By Nathan M. Czochara
Steve Cowles has taken over Aaron’s Music Service, 113 S. Main St., the business started by his father, Aaron Cowles, who died in December, 2013.
Steve hopes to step in with the same passion for his work as his father.
“We have the same sense of humor,” said Steve. “There’s no change in poor quality of jokes in this shop. No change.”
Aaron opened the shop in 1984, focusing on making and repairing stringed instruments, said Steve.
But his father’s love of music and stringed instruments began at an early age, probably when he won his first mandolin from a family friend, Hugh “Quack” Quackenbush. Aaron was six when Quackenbush awarded Aaron the mandolin for winning a song-playing contest in which he competed against his siblings.
“It wasn’t much of a song, but Quack gave him that mandolin,” said Steven.
In his late teens, Aaron began playing the guitar and then started working at the Kalamazoo Gibson guitar plant in 1962, said Steve. He began by doing just basic sanding and assembly work, but worked his way up to handcrafting Gibson’s renowned mandolins known as the Gibson F-5.
After 21 years at Gibson, he was laid off and then opened Aaron’s Music Service in 1984 on Prairie Street where Apple Knockers Ice Cream Parlor is now located.
“My father was a practical guy,” said Steve. “It wasn’t the shop but rather what he did. He was a guitarist and guitar maker. He enjoyed the process. He didn’t just do it because he was good at it; he did it because it was fun to do.”
Enjoying playing the guitar as well as making them, he shared his skills with the community, Steve said. He would play in church on Sunday, sometimes with a local group such as the Wasepi Gospel Bluegrass singers. He would help young customer tune their guitars free of charge.
Steve recalled the time an older man, who attended the same church as Aaron, could not afford a guitar but wanted to learn to play. So, Aaron made the man a guitar.
“He did that kind of thing for a lot of people,” said Steve. “He worked hard, and was good at what he did, he never aimed to get rich. He was very generous.”
Aaron’s passion still remained true even after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in early 2013, said Steve. Aaron would still go to the shop or play with his band when he felt up to it.
Even close to his death, Aaron was still in love with the instruments that shaped his life.
“I came up while he was in hospice care towards the end,” said Steve. “He was still with it but wouldn’t talk much. So I picked up the guitar and played it for him. I asked if he wanted me to quit and he said ‘No, keep playing.’ I thought that was pretty cool.”
After his father’s death, Steve moved back to Michigan from Washington, D.C. His main focus, he said, is to retain the high quality and passion for the work that his father had.
Today, when customers walk into the shop, they can still smell the wood dust and guitar lacquer, reminders of the work that Aaron did there for 30 years. On the walls are photos of Aaron receiving employee awards at the Gibson plant. There’s even a photo of him with guitar legend, Chet Atkins.
Mandolin frames and unfinished guitars are strewn around the old cast-iron Gibson equipment which Aaron bought from the plant after it closed in 1984.
Surrounded by these reminders of his father, Steve is now pushing himself to produce custom guitars like the ones his father made so well, and continue the tradition of what made Aaron’s Music Service so great.
“I doubt I’ll ever be good as my dad,” he said. “My vision is to keep on keeping on.”
Steve Cowles, new owner of Aaron’s Music Service, grew up in Vicksburg, graduating from Vicksburg High School in 1985. He then joined the Air Force, eventually being stationed in Texas, Germany, and Florida. Then, he worked for the U.S. government in the Washington D.C. area and Florida. Jobs ranged from working for the Department of State, to engineering, security officer, and computer support.
After being laid off by governmental cuts around the same time Aaron’s health was declining, Steve moved back to Michigan to take on the family business. Having learned the craft from an early age from his father and working on his own guitars, Cowles is carrying on his father’s tradition.
Working alongside Steve is volunteer Ed Miller who became Aaron’s apprentice in 1992. After Aaron’s death, Miller kept the store going until Steve moved back to take over. He builds acoustic guitars and does other repair and assembly work. Although Miller isn’t paid for his work, he does it for the lifelong joy of guitar making, he said.