This is the story of Terry, and his 40-year desire to create a school and museum so he can share with others his love of stringed musical instruments.
I enter Terry’s music store, and he is pouring over an ordering catalog. He writes down items in a spiral notebook and then places a call to his music house’s customer service representative. From what I can tell he is ordering guitar strings, guitar tuners, and perhaps a pick-up or two. Terry is 65 and does all of his ordering the old school way, as he doesn’t own a computer.
After about 10 minutes he invites me to sit in a chair towards the back of his La Salle, Illinois store, which is called “The Guitar Junkyard.” It is a shop filled with every imaginable type of guitar and stringed instrument. Guitars are hanging from the walls, the ceiling, and on racks. Old looking one, new looking ones, fancy ones, handmade looking ones. Guitars are everywhere; they visually represent his life of collecting.
Terry always loved music, but as a child, he didn’t think that this would be his life. Terry was raised in the affluent Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. He went to Iowa State University in Ames because his parents expected him to go to college, but he always felt that he was more of a “hands-on” type of guy. Like many teenagers, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to major in. His choice was based on rules of elimination. English was crossed off because he didn’t like the rigid rules required. Meteorology was eliminated because of the excessive chemistry load. He was left with an anthropology major. He had been playing the guitar since he was a child, and so he decided on a music minor. Terry considers himself an ethnomusicologist, based on these areas of study.
In 1972 Terry taught himself the banjo. In 1974 he joined a bluegrass group in Ames as a banjo player, The group was locally successful. Terry was now working as a carpenter, and the band served as a nice counterpoint.
A good friend was managing a music store in Ames. He called Terry with a request to run the store for him for a couple of weeks as he had a family emergency and needed to travel out of state. Initially, Terry was reluctant; he had no business knowledge. His friend convinced him that it would be easy, and it would only be for a short time. This would be a turning point for Terry.
The friend never returned, and Terry was given the store manager job. The owner arranged to have someone train Terry on the business side of the store, and he was off on a new and unexpected career. Terry adjusted to his new job but found it too slow-paced. He started to buy junk guitars for the sole purpose of learning how to fix them. Eventually, he became an expert guitar repairman. Terry specifically refers to himself this way as opposed to calling himself a luthier. Terry had a steady job and was playing music on the weekends. His wife had advanced herself too, eventually earning a Ph.D. Life was good.
For every up, there is a down. After two years the store owner decided to close the Ames store, and Terry was out of a job. Around this time his bluegrass band was starting to fall apart. Once again, things were changing for Terry.
With a small bank loan, he started his music store, which became a successful enterprise. Around the same time, he was approached by another band, “The Warren County String Ticklers” to play the guitar and sing. Terry was a busy guy, running the store during the week and playing gigs at night and on the weekends. The Ticklers were popular locally leading to TV appearances on Iowa Public Television. Life was once again excellent, and it was about to get better.
Illinois Public Television was in the process of putting together a show for Jethro Burns, of Homer and Jethro fame, and they need a band for him. Through their Iowa TV connections, the Ticklers were chosen for the job. The show, called “Country Music Hall,” was a success and the band started to tour with Jethro. County fairs, state fairs, TV appearances, and more. Terry was traveling with an “A” level performer, and he was having the time of his life. His store was thriving, his wife’s career was advancing. Terry was on a successful fast track.
Life started to unravel by the mid-80s. Jethro Burns became ill and had to leave the tour for an extended period, and various members of the Ticklers were abandoning the band for various reasons. Although Terry loved working in the band, he was tired of the band life. Set-up, tear-down, fast food, long hours. It was exhausting, but more importantly, it kept him away from his friends, wife, and son. “About 3% of musicians become professional, but only about 0.1% reach a level of enough success where they can have a pampered life on the road.”
His wife got a job for the Department of Agriculture, and the family left for Washington DC for a three-year commitment. Terry left an employee in charge of his store, which quickly went from making a profit to being in debt. At one point he had to return to Iowa for two months, to save his business. “I found a drawer of bounced checks and people said that the shop was often closed during business hours. Apparently, my employee was making more money at the local pool hall than at the music store.”
Eventually, his wife’s Washington job ended, and she returned to Iowa State University. Terry’s shop was in the green, but this phase was also short-lived and a new twist that was about to happen. His wife’s university job ended, and she had to find a new one. One of her job offers was in Illinois, close to her family who lived in the LaSalle area. Terry packed up his shop and moved it to LaSalle, where it remains today.
All of this time Terry was collecting guitars and other string instruments. He says, “I only need one of each type.” Unfortunately, there are countless varieties to be had. Construction techniques can differ, body shape can vary, ornamentation can change. “When I make money I don’t pay myself; I buy another instrument.” This explains the expansive number of instruments in his shop.
Terry says that he has wanted to create a museum and teaching center for many years. The building that he rents for his store is for sale, and Terry is in the process of buying it. He envisions a museum on the first floor and his music store on the second.
Most of his instruments are not collector quality, but they all tell a story. He would like to allow people to play them and experience their differences. Also, he would like to share some of his talents. As a professional performer, he understands that there is more to playing on stage than plucking an instrument. He envisions a center that teaches the art of performance. As a self-taught guitar repairman, he plans a teaching program that could train future instrument fixers.
He would like to create a foundation to manage his museum and collection. His eventual goal would be to be the director of instrument repair. “I could leave the running of the place to someone else.”
Will Terry succeed in his quest? The outcome is unknown. He has the instruments, and he will soon own the space. He feels that he will have enough capital to make the fundamental changes needed to turn his shop into a museum. What is less clear is if he can draw enough people to LaSalle, Illinois to sustain the museum. He is very close to Starved Rock State Park. A park that gets over 3 million visitors a year. He is thinking of ways of attracting those visitors to his museum which he plans to call, The String Instrument Museum for Preservation, Luthiery Education” or SIMPLE. He wants to use the tagline, Music is SIMPLE.
Terry is 65, but he is still dreaming. Sitting in a rocking chair is not in his plans. He has wanted to establish his museum since his college days, and he is now a few steps closer to achieving his goal. His concept is novel, a place to showcase a diverse collection of string instruments, rather than one that displays museum-quality pieces. He wants to bring his type of music appreciation to the general public.
At the end of the interview, I asked Terry if he had any life regrets. “Are you sorry that you didn’t continue in anthropology, or as a professional musician?” After a long and thoughtful pause, he just said, “No.” Terry is right where he wants to be.
I wish Terry well in his plans and his future.
In life there are many ups and downs. It is how we view these twists and turns that determine our life satisfaction.
Terry’s music store:
The Guitar Junkyard
1049 8th St