PROVO — On the outside, Bill Harris Music isn’t much to look at.
Wilford “Bill” Harris’ grandson, Wilford “Ford” Harris III, will be the first one to tell you that. There’s nothing bright or appealing about the exterior of the family-run music store in south Provo. The colors have faded and the store, which for 66 years has stood on a corner lot off of University Avenue, is showing its age.
But to Ford Harris, it’s home.
“I’ve always worked here,” he said.
He isn’t exaggerating. At age 4 Harris was a “dolly boy,” assisting the adults in moving pianos. Over the years he’s only worked a few jobs outside of the store and now, at 27, he’s taken on his most daunting task at Bill Harris Music to date: breathing new life into the store following his grandparents’ deaths.
Bill Harris, who as a high school senior got an $800 loan that in 1953 helped establish the music store bearing his name, died in July 2016 — about two weeks shy of his 82nd birthday. His wife and co-worker of more than 50 years, Joy Harris, died earlier this year on Feb. 1 at age 78.
“They both lived in this store for the most part, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., six days a week (for) their whole lives, basically,” Ford Harris said. “The entire time grandma was sort of doing the bookkeeping and grandpa was more the salesman. But grandma was always in charge of the sheet music. She was really the only one that knew where any and everything was, and she liked it being that way.”
But for all of their dedication, the Harrises struggled running the store during their later years. Both experienced frustrations with physical limitations, and in his old age, Bill Harris was going deaf. On top of that, with the store located in a college town, the generational gap between the Harrises and their customers continually widened. When Ford Harris began helping out his grandparents more in 2014, the store was still running on dial-up internet and didn’t have a website or social media presence.
“There was just a generational disconnect,” Harris said. “(It) was Chinese to their English and I don’t think they wanted to learn.”
Since officially taking the reins in 2016, Harris has taken on the motto “adapt or die.” In 2017, with the help of his stepbrother, Kade Long, Harris cleared out space in the store and opened an all-ages venue called Bill’s Warehouse to attract more traffic and support live, local music. This month alone, the venue, under Long’s management, will have hosted nine concerts. On Friday, June 21, Bill’s Warehouse will participate in the international celebration of music by hosting its third annual Make Music Day. The free, community event brings people together to jam out on harmonicas, ukuleles, guitars and bucket drums, followed by an evening of live entertainment.
“It’s really just about getting people out to experience or play music in a collective group, ‘cause when you do it as a communal thing, it has the potential to be a lot more powerful,” Harris said. “And for us to be sustainable long-term … we need to reintroduce ourselves again. We have to re-entrench ourselves within our community.”
Revitalizing Bill Harris Music
Walking around the store, Harris speaks about the family business with visible passion. In terms of a career, running Bill Harris Music is all he ever really dreamed of doing, aside from being an NFL quarterback.
“This is really the only thing I’ve ever had a sense of pride about,” he said as his eyes wandered around the store. “I’ve always wanted to see this store just keep going.”
Until a couple of years ago, Harris was more of a backup quarterback at Bill Harris Music, observing his grandfather who, although not a musician, had a deep appreciation for music — especially bluegrass. He watched Bill Harris call the shots and learned from him the importance of developing a deep knowledge of instruments and sharing that knowledge with customers. He learned to value quality over brand and to give customers the tools they need to make their own decisions rather than forcing a particular product down their throats.
Now, Harris is using the skills his grandfather passed down to run the plays at Bill Harris Music. But in many ways, the shaggy-haired 27-year-old — who can enthusiastically speak for 15 minutes straight about his disregard for brand names — is unlike his grandfather, who was a man of few words.
“He really wasn't the most talkative guy,” said Harris, who uses a deep, Jimmy Stewart-esque voice to impersonate his grandfather. “He had a very low voice and he was very intimidating. … We used to say, ‘He’d tell you a joke and you could be scared.’”
But Bill Harris knew his stuff, and his grandson looked up to him. In his older years, Bill Harris primarily stayed afloat financially through real estate — he owned most of the block that the store sits on — rather than through running the actual store. But even then and up until his death, he never gave up on Bill Harris Music.
Over the last few years, Harris has poured his soul into his grandfather’s legacy. He’s developed relationships with national music organizations such as NAMM, created inviting spaces like the all-ages concert venue Bill's Warehouse and hosted community-oriented events like Friday’s Make Music Day. Harris hopes such efforts will help reintroduce the store to Provo and make it a fixture in the community.
“Piece by piece we’ve slowly started getting it better and better. I think grandpa would approve of most things we’re doing,” he said. “I like to say I think I know him pretty well. I think he’d be proud more so of the work and the commitment that we’ve shown.”
Keeping Bill Harris Music familiar
For all of the changes in recent years, both Bill and Joy Harris still have a strong presence in the store. Bill Harris’ cluttered wooden desk remains — a desk that once held stacks of papers so high it was impossible to see anyone behind it. On the desk’s left corner rests a picture of the couple from their 1992-93 Latter-day Saint mission to Las Palmas, Spain.
A side room in the store filled with banjos and guitars — called the “roots room” — reflects Bill Harris’ love of bluegrass. In that same room there’s a sign with a picture of deputy sheriff Barney Fife from “The Andy Griffith Show” that reads: “Fife Security Agency, not much gets by him.” That sign reflects both Bill and Joy Harris’ love of the show and has been a part of the store since Ford Harris was a kid.
“I think grandma probably got it at a garage sale,” he said. “She was the queen of garage sales.”
Joy Harris also loved all things Christmas, and while the store could never make room for all of her holiday decorations — typically purchased from Dillard’s — one of her beloved trinkets, an ornate carousel, sits atop a piano in the store. At every turn, there's a reminder of the people who brought this place to life.
“When I go (to their) home now, it feels empty,” Ford Harris said. “But the store, even when grandpa passed, never felt empty. I kind of feel like they're just here doing their normal stuff. It’s a definite way for me to stay close to them.”
If you go …
What: Make Music Day
When: Friday, June 21, 5 p.m.
Where: Bill Harris Music, 312 S. University Ave., Provo
How much: Free