George Phillips has been running Astoria Music Store, one of the neighborhood’s oldest businesses, for 30 years — and he’s still as busy as ever.
“Harmonicas? Sure, right here. I can get you anything you want.” George Phillips, owner of Astoria Music Store, jokes and chatters away with a customer. They slap each other on the back and shake hands. “Have a good one, man!” says Phillips, as the door closes with the tinkle of a bell.
A regular customer? “No,” says Phillips. “Never saw him before in my life.”
Phillips, 60, owns and runs Astoria Music Store, a small shop in Queens where the walls are lined with a boastful splatter of shiny guitars and dusty song books. He plays twelve instruments, performs with a band and runs a music school. Oh – and he’s a NASA engineer.
Born in New York to Greek parents, Phillips dreamed as a child of being an aerospace engineer. “Astronomy always fascinated me,” he says. “I loved it.” So Phillips earned a master’s degree in aerospace from City University of New York and landed a job at NASA.
He tries to describe what his work involved. Research, design, development, celestial mechanics, slingshots around planets; he leans one elbow on the counter and searches for the right words as his fingers stir the air. “It’s a lot of technical stuff,” he finally notes with a shrug.
There’s one aspect of the job he is very clear about: he spent about a quarter of his time abroad. “Go to Chile, go to Argentina, go to the Falklands, go to Portugal, go to Iceland, go here, go there,” he reminisces. “I eventually ended up in the Gobi Desert.”
But throughout all his travels, one element of Phillips’ life remained constant: his music.
A bell chimes as another client walks in the store. Phillips erupts into belly-deep laughs which bounce joyfully around the small shop. The customer has brought him a cup of coffee.
“She’s a semi-regular,” he explains. “They [play music] for the church – what can I charge these people? They wanted to give me a $10 tip the other day, and I said I wasn’t going to take it. All I want is a regular cup of coffee, I said. So she brought me a cup of coffee!”
He pauses for reflection and peers into the foam cup. “I take it with cream, though.”
When Phillips is not chatting with customers, he’s rehearsing with his band The Trojans of New York (whom he’s been with since 1968) and managing his music school. Phillips doesn’t teach there anymore and employs six instructors. But although about 100 pupils a week come through his doors to learn the bouzouki, a traditional Greek lute, Phillips doesn’t see the same “sparkle” in kids that he had when he was younger.
When he started playing in his five person band almost 45 years ago – they met in high school – there was “an influx of immigrants from Greece after the war [who] were nostalgic for Greek culture.”
“Today’s mentality is different,” he says. Now, some of his pupils are sent to him by parents wanting to instil a Greek heritage into their American-born offspring. Other times, “I have people who come in here and say, ‘Hey, I scored 10,000 points on Guitar Hero.’” These teenagers think they are guitar players because they play the video game well, says Phillips, but they can’t strum strings or play chords.
“They don’t want to put the effort in to learn something. In 10 or 15 years, nobody’s going to want to sit down,” to study a musical instrument, Phillips believes. And when his band calls it a day, which he thinks could happen in the next three or four years, he thinks there will be nobody to replace them.
But Phillips isn’t worried about his business taking a hit. “I’m very busy here. I repair between 35 and 45 string instruments a week – violins, violas, guitars, basses, mandolins, bouzoukis.” He also fixes electronic equipment, from amplifiers to keyboards. “This is nothing for me. I could do this blindfolded.”
Perhaps this technical skill harks back to his days as an engineer – or perhaps it’s just another item on the list of things Phillips trained himself to do.
The Harlem-born Greek American plays twelve instruments, “completely self-taught.” Hailing from a family of amateur mandolin players, Phillips experimented with the string instrument as a child. Then, when his mother visited Greece in 1966, Phillips, then 13, asked her to bring him back a bouzouki.
“I was fidgeting with it, and if a melody was in my head I was able one way or the other to tap it out on the instrument,” Phillips says. One of the first songs he ever learned was from the movie Never on Sunday, the 1960s Greek film. As he remembers this, Phillips sings the tune, conducting himself with his index finger.
The phone rings, interrupting Phillips’ musical interlude. He continues singing as he ambles over to the phone. “Hello, Astoria Music? Bruce! How’re you doing? Still breathing, huh?”
They chat for five to ten minutes, before signing off with a “merry Christmas” and an “I love you, man.” A close friend? Bruce is Phillips’ accountant.
Phillips has owned the store, which celebrated its 90th anniversary this year, since 1982. “I would come into this shop here to buy supplies, and then one day [the owner] comes up to me and tells me that he’s selling.”
Ready to settle down after eight years of travelling for NASA, Phillips “paid him in cash, signed the papers, and that was that.”
It wasn’t the first time Phillips had tried his hand at business. When he was a kid in the 1950s and 1960s he would take over his father’s five Manhattan diners when his parents went to Greece. “Even though I was a teenager, I knew the business inside out. I knew how to buy, how to sell, how to make the hamburgers, how to pay the bills. I would be the boss,” Phillips says.
His business background is not the only remnant of his childhood that Phillips has brought with him to Astoria. His first ever instrument – the bouzouki his mother brought him from Greece in 1966 – hangs proudly in the front window of the store. Its patterned veneer has been faded and peeled by years spent in the sun, but the black body of the instrument shines as boldly as ever.
Phillips says he has been much happier since buying the store. “Music has always been around me, you know. That’s what kept my sanity [at NASA], actually. Music only makes life better.”