A Young Man Plies an Old Trade, Beating the Economic Crisis

By Timothy Baker • Jan 5th, 2011 • Category: People

By Tim Baker

“It’s recession proof.” A strange sentence to hear from 22-year-old college senior about his skilled labor, yet Alex Mehr is insistent. “When it gets to the point that you don’t have any money to buy new instruments, you’ve got to fix your old ones,” he explains. “When you’re flush you buy, when you’re broke, I fix.”

Musical instrument repair, once the sole resident industry of an entire Times Square block, has slowly become a niche business, since the close of the swing era and the dawn of rock and roll. Now 48th Street between 7th and 6th Avenues, once known as music row, is home to only a select few repair shops, most of which specialize in guitars and amplifiers.

Alex Mehr, however, is a practitioner of brass repair. His employer is Universal Music, once of 48th Street, currently of Merrick Road in the suburban town of Lynbrook, Long Island. What began as an after-school job in high school, the kind of job you get for what Mehr describes as “beer and movie ticket money” has, in the six years since his employment began, become an avocation.

To enter the brass and woodwind repair workshop at Universal Music feels like entering a cross between a Dr. Seuss illustration and the dentist’s office from Marathon Man. Familiar home workshop-type hand tools sit on benches and tables next to strange sickle shaped objects that one can only assume to be tools. Each one has a specific purpose: one for taking dents out of the lead pipe of a trumpet; one, a kind of modified ball-peen hammer with a cloth end, for hammering nicks out of the bell of a bass trombone.

An age-beaten boom box’s radio plays the half-static feed from Newark’s WBGO jazz station, and an older man in a full-length apron fiddles stoically with the neck of a tenor saxophone. As Mehr begins to talk in earnest about the role of the brass repairman in the fabric of society at large, he dons an apron and picks up the cloth-ended hammer.

“Yeah, I’d say I definitely feel closer to certain types of music because of my job,” says Mehr. He clamps a vice, also covered in cloth to protect the instrument’s shine, to the monstrous bell of a bass trombone. “Most of the time we’re listening to classical or bebop. Occasionally we get lucky and someone brings in an iPod with some Dixieland on it.” Mehr is, unsurprisingly, a particularly enthusiastic fan of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans, whose mandate is to ensure the continuation of Dixieland Jazz through performance and education. “This is a pretty old trombone,” he says, holding the horn, assessing his work. “When it came in it was all jacked up, now it plays fine, I just have to make it pretty.”

Mehr, who studies psychology at City College, looks very much like a blacksmith, authoritatively hammering dents out of the bell of the trombone to the rhythm of Dizzy Gillespe’s Anthropology. Once the dents are gone and the bell is smooth, he takes the trombone, a Conn, made in the United States in the early 1960s, outside to the store’s garage, where he covers it in fresh lacquer. “I do feel a little like a caretaker, I don’t think that’s too strong,” he says through a surgical mask as the lacquer spray fills the garage. “It’s like people who fix watch fobs or tailor zoot suits; you’re immediately connected to a certain piece of history.”

Indeed, Mehr may be even more connected to history than to the current age, particularly the dicey job market that faces new college graduates. “It feels good knowing that no matter what happens with college I’ve got six years of experience in a very specific and skilled job,” he says. “All of the major cities in the world attract musicians, so I could feasibly relocate anywhere I damn well please. I’ve thought a lot about going to New Orleans.” Such relocation would probably prove profitable for Mehr, New Orleans being one of the only places left where the old-fashioned jazz that he has fallen in love with is still popular. The Preservation Hall Band packs its non-air-conditioned space six nights a week, and there seems to be a brass band on every corner. “It’s still very much a part of their identity down there,” he says. “It’s a very nice feeling being in New Orleans as a brass repair man.”

Even though Mehr’s first career choice is not in brass repair (he hopes to work as a psychologist), when he talks about continuing in brass repair his voice still carries the pride of a skilled workman. “There are about 10 things I’d rather do than stay in brass repair for the rest of my life,” he says. “But I could see myself fixing trumpets for the philharmonic, that kind of thing.”

Mehr has a specific admiration for the caretaker of the musical instrument display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he visits often. “We’ve got a very limited clientele at the store,” he says. “I really only ever have to fix trumpets, trombones, baritone horns, maybe the occasional sousaphone. The guy at the Met, he has to repair and restore instruments that no one has played in hundreds of years: Serpents, Harpsichords, and Hurdy-Gurdys. The research involved is serious. It’s exactly the same process that the paintings in the Met undergo. That dude is a badass.”

In a musical climate that values the beat over all else, the electronic and amplified often seem like they are forcing orchestral instruments into extinction. It seems that they are soon to be objects only of academic interest, like so many Latin and Greek texts. Mehr, however, is optimistic about the future of his niche. “It’s true that not many kids keep playing instruments after middle school, but the ones that do really care and tend to play as hobbyists well into adulthood,” he says. “Those guys will always need their instruments fixed.”

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