musicians, I was drawn to the music side of Dutch’s to have work done on my instruments or maybe get a deal on another guitar.

Over time and many conversations with Singer, I began to see him as a fascinating study in contrasts.

Though he loved to dress down, for example, Singer was extremely well read and intellectual. (Only after his death did I learn that this humble merchant had a bloody master’s degree in economics from the University of Oregon.)

Singer was in charge yet rarely ever raised his voice.

And despite the predatory reputation of the pawn business, Singer was known for treating his customers – no matter how ragged or down and out – fairly and with genuine respect.

Singer had a heart for the underdog, a trait he acted on by giving countless hours to causes like public radio and the Second Harvest food bank.

He supported my own annual charity, Spokane Street Music Week, which funnels donations into Second Harvest.

Devoted husband and father. Devoted to Judaism. Devoted to the betterment of Spokane …

Gary Singer will be sorely missed.

The other day, Dutch’s employees Rubin, Sean Johnson and Jason Kull got a ladder and made a change to that iconic sign.

Off went the quirky reference to inventory. On went a new sentiment that needs no explanation.

“Gary Singer 1946-2013.

“Good night sweet prince.”

Doug Clark can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or

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