Monday, July 11, 2011

A St. Louis Institution You've Probably Never Heard of Is Dead

Imagine, if you will, a bright-eyed and innocent eleven year old boy, awkwardly tall and skinny, with longish brown hair and a style one would equate with a person who was trying their best to be a hippie even though they didn't quite know what a hippie was or what they really looked like. That boy you are imagining is me, and I want you to imagine me as this boy on an unseasonably warm mid-February morning in 1994. Got it? Good.

I was in fifth grade at the time, a student in Mrs. Sach's class on the third floor of Avery Elementary, and Miss Payne, our music instructor, had just given us the information we needed to be ready to take our music placement tests for our pending transfer to Steger Sixth Grade Center, where we would either choose choir or band. For those of us making the smart decision to choose band, the placement test would determine whether or not we got our first, second or third choice of instrument or, failing that, if we would be assigned the flute. I knew that I wanted to play Trumpet. My older sister played saxophone and, being that as I understood brass players to be the rivals of woodwinds, and being that I wanted to remain my sister's rival because, at the time, I was eleven and she was 14 and we were required by the laws of nature to hate each other[citation needed], I knew I was making the right choice.

My father, a percussionist, drummer and high school band director in his own right, was heavily involved in my decision making process, in that he asked me which instrument I wanted to play and told me exactly what kind of trumpet I should rent to start out with and what kind he hoped he could buy me when I was older and could play really well. So before the placement test even happened, Dad announced he would take me to Mel Bay Music Center to rent me a trumpet, so I could get a jump start on the other kids. "But first," he told me on this particularly warm Saturday in February of 1994, "I have to run to the drum shop."

I had probably been in the drum shop before, I'm sure. My father used to go there all the time for drum heads, new sticks, marimba mallets, etc. I am almost positive that I'd been in there with him a few times. But something happened this time.

We walked into Drum Headquarters on Manchester Road and I stood stock still. Everywhere I looked, light glinted off of finished woods painted in the full spectrum of colors. To my right, cymbals shimmered golden under overhead spotlights. Men and boys were banging on drums and cymbals everywhere. Banging on them with sticks. I knew my dad played drums; I'd seen them in the basement. I'd seen him play dozens if not hundreds of concerts with a myriad of bands across every style of music conceivable. I had sat at my father's drum set, picked up sticks, and hit everything in sight with a fury unmatched by primal man in his day. I knew of this world, but when I walked into it that day, I discovered that I wanted to belong. My father found me hours later salivating under a Zildjian Paper Thin Crash. "Come on, we're picking you up a trumpet," he said, recognizing with fear the gleam in my eye. "How about," I said, "instead, I just get...a pair of...drumsticks...?" We never made it to the other store and I never learned how to play trumpet.

That was the magic of Drum Headquarters. Every time I entered the store, somebody was trying out a new snare drum or whacking a cymbal. Somewhere in the back a drum lesson was going on. A television mounted above the display models of top-of-the-line sets was always playing a video of Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Max Roach. The place was staffed by drummers who played out, who knew about the latest technological advances in bass drum pedal technology. It was noisy and colorful and wonderful every time you stepped in.

Throughout my teenage years, I was in the store at least once a week, picking up new sticks or new drum heads or scoping out a new hi-hat set. Birthdays and Christmases always provided DHQ gift certificates. I drooled over the Yamaha Stage Custom until I saw the Tama Swingstar, which I drooled over until the Rockstar came in, and then I couldn't decide and drooled over all three. I ended up with the Stage Custom but got to play a Swingstar in my high school Jazz Band. I only ever bought one piece of equipment from a store other than DHQ, and the experience made me never want to shop anywhere else but DHQ for my percussion needs.

Sadly, as I grew up and abandoned serious playing in favor of more casual musicianship, my visits became increasingly infrequent. In fact, the last time I was in there was probably two years ago, buying a new pair of drum sticks. I still felt that tingle, that excitement running through me. Being able not only to see the newest drums, but to feel them, run my fingers over the finish, give them each a good thwack if I feel like it; there's nothing like it.

This message was posted on the Drum Headquarters website last week:

Customers, friends and colleagues,

I regret to inform you that effective Thursday, July 7, Drum Headquarters is closed for business. These are difficult times for specialized retailers and of course, Drum Headquarters is no exception. Since purchasing the business in 2005, a perfect storm of events including epic negative economic conditions and the accelerating changes brought on by technology have produced a wave of challenges bigger than I could withstand. I've been a part of Drum Headquarters since 1983, so this is not an easy announcement to make. But, I've done everything in my power to keep the doors of Drum Headquarters open and it is no longer possible.

Customers with unfinished business will be contacted directly.

The Lesson program will continue through the month of July. You will be contacted with instructions by your teacher.

THERE IS NO LIQUIDATION SALE SCHEDULED AT THIS TIME. Please continue to monitor for updates.

You can communicate with us via email at

Thank you for 30 years of support, fun and friendship.

Jim Uding

We all know the economy is bad, but there are other factors alluded to. The growing technology changes, for instance, refer to the Internet. Look, I love the Internet. I am no Luddite when it comes to eCommerce. I get it; it's easier to purchase some things online. I will even admit, though I hate to, that buying books and music and movies online is not only cheaper but is often easier than going to a brick and mortar store, especially an independent one like the ones I frequent. But there are some things that just should NOT be purchased online. Like musical instruments. Even five hundred identical snare drums rolling off an assembly line will each sound slightly different. And without going to a store, how do you know what a certain drum (cymbal/guitar/trumpet/saxophone/violin/flute/oboe/mandolin etc) is supposed to sound like (this is something booksellers are complaining about, too, in that customers come to a brick and mortar store to look at a book and then purchase it online from Amazon, sometimes right there in the store with an iPhone)?

Since DHQ is now closed, there are only three or four places drummers can go to pick up a new set in the area: Fred Pierce's Drum Studio, a shop much like DHQ; Mozingo's Music, a more general shop that doesn't just specialize in drums; Guitar Center (a place I only have bad things to say about); and a Best Buy with the instrument shop (meh). Only a few years ago, we also had McMurray Music Center, which was the kind of independent shop Guitar Center is modeled on and which, sadly, became a Guitar Center. As these specialty shops disappear, they get replaced with stores who deal in volume sales. Sure, they're cheaper, but the staff are less knowledgeable, less helpful and less permanent. The guy behind the counter that day in 1994 was Jim, the man who purchased the shop six years ago and who had to shut down last week. Other staff members may have come and gone over the years, but they did so slowly, and almost always left for jobs in the music industry. These specialty shops are staffed by passionate professionals who really know what they're doing. And they're disappearing faster than we can blog about them.

Thank you, Drum Headquarters, for changing my life and helping me share one of my passions for many years. You will be missed.