Of all the drum retailers we’ve profiled, Chris Hawthorne is the first proprietor to volunteer that his store is “kinda dirty.” He’s not inaccurate. Hawthorne’s warehouse spot, located in a nondescript building just across the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, is a little grungy. But you’re not visiting his by-appointment-only shop to eat off the concrete floor. You’re going there to check out the dozens of vintage kits, snares, orphan drums, and cymbals he also has for sale online, where Hawthorne estimates he does about “99 percent” of his business. So while not a traditional drum retailer—no set hours, no signage, no storefront, no heads and sticks—Hawthorne has quickly become a respected vintage drum dealer in the few years he’s been doing business, and we wanted to get his story.
“I was never really a gear guy. I had the same kit for probably a decade. Then I put a thing on Facebook that I was looking for a Vistalite kit. I had a Tama Starclassic at the time. A guy responded that he had a black Vistalite kit. It was in really nice shape, we did a trade, and that was kind of it for me. It was a different type of playing and a different type of vibe playing that instrument as opposed to what I had before. From there, I traded [the Vistalites] for something else, bought this…bought that…then all of a sudden I have all these drums. That’s how it started. It was an accident, to be honest.
I got married and we were living on the top floor of an old Victorian house some friends owned. They let me have a room in their basement, and that was like the beginning of my shop. Kept all my drums down there, worked on them down there. I was working a job at a local non-profit. It was a good job; I liked it. But I thought it would be really cool if I could somehow support myself selling drums. I didn’t really have a plan aside from getting out of student loan debt. And a couple of years ago, I found myself in a position where I had enough inventory and low enough bills that I could quit my job and start doing it.
A question I get a lot is “Where do you find everything?” I find it where everyone else does: Craigslist, places like that. There’s really no secret. Occasionally people reach out and say, “Hey, I’m looking to sell this…,” which is really nice, because it makes it a lot easier on me. Yesterday I drove a couple hours down to Altoona to scope out a kit. Later on today I’ve got to go to Akron. That’s about two hours each way. I’ve driven as far as Scranton a couple of times; that’s about five and a half hours away.
There have been a couple times where I’ve driven a few hours for kits and just ended up leaving. It’s not very often. You have to make some assumptions. How does it look in pictures? Are there bottom heads on the kit? If there’s not, the shells might be out of round. There’s a lot of factors to take into consideration. After I’ve thought those things through, that’s when I decide whether something is worth the drive.
You’ve got to know what to look for when buying drums. You’ve got to know what market prices are. I’ve got to think about my margin, and what shipping is going to be. It can be an overwhelming thing for people. I have it figured out now down to a science. But there’s a lot of risk, spending $1,500 for a kit. Sometimes that kit will sit for a year; sometimes it’ll sell in three hours. There’s a lot of factors that go into how to make a purchase worthwhile.
I love projects and kits that need work. Those are typically the things that you can make the most money on. It’s really fun for me to see something that comes in a mess, and then when it’s done it’s in real nice shape and ready to play—it has new life. But that can kind of give me trouble sometimes. You get into a project and then you realize, This is not worth what I paid for it. Stuff that needs parts— I’ve got a ton of parts—or cleaning up, I can handle. If the bearing edges are shot, unless I get the kit really cheap, I try to avoid those types of drums.
If I saw Pittsburgh as a place to do a classic retail shop for vintage, I’d probably do it. The city doesn’t seem to have the type of customer base to support what I do here. Pittsburgh Drum Exchange is a few miles away. It’s a proper store with cymbals and heads and all that. So we already have that. Drum Factory Direct is in town. They have literally everything you could ever want. I’m not interested in selling a bunch of sticks and heads and all that. It’s just me. I clean all my drums and detail them. I pretty much run the operation from the bottom up. Hiring a bunch of people and working with customers—it’s not something I see as a viable option for me right now.”
Owner/operator Chris Hawthorne adheres to a business model of simplicity. “I’ve always been a person that likes simple things,” he explains. “Come see what I have. I can answer all your questions. You can sit behind the kit and play. It’s a very simple business model.” Hawthore does, however, estimate that more than half of his customers are European. “They buy online. They don’t have a lot of vintage American drums over there.”
“There are times when I’m overwhelmed with all the stuff I have to clean up and get out,” Chris Hawthorne says. “But I’m all caught up now. I joke with friends in the business that when you get bored you buy more stuff to have something to work on.”
“The number-one thing you want to figure out first is what you’re using the kit for. What venues are you playing? What kind of footprint are you looking for? You may love the sound of a kit, but it could be too big for the places you’re playing. And if you’re touring, are you going out with a drum tech? Because a lot of the hardware on these older drums needs to be taken care of. It’s also important to know how much you care about looks. I have a couple of Pearl fiberglass kits. And they sound incredible. But they’re not flashy. So you want to figure out if you’re more into sound or into looks.”