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Whitestone music man makes instruments sing

Dave Caldwell, the owner of Whitestone’s lone music shop, has a quiet confidence in his work: the repair and adjustment of instruments.

“Even with the cheapest instruments, you can make it play like a great instrument if you take the time,” he said.

Caldwell, a drummer, is no stranger to working with the borough’s musicians. Over the last 22 years, he has repaired and sold thousands of instruments out of his business, the Caldwell Connection.

Caldwell’s store, at 14-20 150th St., is packed to the brim. Cardboard boxes containing used compact discs are piled across the floor, fighting for space with amplifiers.

Hanging guitars take up most of the wall space, forcing Caldwell to put many of his posters on the ceiling.

“You can play hide-and-seek in this place,” said Caldwell, who has been told he bears an eerie resemblance to the writer Stephen King when he wears his glasses. “A couple of moms offered to help me clean it up. I said, ‘I sweep twice a year, even if the floor doesn’t need it!’”

Caldwell’s business is divided evenly among music lessons, the sale of merchandise and the repair of instruments, including string, brass and woodwinds.

“I can repair anything myself,” Caldwell said. “So I can guarantee everything. That’s a real selling point.”

The store also includes a small studio in the back and a basement for teaching lessons, called by Caldwell and his music teachers, “The Dungeon of Learning.”

Caldwell started working at a music store to pay for his drum lessons after graduating from Queens College more than two decades ago with a “useless degree” in creative writing.

At the time, the owner of the music shop was looking to go out of the business and offered to turn it over to Caldwell.

“I said, ‘I’m just out of college. I’ll give it a year,’” Caldwell remembered.

In his 20s, Caldwell played in a band called Thirst. The group has since broken up, and Caldwell now plays in the Kudabins.

“Someone said we sound like a cross between Frank Zappa and Weird Al Yankovic,” he said.

At the heart of Caldwell’s business is his work with musicians. He often helps them find the proper adjustments for their instruments.

“Musicians are a real type,” he said. “They’re quirky. They can be a real pain. But they’re interesting. ...

“They have an idea of what they want. You have to decipher what their feeling is. And I think I’m pretty good at that.”

Most of the customers at the Caldwell Connection are regulars. Many are young musicians. Caldwell described himself as being in a “grandfather position,” often dispensing advice.

“I tell the kids, ‘Look, give yourself to 24, but then you have to get your degree,’” he said. “A lot of my friends, they have devoted themselves to artistic pursuits, and some of them are very good. ... But even the good ones don’t make any money.”

But Caldwell said he also worked to make his store appealing to families. Many of his customers are children just starting to take music lessons, as well as schools needing repairs for their instruments.

Often, customers tell Caldwell they are envious of his work.

“I have baby boomers who come in and say, ‘Oh man, I wish I was doing this. It’s like a dream job.’”

Caldwell agreed his work can be “a lot of fun.” But he also said he was frustrated with aspects of the business, noting the industry committed the sale and repair of musical instruments was about the same size as the toilet paper industry.

Caldwell admitted that part of him wished he had become a writer, following in the footsteps of his father.

“Sometimes you choose your path, sometimes it chooses you.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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