Catonsville music store owners remember Bill Higgins as visionary, kind

Bill’s Music founder and owner Bill Higgins passed away in February, but the music ecosystem is still very much alive in Catonsville, in part because of Higgins’ support of other local music stores.

Higgins, who died of Fabry’s disease aged 81, is remembered by many of his colleagues as someone who would go out of his way to help customers and competitors.

Catonsville is known for its variety and number of music stores, its free music concerts and support for new musical talent. With no music chain stores, the area is filled with independent music businesses. Officially designated “Music City Maryland” in 2002 by the Maryland General Assembly, the city’s musical cup overflowed, and Higgins played an instrumental role.

Just ask Gary Gebler, owner of Trax on Wax, a record store on Frederick Road. He located his store in Catonsville because of Higgins. The 66-year-old Gebler grew up on the border of Harford and Baltimore counties, and his parents took him to Bill’s Music when he was a teenager to get his first drum kit.

“He made this town the music town it is,” Gebler said. “And for everything we owe our success to, he is partly responsible. Just being the institution that it is in this city and the number of people that came to this city that were musicians, I knew if I had a music store that musicians came to, I would be successful, and it’s been 16 years and we’re still having a good time.”

Emory Knode owns Appalachian Bluegrass on Frederick Road in Catonsville. The shop has been around since 1960, specializing in the sale and repair of bluegrass instruments and offers lessons.

Knode reflected on Higgins’ legacy in Catonsville music and business, saying that as competitors, the two had a very good relationship. He called himself “allies,” saying they competed “friendly” as business owners.

If one store could not meet a customer’s needs, they would regularly refer them to another.

“Over the years, we’ve had a lot of customers where we can’t necessarily meet their needs here at my store, we’d send them to Bill’s,” Knode said. “Whether they were looking for an electric, a PA, a keyboard or something like that, yes, we sent, over the years, many, many people to his business.”

Knode’s father established the business in 1960 as Nelson Music Center, a general music store that carried all types of instruments, both acoustic and electric. When Emory took over in 1980, he decided on a narrower focus.

“I just pulled everything back and just focused on acoustic musical instruments, focused on the Bluegrass community, focused on some very high quality, great musical instruments,” Knode said.

He spoke of Higgins as a visionary in the music business, like Sam Ash and Chuck Levin. Knode said Higgins was part of a group of entrepreneurs in the 1960s who envisioned a music store as a big, superstore, rather than the smaller music stores that were the norm. He took the music store to that next level, and Knode believes we’ll never see that again.

“Whenever you see a big business open, it’s usually not an independent owner,” Knode said. “Typically it will be some kind of chain business, like Guitar Center. So people like Bill, Chuck Levin and Sam Ash, and all those guys, they were pretty unique in their time.”

David Fedderly, former principal trumpet player with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (he retired in 2014), founded the Baltimore Brass Company at his home near Catonsville in 1992. His business was worldwide from his basement before he moved to a store at The Shops on Mellor in 2001.

“I moved in there on September 1st, and we were just getting up and this guy walks in the door and introduces himself as Bill Higgins,” Fedderly recalled. “Very nice. And he said he owned Bill’s Music and wished us luck. And I said we are very different stores. So, I said I don’t think we’re going to get in each other’s way at all.”

Rather, Fedderly describes a very friendly, supportive musical and business relationship with Higgins. If he needed parts to fix up his percussion instruments, he bought them from Bill’s Music. The Baltimore Brass Company did some repairs for Bill’s Music. Fedderly noted that all of the music stores in Catonsville have their own locations, paving the way for a symbiotic rather than competitive relationship between them.

“He was always very complimentary and very supportive while I was with him,” Fedderly said. “It was just a good professional relationship. I always knew if he was there, I would stop and talk to him.” Fedderly sold his business in July 2023 and now lives in South Carolina.

