Five years ago, the joke around Valley Repair Service, in Salem, was that owners Tom Fisher and Glenn Schwizer would “end up dying” at their band instrument repair shop.
A few years later, they started having more serious thoughts. With Fisher turning 70 in April, and Schwizer reaching 66, they figured now was a good time to say goodbye to decades of fixing every sort of marching or concert horn for high school and college musicians.
“We started the business together, and we’re leaving together,” Schwizer said.
The target date is Aug. 31, and with COVID-19 still having its way with everyone’s schedule, it looks like the two will be able to pull it off.
“The virus thing, we’re getting out at a good time,” Fisher said. “Not that we planned anything like this. It literally shut us down, as far as school systems go. We’d get truckloads this time of year.”
With school openings in a state of flux, and marching season pushed — along with football — to next year, there aren’t nearly as many instruments coming through the store.
During The Roanoke Times’ recent visit to the store at Bruffey Street and Richards Lane, the pair of jokesters were in more reflective moods. They’re happy to be retiring, particularly having sold their business to a Lynchburg-based shop, but they said they’ll miss the relationships they’ve formed with countless band directors, students, parents and adult musicians since they opened Valley Repair Service in 1984.
“We’ve had tears in here already,” Fisher said.
Schwizer added: “It’s all about relationships. We’ve laughed with customers. We’ve prayed with ’em, cried with ’em. We’ve seen deaths in families, weddings, divorces, problems raising teenagers.”
Multiple chairs are on the shop floor, for all the customers who want to drop in and chew the fat, they said. Former Salem High School band director Dennis Reaser called the place Floyd’s Barber Shop, after the local hangout on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“It’s one of the better parts of having them local, is being able to come in here and kick it for a while,” Glenvar High School Band Director Zac Sweeney said one day, as he visited the shop and exchanged information and jokes with the pair.
There is more than just gossip and jokes, Reaser said.
“It’s sort of like a therapy session,” said Reaser, who still visits the store long after his retirement. “They’re just salt of the earth people, and mostly what I noticed about them, is they care about people. They genuinely care.”
Fisher, a native Pennsylvanian, and Schwizer, from New York, never knew each other before arriving in the Roanoke Valley, though both graduated a couple of years apart from the erstwhile Eastern School of Musical Instrument Repair, in New Jersey.
There, they learned the complex skills behind fixing every type of brass and woodwind instrument with tools they built themselves.
Coincidentally, both found jobs in the Roanoke Valley, but yearned separately for something better than generating someone else’s profit through their work.
Jim Ridenhour, who owned the old Ridenhour Music, in Salem, introduced the two.
“We were on his third floor for a year until we bought this building,” Schwizer said. “Jim has no idea what he taught Tom and I about business, and a lot of thanks go to him.”
The pair spent that year having lunch together every weekday, plotting what they could do while learning whether they were compatible enough to go in together.
“He was a family man,” Schwizer said in a 2015 interview with the Times. “I was a family man. We’re people of faith. We had a lot in common. We’re Yankees, so we’re a minority down here. Probably one of the hardest things we had to learn how to do was when customers came in, to speak slowly to them.”
They like to joke! But when it came to fixing band instruments, they were serious, and seriously skilled at instrument overhauls, repadding, tone hole replacement, removing dents, adjusting valves. Their workmanship has brought contracts and customers from West Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, as well as Virginia.
“It is phenomenal,” Reaser said of their skill sets. “If there’s something that can’t get done, and there’s not a tool available that does that, they’ll make one. Watching them work, slowly, with precision, amazes me.”
The two say that they have been as close to each other over the years as they have to their spouses. “Except for sleepy time,” Fisher said.
All of that will change at the end of the month. Soon, they’ll look to grandchildren, camping and hobbies to fill the days. But they’ll never forget the customers who were key to building their business.
“We just want our customers to know how thankful we are,” Schwizer said. “We’ll miss them, and we’re not leaving them high and dry. There’s a good guy who’s taking over, and we feel confident he’ll treat them right.”
That man is Matthew Yates, 43, owner of Lynchburg-based Hill City Music.
“I’d known Glenn and Tom for years,” said Yates, who lives in Botetourt County. “One of the reasons I opened up in Lynchburg and not … this area, which is where I live, is because of Glenn and Tom. Out of respect for them, I did not want to be in their backyard, so to speak, nor did I really want to compete against them, because they’re kind of a big deal and have been for a long time around here.”
Yates established Hill City Music in September 2009. He will remain there, though he plans to open an arm in the Roanoke Valley, for dropped-off instruments that can be shuttled to his shop.
He bought their tools, assets and remaining contracts with school systems. Meanwhile, Schwizer and Fisher continue working on the jobs they still have, and were even expecting some instruments to continue coming in.
“We leave here with thankful, grateful and full hearts, and isn’t that really the very essence of where music touches us, deep in our souls and our hearts,” Schwizer said. “And it doesn’t get any better than that at the end of the day.”
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