The subtle twang in the voice of stringed instrument-maker and roots musician John Hargiss betrays his southern Missouri Ozarks origins. As a boy he learned acoustic guitar under his musician-craftsman-woodsman father’s instruction. As a young man he mastered constructing guitars under “that old man,” the wood harvested from walnut trees the father felled and the son hand-shaped. He feels part of a “lineage.”
Hargiss is the only one in his family who left those backwoods foothills for new horizons. After years scuttling about, working river boats and toiling in factories down South, he settled in Omaha. He worked 9 to 5 jobs, married and raised kids but he always moonlighted making things with his hands and playing in bands. Then he stepped off the establishment wheel to start his own business.
What began in his Country Club home’s garage he built into Hargiss Stringed Instruments in Benson. In a building he owned free and clear on the Maple Street strip he offered a full service luthier shop featuring his hand-made guitars, mandolins and banjos. Customers for his patented traveler’s guitar, The Minstrel, include Grammy-winners Norah Jones, Carly Simon and Judy Collins, the late rocker Dan Fogelberg and Omaha’s own Conor Oberst. His shop survived Benson’s lean years to become an anchor retail presence in that revived business district. He’s led Benson preservation and improvement efforts.
But just as that resurgence has peaked he’s picked up and moved to a ragtag northeast Omaha neighborhood that’s seen violent crime and struggled to attract businesses. His new digs at 4002 Hamilton Street include five connected buildings he’s purchased for a song. He’s spent most of 2012 restoring them, including the former vaudeville and movie theater, The Winn, at 4006 Hamilton, whose interior shell he’s made his temporary living quarters. He plans converting one of many potential spaces in his new dwellings into a finished apartment for himself.
His vision for the 35,000 square feet he possesses goes beyond his corner store and workshop to encompass a school for chartered apprentices, a live performance venue and a courtyard. He pictures a hub for artisans of all types. He calls his mecca, Hargissville, which fits his ultra laid-back Jimmy Buffett-like persona.
“A place like this has got the potential to do anything you want to do,” says Hargiss. “If it doesn’t pan out I’ll turn it into a haunted house.”
Why leave a sure thing in Benson for a transitional neighborhood?
“When I see all this area, I was meant to be and do this for this area,” says Hargiss. “I love this area. I belong here now, I know that.”
He describes how when prospecting the run-down, long-vacant properties he had an epiphany this was the right spot. But that inspiration was tinged by the hard reality of what it would take to get it all in shape.
“I knew it when I first came in. I just didn’t want to do the work.”
Months into a project that’s seen him do most of the restoration himself and that’s taken a toll on him physically – “It’s wiped me out, it’s been stressful” – he says, “I still think to myself, ‘You belong here more than you’ve ever belonged anyplace. This is why you’re here.’ I think it’s what I’d been slowly waiting for. A sign.”
There were times he second-guessed it, especially after undergoing bypass surgery and then weathering another health scare, all the while taking little time off.
“I became my worst enemy because I was trying to keep that (Benson) business running, trying to make this move over here, trying to get this place cleaned out. I mean, the cleaning part was just outrageous.”
He embraces the idea of being more than a custom instrument maker, repairer and restorer “to being able to provide other types of services. That’s exciting.” Offering a community short on amenities a welcoming cultural oasis like a fully functional live entertainment space and a place for craftsmen to play their trades has him stoked.
“My goal is to put this back to a performance center for live theater, music, arts, crafts,” he says picking his way through the in-progress theater, which features a 20-foot high ceiling and many intact architectural elements.
Doing the work largely himself and funding it entirely on his own has proven a beast but he figures the tradeoff is worth it. He’s saving on the restoration cost and preserving his independence. He estimates between the purchase price and the rehab he’s into it for “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
“I really haven’t put a lot in because I’ve done the labor and everything has been here to work with,” he says. “Anything you see has been all reclaimed. I’m using 100 percent recycled goods out of this building.”
The original tin-stamped ceiling tiles from the theater now adorn the ceiling of his new music store and workshop, which for many years housed Martin’s Bakery and most recently was home to a carpet and an appliance repair store.
He’s accepted some assistance but he resists being beholden to anyone.
“Habitat for Humanity has been an asset to me with discounted supplies,” he says. “There are grants available to restore. I wish I had some foundation donations to do this. But you lose something when you do that. I think you’re obligated to someone else when you do that. Eventually that catches up with you.”
He’s all in with this venture and for the long haul, too. And make no mistake about it, he’s doing it his way, just the way he approaches his luthier work.
“I’m not stuck, I’m not governed by, ‘Well, you can’t do it this way.’ Of course I can. Because the sound that this is going to produce is mine,” he says, fingering a guitar in his Old World workshop filled with vintage tools. “When you get to control it and you wear all of these hats, you’re the CEO, you’re the boss, you’re the luthier, you’re the repairman, you’re the refinisher, you’re the engineer, the architect, you’re all of these things at one time. So it lets me express my creativity 100 percent, and I think you have to. You reconnect with it. God, I hate to say it, but you do become a part of it.”
Since moving his business he’s discovered North O’s bad reputation is overblown.
“I think I had convinced myself I need a bulletproof vest, some guns and dogs because this is going to be bad. Well, I’ve lived here over two months and it’s the most peaceful place I’ve ever lived in in my life. Some of the nicest neighbors you’ll ever met. They’re working class people. You have your share, same as Benson, of panhandlers but for the most part they’re nice people. They stop in regularly.”
He hopes other creatives make their way to North O to invest there the way he’s done. “What would excite me most is to get them to follow me on up here.” He thinks the area’s poised to blossom the way Benson has. “When I got there it was really going down the tube. You had like 10 thrift stores and some bad bars. Nobody would come to Benson because it just wasn’t a nice place to come to. In the last six years it’s exploded. Once a small group of business owners got on the bandwagon the others were like, ‘We’ve gotta get this building cleaned up.’ Now it’s party central.”
He’s not missing out on all of the Benson boom. He still owns a building there and leases it at a premium. But he simply ran out of room for his dreams there. “Then this opportunity came up on 40th Street and that took care of that problem. It’s the ideal place.”
For updates on his plans visit www.hargissstrings.com.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.