Lee Hirschmann, like Gebler, began attending Bill’s music as a child. Years later, he worked there as a salesman, then as a music repair technician. He eventually ran Bill’s brass/woodwind repair department before striking out on his own to start The Band Shoppe on Frederick Road. There, they repair band instruments, run an instrument rental program, teach lessons, and offer purchases for band items.

Still, Hirschmann worked for Higgins for about 10 years, a time he describes as a lot of fun and Higgins as a fair boss.

“He taught us a lot along the way,” Hirschmann said. “He was one of those guys who worked every day, you know? He was always up there. If you need anything, of course you can go talk to him. With any employer, there were always times when you obviously hit your head against the wall, but he was a big family guy, a big music lover, and when it came to the music business, he was just a very, very, very good man. respected.”

In addition to describing Higgins as deeply proud of his family, Hirschmann said he was funny, cheeky in business and unafraid to do things without asking permission, which he has respected after running his business for seven years. The last.

“He gave me a lot of the tools you need to be successful,” Hirschmann said.

Two things he remembers Higgins stressing over the years were to always make sure you have more money than the month left and it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.

He says Higgins always kept his employees fed — especially if hot dogs were involved.

“If you were lucky enough to have to run an errand or Lowe’s or something, he never hesitated to treat you to a Lowe’s hot dog,” Hirschmann laughed. “He loved a hot dog. That man absolutely loved that hot dog.”

“It was just one of those silly things that you really think about and appreciate over the years, whether it was beef, or him getting crab cream for the store and just little things. He never came to a gathering without donuts. The man always made sure we had something delicious around. It’s little things like that that I never forget,” said Hirschmann.

Higgins and his wife Nancy sent flowers to The Band Shoppe to congratulate him when it opened, and always encouraged him, offering to be on call for help if Hirschmann ever needed anything. “He never held that. Until the last time I saw him, he always said the same thing. “You know, hey, if you need anything, please let me know,” he said.

Hirschmann talked about Higgins’ influence beyond Catonsville, too.

“You have Miles DeCastro, who owns North Country Winds (Potsdam, New York). You have Keith Grasso, who owns Island Music (La Plata, Maryland). You have Robbie Stein, who owns a guitar shop in Florida. You had two other guys go out and start quality guitar companies,” Hirschmann said. They had all worked together at Bill’s. “More importantly, how many of us went out on our own after seeing it and learning from Bill that how you do it, which means you take it on the chin, pull your pants up and don’t give in. Every day you give it hell, you work your ass off until something happens, and that’s what he did.”

Tracey Kern started working at Bill’s Music when she was in high school. She was already quite familiar with store operations, however, being one of Higgins’ three children.

Kern said she and her family never realized the impact her father had on so many people. This is store number 58th year, and her father was there for almost every day of those 58 years, so the number of texts, phone calls and social media posts paying tribute to him was overwhelming.

“We were getting calls from people out of state who heard [he’d passed away] and I wanted to call and say, ‘Oh my god, your dad gave me my first credit card’ or ‘He trusted me to get it and pay it off’ or ‘He took me for my job in my band when my car broke down. ,’ or ‘Brought me a guitar when my string broke’. “None of us realized the impact he had on people,” Kern said.

He wasn’t just in the music business; he was in the people business, Kerns said. He might not have remembered a customer’s name, but he could match a face to the instrument they bought. She described people coming from North Carolina to buy a guitar, knowing that Bill’s was physically one of the largest stores on the East Coast. She also credits him with a large role in Catonsville’s designation as “Music City Maryland.”

Kern and her sister still open the store every morning.

“I go in and do what I have to do to open the store, but when I go in now, when I’m just here by myself, I’ve just always been very proud of what he did,” Kern said. “He didn’t do it to make money or become famous. He did it because he loved music so much and he loved getting guitars into the hands of kids and people who wanted to play.”

“Who is lucky enough to spend every day with their parents at their work?” Kern said.

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