Bill Higgins talks about his store, Bill's Music, on Frederick Road in Catonsville on Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Video by Jen Rynda / BSMG
When Jim Mays started working at Bill's Music in 1965, it was a tiny shop on Mellor Avenue occupying no more than 400 square feet. It had maybe four other employees.
Seven expansions and 52 years later, the 35,000 square foot shop on Frederick Avenue is one of the largest music retail shops on the East Coast, with dozens of employees and hundreds of guitars, drum sets and pianos lining the walls and clustered on the floor.
Next to the front door is a framed note above a photo collage, "Happy Retirement Jim. We will miss you!"
Mays, a manager who was part of what he called the five-person nucleus that built Bill's from the ground up, "reluctantly" retired this month after 46 years as an employee. Mobility and knee problems, Mays said, forced him to retire at age 69, despite his intention to return after a few months of medical leave. Bill Higgins — who owns the store with his wife Nancy — even made him an offer to work less hours.
Bill Higgins first approached Mays about joining his shop at a nightclub in Glen Burnie in 1965. Mays was 17, and a rhythm guitarist in a band called the Ebb Tides that played a variety of music — Top 40, soul and British Invasion. Bill and Nancy liked to go dancing.
"I liked him and I liked his playing," Higgins said. "I liked everything about him."
Mays spent a year at the store as a guitar teacher and salesman before returning to his full-time professional music career for five years. He spent those years taking classes during the day at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and playing shows at night, eventually finishing with a degree in business from the University of Maryland in College Park and the urge to return to Bill's.
He came back as a store manager, and stuck around for 45 more years.
"I could've done a lot of different things," Mays said. "I could've sold stocks or sold real estate. But music was something I loved, and it was fun to take a small business and build it into something that grew extremely large."
He spent the next four-and-a-half decades alongside some of his closest friends — Lou Campagnoli, Ron Cook and Bill and Nancy Higgins and their kids, who watched along with the rest of the community as the shop grew.
Mays would often work six days a week, Bill Higgins said, joking that Mays was "more dedicated than he wanted to be when he started."
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Mays said customers relied on him and the rest of the staff to be experts in all things music.
Now, as music retail continues to transform with the rise of online instrument sales, brick-and-mortar stores like Bill's must adapt with the industry. Mays called it a challenge, but maintained it forced the store's staff to stay on their toes to keep up with customers entering with much more knowledge than they had decades ago.
Bill's has an online operation as well, but customer reactions when entering the store is still special, Mays said.
"On any given day, [customers] walk in and they gasp, 'Wow! I never know all this was in here,'" Mays said. "The people love it."
A 46-year run in music retail is extraordinary and possibly unprecedented, said New York University music business professor Larry Miller. Online retail and showrooming — when people visit a store to check out a product before going home and buying it online — is contributing to the decline of the musical instrument business, he said. Miller added that some people don't want to invest the time to learn instruments when they can create music digitally.
All those hours spent in the store meant loyal customers — some who were second or third generation customers — would often spend 15 or 20 minutes talking to Mays about more than just music, but about their family and friends and children.
"We have customers come in and say … 'He sold me my first guitar. As long as Jim's here I'm coming.'" said Tracey Kern, Bill and Nancy Higgins' daughter, referring to Mays.
"Hopefully they keep coming in," Kern joked. She's known Mays since she was born, and they often worked the same shifts. She said though Bill was her dad, she looked to Mays for a lot of guidance — any time the store was crazy busy, "level-headed" Mays could handle any problem, she said.
Higgins said any time he was away and conflict arose, he knew Mays would make the right call. "I'd look at it and say, 'Well, you did the right thing,' and be glad to have him."
That trust, the camaraderie and family atmosphere that came with working alongside your best friends with the same passions in the same community for four decades, was one of Mays' favorite parts, he said. He loved creating something from the ground up, and called it a "dream come true" when Bill's grew into its current operation.
He wasn't the only one to stick around that long, either. There were three employees who stayed at Bill's for more than 40 years, and many have been there for more than two decades.
"I never wanted to leave," Mays said. "I enjoyed working there. I enjoyed the people I worked with over the years."
When Mays realized he had to retire, he called all 30-plus employees — from the music teachers, Web workers, administrative employees, sales staff, management and more, to individually thank them, tell them it was a pleasure to work with them, and say goodbye.
You don't replace someone like that easily, Higgins said. He still hasn't found the right person for the job.