Music Makers of the Past
Writer and musician Ana Balka reflects on the virtues of vintage instruments, and goes shopping for them in Bay St. Louis.
- story by Ana Balka, photos by Annamarie Holbrook
The woman—the man’s sister, it turned out—refrained from rolling her eyes as he insisted I allow him to buy it and pay him back later (perhaps he was in the habit of being wildly generous). I was embarrassed, but eventually accepted and made arrangements to pick it up.
Fifteen years later I still have the piano, and I am no virtuoso. But I love that piano, and I’m forever grateful to the man in the antique store.
I’ll admit to being something of a sucker for instruments I see in second-hand stores, especially accordions (also no virtuoso, but they’re totally addictive), violins, and guitars. The violin I’ve used to play in rock bands for years is a 5-string Alvarez electric-acoustic that I found for something like $50 in an antique store in Atlanta.
Shay Sugars of Magnolia Antiques, 200 Main Street, reeled off a veritable philharmonic of used instruments and associated accouterments you can find now in their sprawling display room in Bay St. Louis: A melodica (“It’s like a keyboard you blow into”), $65 with carrying case; “Several metronomes, two really good vintage turntables, a vintage accordion, three trombones, some trumpets, and electric guitar, vintage acoustic guitars, a bass guitar...” Shay trails off, then remembers more. “A mandolin and a violin, and harmonicas.”
“Also kazoos. Vintage mint. And a lot of vintage sheet music.”
“I buy any good instrument that comes into the shop,” she says.
A few of the stringed instruments found at Magnolia Antiques
The store is a family affair, with stepdad Jack Schornick picking up many of the instruments from the various estate sales and other places the shop sources its stock from. Violins, guitars, and brass wind instruments are typical finds, so I asked Shay about some of the odder instruments she’s seen.
“We had a Merlin,” she says. “It’s a thin-bodied guitar by Seagull. Supposedly it’s got no bad notes, which is great for people like me.”
Magnolia Antiques has also come to be known for its unusually large selection of new and used ukuleles. Jack took up the uke habit at some point and, once his growing collection outgrew their house, they decided to start carrying them in the store. Right now there are around 70 of the small, guitar-like instruments in stock including electric, resonator-body (in copper) and bass ukes along with the classic wooden models in all sizes including peanut, soprano, concert, and tenor.
Sylvia Young of Antique Maison Ulman and Tearoom at 317 Ulman Avenue in Bay St. Louis says she and husband and co-owner Ed see many stringed instruments like violins, and the banjo they recently sold. The store currently has some unique offerings like a reenactment bugle — a custom-made replica of the horns used around the time of the Civil War — as well as a 1900 Indian antique brass copper blow horn from World War I.
One dealer in the Youngs’ showroom specifically carries different types of horns and stringed instruments.
All sorts of people come into Antique Maison looking for musical instruments, and they usually sell quickly, Sylvia says. Not everyone looking for instruments is a musician: “I had a lady come in looking for any type of instrument,” Sylvia recalls. “Her father, sons, and grandfather were all musicians, so she has a room that’s like a museum in her house.”
One of the more unusual instruments they had come through was a melodium, “From the 1800s — it was also a beautiful piece of antique furniture,” Sylvia says. “It had a little place to put your candle from back in the days when that’s still what they used. We say that’s where you put your drinks now.”
Whatever your musical taste, and whether you play an instrument or just think you might like to try, I recommend taking note of that lonely accordion in the corner when you’re out looking at antiques and vintage items.
While it’s rare that someone will step out of thin air and buy an instrument for you as the man in the antique store bought my piano for me, antique stores can yield some unique finds and give you the opportunity to give an old instrument new life.