Lex E. O'Brient opened O'Brient's Music Store at 109 Main Street in 1925. That was one year after Trinity College became Duke University and five years before construction began on Duke Chapel. Skilled labor was hard to find, so O'Brient's wife, Mae, and his three children helped out. The middle child, Marian, still runs the store today with her sister-in-law, Melinda O'Brient.
I recently met with Marian O'Brient, a vigorous 84-year-old, and her 78-year-old sister-in-law--who rarely stopped long enough to sit down. We talked in the music store's back office, a paneled room with lime green trim, a lime green ceiling, and a matching shag carpet.
"My daddy started off selling record players, sheet music, records. Seventy-eights was what was popular then," Marian O'Brient says. "We've been a complete music store. Band instruments, guitars, drums, pianos, Magnavox and RCA radios."
About the time the store opened, Gene Autry recorded "My Blue Heaven," his first hit. "I remember my daddy talking about that," O'Brient says. "I believe the first week they sold 500 [copies]."
Over the years, O'Brient's was located in four different buildings in downtown Durham, three of them on Parrish Street. What was it like then in the heart of the Bull City?
"It was booming," O'Brient says. "I can just see that picture right now. People came to town on Saturday. That's when they did their shopping."
"Shopping and going to the movies," adds her sister-in-law. "The boom was when Camp Butner was here. Y'all stayed open till 11 p.m. All the stores downtown stayed open until 11 p.m." That was during World War II when the Army's 78th "Lightning Division" was headquartered in Butner.
One of the perks of owning a music store was meeting famous musicians. "I met all the entertainers," Marian O'Brient says. "Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, the Mills Brothers. I even met Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra. We let Fats Waller have a piano and he damaged it. It was a grand piano too. I don't know what made him get up on top of that piano and dance. I remember that my daddy was so ill he didn't know what to do."
After almost 60 years in downtown Durham, O'Brient's moved to a big old house on Chapel Hill Road in 1983. "Business has been steady except these last few years," O'Brient says.
After our conversation, I bought a book of recorder music just so I could see her operate the cash register. It's an archetype: Huge, black, with lots of mechanical buttons and drawers. After you've punched the right buttons, you turn a handle and the appropriate drawer pops out with a loud, "ding."
The machine is at least as old as the store. "That cash register will operate on electric current too," O'Brient says. "It's more conversational with manual so I haven't bothered plugging it in."
The store isn't open regular hours now. But if you're interested in buying sheet music, old records, or springs for Victrolas, stop by if you see a 1972 Plymouth parked under the carport. Or call Marian O'Brient at 682-3393 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for an appointment. But don't even ask about the cash register. She says it's not for sale.