First Person Singular: Phillip Zavarella, musical instrument repairman

Sunday, December 12, 2010; W04

I've been doing this work 42 years. I learned from my father; I'd watched him do it since I could remember. When I was in junior high school, I'd come home, and I had to overhaul two clarinets before I could do anything else. That's take it completely apart, buff it on a machine and make it look like new, then repad it and make it so it doesn't leak. Then he would come home and critique the work that I had done, and finally it was like, "Great. Perfect." That didn't happen overnight, of course. Then you start with the saxophones and flutes.

We had a music store for 34 years in Crystal City. We started in D.C., and then the riots came in '68 and took care of that. It was my father's: Zavarella's Music. Our thing was used instruments -- buying them, refurbishing and selling them -- but when the Craigslist and eBay came along, that was the end of that.

I can pick up a woodwind instrument and just press the keys and tell you if it will play or not, without doing any other research first. You don't have to tell me what's wrong with your instrument, because I know. It's either rusted or bent, and you hit it with a hammer or bend it back with a screwdriver; or you put a little oil on it and apply a little heat to it, and finally it just comes loose.

Usually on a flute, it's a loose screw, so you take a couple minutes and tighten a couple screws, and it's good. But they have pads on them, and after a while these pads do wear out, and you have to replace some of them. But most of these other repairmen, you walk in and they go, "Oh, you need a repad."

I hate that. I just can't stand that. You know, just do what the person needs. Because they're going to find out that you ripped them off at some point, and then you're the bum of the world.

You can go to these music stores, but as soon as you walk in the door, you're starting at 200 bucks. I start at 40, and it stays at 40. That's why I'm not a businessman anymore; I can't rip people off. My father couldn't do it, either, but he would say, "You're as strong as your pencil when you finish that instrument." That means, write a good price on there.

Another thing my father taught me was make it shiny -- you can't sell it if it's not shiny; people buy with their eyes. And he was right. He was always right.

-- Interview by Amanda Abrams

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