Steve Cowles cradles a silver 1921 Conn C-Melody saxophone, a novelty even when it was made nearly a century ago.
"I've been here three times this week," Cowles says wistfully. "This has been my music place."
Hugh Robertson, an employee at Marsh Woodwinds, at last finds the instrument's very specific case in the overcrowded store. He brings it to Cowles, who works to tease open the frozen lock. The box looks as if it spent time backstage at some long-abandoned vaudeville theater decades ago. Cowles pops open the case, revealing a faded interior of purple velvet. An "active amateur" who performs with several area combos, Cowles tucks the horn into the holder and hands Robertson his credit card.
"You're getting a great deal," one onlooker offers.
"I know," he replies.
Similar scenes unfolded throughout Saturday afternoon, as Marsh Woodwinds prepared to close for the last time at 6 p.m. A fixture in a two-story brick building on Raleigh's North Person Street since 2007, Marsh Woodwinds has been a Triangle music institution for three decades. Rodney Marsh first opened an instrument repair and sales shop on New Bern Avenue in 1984.
Marsh famously used to work here around the clock, selling or reconditioning instruments. But he has become too ill to manage the business. Fiercely protective of his privacy, employees won't talk about Marsh's health or the future of the stuffed shop, which once featured an upstairs performance space packed with musical oddities and flea market finds, like a larger-than-life panther mascot that seemed to prowl the cozy stage.
The fate of the many instruments left behind—dozens of horns and clarinets, loads of dusty autoharps and gaudy accordions—remains uncertain, too. Though many people came to retrieve their instruments in the final days, the store felt almost as full as it has always been as closing time approached.
"A lot of people just want to walk through here one more time," explains John Enloe, a retired band director. He volunteered his assistance on the final day, helping and hugging the steady stream of bargain hunters and well-wishers. Marsh repaired the instruments of Enloe's students for years. "I met a lot of great musicians here."
Jazz artist Gregg Gelb stops by to pick up some reeds. He says Marsh was an outstanding saxophonist and flutist in his early career, back when he was a member of Gelb's band. Gelb taught classes in the 7,200-square-foot store, which includes several small rooms used for private lessons or practice. Jazz improvisation lessons were upstairs.
"My students always thought this was the coolest place. Rodney was a smart guy and an intuitive player," Gelb says of the longtime friend who served as best man at his 1987 wedding. "When he switched over to the shop, he was as generous as he was honest. It was a place where you knew you wouldn't get ripped off."
Michelle Clephane, who often drove her tenor saxophone to Marsh from Fuquay-Varina, understands that ethic from experience.
"Most times, he'd tweak something, hand it back to me and say I didn't owe him anything," she says. "It was important to me to come on the last day and buy something to help out."
Alex Davis felt a similar pull to stop by with his wife, Kate, and their young son, Julian. Davis co-owns Embertone, a Raleigh business that creates virtual instruments. One of their first, the Jubal flute, stemmed from a simple hemlock flute Davis bought here years ago. Today, he is taking home several items, like a snake charmer's flute Julian has been sweetly playing in the store.
"I'm always looking for weird instruments with cool stories, so this has been my favorite store," he says. As a thanks for the large purchase, Robertson gives Davis a token gift—an "Original Jim Brock Sax," a short horn with a bamboo body but a saxophone mouthpiece.
"It's the weirdest thing I've got in here," offers Robertson, his weary gruffness temporarily fading.
Cowles agrees to give it a try and unleashes a few melodic if off-key riffs.
Heads turn, too, as low notes rumble from a battered World War I-era Conn E Flat tuba, a small model with a bore size similar to the bass trombone. Frank Longino plays the bass trombone in the Raleigh Concert Band. He wipes out the mouthpiece he borrowed for the demonstration and returns it to the shelf, exactly as he found it. He has been eyeing this instrument for years, and he's ready to make his final purchase.
"This place is in institution," Longino says as he counts out $453 in cash. The horn had been marked $895. "I just had to come one more time."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Play me a memory"