Three months ago, Eric Downs opened Brooklyn Woodwind & Brass Company, a retail and repair shop for musical instruments on Bedford Avenue in Greenpoint, and inadvertently ignited an instrumental renaissance in his own backyard.
Downs knew that North Brooklyn needed an instrument shop of its own, having spent 15 years watching the same professional musicians and their cases coming and going between Brooklyn and 48th Street in Manhattan–New York’s mecca of musical repair and supply shops, where Downs worked for master mechanics like Rod Baltimore. When he opened his doors back in October, he expected professional musicians seeking everything from reeds to repairs to comprise most of his business. While plenty of pros came in, Downs did a double take when he realized how many of his customers were musical wannabes who hadn’t touched instruments since elementary school, if ever.
“I’ve gotten a phenomenal response from the kids,” says Downs referring to the twentysomethings currently keeping his business at insomnia-inducing capacity. “I’m so busy, I rarely sleep. All the hipsters and all these groovy cats are totally coming in and going ‘Whoa! I used to play clarinet. I used to [play the trumpet]. I used to [play the saxophone].”
Besides offering a walk down band-camp memory lane, Downs buys, sells, rents and repairs an all-encompassing inventory of woodwind and brass instruments. His storefront window features an enticing display of saxophones and inside the store Downs carries everything from flutes, to clarinets to obscure instruments with Dr. Seuss-inspired names, like the sarrusophone. “It’s a weird sounding instrument, but it’s an instrument,” Downs assures. Rentals range between $45 and $50 per month, and all instruments are on a rent-to-own basis, but Downs doesn’t hold it against anyone who changes his mind. “If Jimmy decides he doesn’t want to play the trumpet after one week, I don’t mind,” he said.
Instruments vary in price. The most expensive is a $9,200 Selmer Mark VI baritone sax that Downs says “plays even better than she looks, and she looks good.”
As a professional musician who specializes in single-reed woodwinds (saxophone, clarinet), the appeal of playing a classical instrument is so readily apparent to Downs that it’s hard for him to say exactly why his customers are interested in picking up their trumpets and oboes again. In addition to former band geeks rekindling their love affairs with Sousa and Tchaikovsky, Downs says he gets indie singers and songwriters in the store who are “just jonesing to play the trumpet or something.”
Downs does believe that accessibility has fueled the musical renaissance he’s witnessed at the store. “I know how annoying it is to go to 48th Street for a box of reeds,” he says. It’s becoming just as commonplace to see a saxophone case and sheet music in a friend’s living room as a guitar or bass. The opening of Brooklyn Woodwind & Brass Company may well be an “if you build it they will come” kind of moment for hobbyist musicians in the borough who want to relive their glory days in wind ensemble.
Meanwhile, Downs is enthusiastic about the response to his store, and about the neighborhood. “North Brooklyn is an extraordinarily creative place on the planet, period. Not just in New York City. Not just in Brooklyn,” he says. “This energy, this vibe feeds. You feel it, and when you put yourself in a creative environment, in an area that nurtures it–Oh! You’re growing with Miracle Grow.”