An aptitude test Earl Smith took during his time at North Central High School suggested he’d excel in two areas: mechanics and music.
The Spokane native can recall how the two, from an occupational perspective, appeared like an odd pairing at first – at least until a test administrator offered an idea.
“It was almost jokingly that the interviewer suggested, ‘Well, why not put them together and study up on music instrument repair?’ ” Smith said.
That’s exactly what Smith’s done for more than seven decades at Hoffman Music in Spokane.
Hoffman Music, located at 1430 N. Monroe St., sells, rents, consigns and repairs band instruments, including guitars and drums. The store also sells, repairs and consigns orchestral instruments.
Smith – now president of Hoffman at 89 years old – serves as co-owner alongside his son, Allan, and Kevin McLeish. McLeish is the son of Ernie McLeish, who was president of Hoffman Music until his death in 2014.
The elder Smith has worked at Hoffman for 71 of the approximately 113 years the business has existed, though his affiliation goes back further than his career.
While Smith can recall how accordions were big sellers when he was a child in the early 1940s, his interest in music started with the trumpet. He was inspired by the North Central High School marching band; with no access to a proper rehearsal space, the band would often rehearse by marching through his neighborhood, Smith said.
“The (marching) band was a powerful band with everything that they played,” Smith said. “Like most any bands, the dominant thing is the melody, and of course, the trumpet is one of the instruments that dominates the melody. That was the instrument sound that I had in my mind, so that’s what got me started.”
Smith said he got his first instrument – a bugle – when he was around 9 years old. His first trumpet followed not too long after, which led a childhood friend to suggest lessons at Hoffman Music.
Smith can recall how he took lessons at Hoffman until starting at North Central High School, where he then took lessons with then-band director Lowell Bradford. He said he also participated in any available music electives, including the marching, concert, orchestra, pep and jazz bands.
“I really enjoyed everything that I ever did around any music,” he said. “I should have found more time for academics, but I was too busy doing music. But that’s OK. It paid off.”
Up until that point, Smith’s work experience was composed of lawn-mowing, shoveling sidewalks and other odd jobs around the neighborhood. He grew interested in getting a “real job” as graduation neared, however, Smith said.
All the while, the results of the aptitude test stuck in his mind.
Hoffman made logical sense, he said. After all, he went there often and knew plenty of the people there. So, he asked co-owner Bill Grafmiller, who was then Hoffman’s band instrument department manager, about a job.
Smith said he started out part time with sweeping the shop, cleaning up the horns and various othertasks. That grew over time with something of an apprenticeship that taught him sales, customer service and how to repair virtually any band and orchestra instrument, he said. He came on full time around 1950.
“I have to say, I’ve been just totally and completely happy every darn day,” Smith said. “The experience I’ve had working side-by-side with piano tuners and technicians and such, and meeting lots of various professional musicians passing through and coming into the store.”
Smith started working at the store when Hoffman was located on West Riverside Avenue.
The store has relocated a few times, moving in around 1990 to its current location on North Monroe Street. The business also has a separate location at West Sharp Avenue for sound and PA system services and installation.
He became a part-owner in the 1970s when the business officially incorporated. Some notable professional musicians he said he’s met over the years through Hoffman Music include trumpeters Harry James and Doc Severinsen.
School musicians, from grade school through college, have remained Hoffman Music’s main clientele throughout Smith’s career. Smith said Hoffman Music also loans instruments to local college music programs – particularly those tied with educating future music teachers and band directors as an introduction to every instrument.
Guitars have been a sales mainstay for the store since forever, he said, while popularity with other instruments and genres has waxed and waned over the years. Nowadays, saxophones are pretty popular, he said.
“Music touches everything and everybody,” Smith said. “Some in different ways.”
Smith and his wife, Myrtle, had two children, Allan and a daughter, Carol. Myrtle Smith died in 2017.
Along with serving as a co-owner, Allan Smith is Hoffman’s band department and band repair shop manager. He worked at Hoffman from the mid-1970s to the mid-’80s, starting out as a janitor in what was a similar career track to his father’s.
He left for other ventures, but returned in the late 1990s after realizing that working at Hoffman was “what I wanted to do,” Allan Smith said.
“Anybody who has ever worked for Hoffman’s, the one person they always remember is working for my father,” he said. “He’s got more patience than any person I know. I keep hoping that the longer he’s there, that patience will rub off on me.
“He’s a hard worker, but at the same time, it’s a fun job. You don’t feel like you’re going to work,” he added. “It’s also a job where there’s a lot of people that have worked there that have been there a long time.”
Tom Schager, a local professional musician who worked for Hoffman for a few years in the early 1970s and has known Earl Smith over the years through other endeavors, described the elder Smith as “one of the true icons” of Spokane’s recent history.
“There’s nobody else like him,” Schager said. “He’s got more experience than any individual that I know of, at least that is still functioning. There were a lot of great people in Spokane that were involved in their own music stores or had their own music business, but he’s the one that lasted through all of that. He’s absolutely No. 1 as far as I’m concerned.”
As far as the elder Smith’s music career goes, he decided to quit playing the trumpet when COVID-19 hit.
Smith said he was still active in quite a few area bands before the COVID-19 pandemic, at which point pandemic restrictions shut down any potential outings for those groups. On the business end, Hoffman Music was able to reformat the stores in the months Hoffman was closed last year due to pandemic restrictions.
He was ready to retire from playing, anyways, he said.
“I knew that I was not going to play for a while,” Smith said. “Being a trumpet player, you’ve got to play virtually every day. To be a runner or a weightlifter, you don’t just sit down and, two or three months later, come and pick up your weights again. Some guys do, but I don’t.”
Set to turn 90 in October, Smith said he doesn’t have any specific plans for his future with Hoffman Music – other than that he plans to stick around.
“Until they get sick of me,” he joked. “My health is good. I have plenty of energy. I’m down here virtually every day. I’m just happy to be able to do what I do and enjoy it.”