“I’m living my dream,” Douglas Bruce Berry says. He’s just opened a new banjo studio and music space in Miami.
He exclaims, “This is an amazing and crazy story.”
It all began when he was a teenager. Douglas started to play banjo when he was 15, and quickly decided to build his own instrument.
“Right when I started to cut into a piece of really nice curly maple, I realized I didn’t have either the experience or tools to get this done right,” he recalls. “So I put it down.”
Douglas went on to spend 20 years in the construction industry. At first, he worked with contractors and “did a little bit of everything.” He learned to work with a variety of materials. Later, he transitioned into doing more detailed, precision work, with very expensive materials.
“I didn’t realize I was developing all the skills I needed to finish the project that I started so many years ago,” he marvels.
Thirty years after he’d given up banjo making, he found himself back at it.
He recalls finishing his first instrument in 2019. “It was the best instrument I had ever owned,” he says. “I realized that all the mistakes I had made over the years on a $6 piece of marble rather than a $60 piece of ebony had helped me.”
“I wasn’t expecting that level of quality when I finished my first build.” All his mundane construction work had prepared him to be a luthier.
Douglas says, “I was hooked! I thought, ‘I want to do it again.’”
He made another banjo and posted videos on the Internet. People started paying attention. And some of them wanted to buy their own. Douglas was still doing construction work, but now he unexpectedly found himself in the banjo-making business.
Then COVID-19 hit.
“Right about then comes the lockdown and I’ve got people who want instruments. I thought, ‘It looks like I’m not going to be setting tiles, but I’m going to be building banjos.’ So I started leaning into it like crazy. I built the first six in my laundry room and then realized that this is a viable source of income.”
That wasn’t the only surprise 2020 brought.
At the time, Douglas and his wife, Courtney, were living in Mesa.
“Everything’s locked down, but the real estate market started going crazy. Our home value in Mesa started creeping up.” He asked Courtney, “I’m not in love with this house, are you?” Fortunately, she wasn’t.
They had long thought of moving to Miami, but the time had never been right. They had six kids, and Douglas and Courtney didn’t want to uproot them. Plus, he depended on construction work in the Valley for his income.
Yet Douglas had fond childhood memories of visiting the Dairy Queen in Miami whenever his family came up to see his grandfather, who had worked in the mines in Morenci and Clifton. He and Courtney had talked about retiring to Globe or Miami eventually.
“I always thought this was the place I wanted to be,” Douglas says.
So with their house increasing in value, the construction industry on hold and their older children more independent, Douglas and Courtney started looking at buildings in Miami. At first they were discouraged by all the boarded-up structures, but one building caught Douglas’s attention.
“I took a picture through a tiny crack in the wood,” he recalls. In the photo, he saw a wood floor, a mezzanine, a tin ceiling… “This one picture was enough. I fell in love with it!”
Douglas and Courtney purchased the 1924 Popular building on Sullivan Street, along with a few houses on the hill behind the building that needed renovation.
They now live in the back of the Popular building. They’ve turned the middle section into work space. The front has become a showroom for Douglas’s instruments, as well as a gathering space for musicians.
The Internet makes it possible for Douglas to make a living from a specialty craft while living in a small rural town. And his customers come from all around the world. His last delivery went to a person who had ordered the instrument from the Ukraine.
A bespoke banjo is not cheap. Douglas explains that much of the cost results from the time involved in making the instruments – 40 to 60 hours per banjo, depending on their features. Douglas’s banjos sell for between about $1,000 and $2,000. He says he tries to undercut his competition by a few hundred dollars while using better materials.
Douglas’s banjos are all hand tooled. “I really enjoy putting my hands on the instrument,” he says. “I do all this by hand based on how it feels and how it looks.”
He’s interested in the science behind the sound. “Resonance is a whole body vibration,” he explains. “You have to think about the mass of the instrument in total. How you transfer vibration from the neck to the body and vice versa is huge.”
“I’m kind of guarded about some of my secrets,” Douglas says. “I have had a lot of people ask me how I achieve the sound I do, and sometimes I will tell them a little bit of it, but not go into detail.”
But for both Douglas and Courtney, The Popular building is about more than an occupation – it’s also their home, a place of creativity and inspiration, and a gathering space.
“This is my art studio,” Douglas says. “It’s where I create and you can come meet me.”
“We could never go back to living in a regular house. Not only is it an open concept, but it’s an integrated life. I get up while I’m still achy and drink some coffee and look down on the space and see what I have to work on. Courtney gets up earlier than me and is usually working already, and I’ll come talk with her, then head to my banjos. Seriously, it’s an integrated life and there’s nothing better than that.”
Courtney writes music, sings, plays instruments, and programs electronic music. Recently, with connections made in the Miami area, she tried something new: she wrote and performed the music for the just released Travis Mills movie about Pearl Hart, The Woman Who Robbed the Stagecoach. (Hear the soundtrack on Spotify.)
Douglas hopes his passion for Miami will inspire other people to purchase and restore some of the classic buildings in town. “I’m hoping to see other people have some faith and take a leap.”
“It breaks my heart to see so many places going downhill. I understand that the community has gone through a lot with busts and boom, and people did what they had to do, but it’s worth taking care of it. There’s got to be a move for some preservation. You’ve got to take care of these old places. There is history here. You can’t rebuild history. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
Douglas believes downtown Miami can be a draw for tourists, and he hopes The Popular building will be part of that.
“That’s what we have to offer: we have a place that makes people want to stop. Even if they aren’t interested in instruments, it’s a place they want to see. The boards are off the windows and there’s something to look at.”
To enhance the draw, Douglas and Courtney purchased a 1927 Ford Model-T and keeps it parked in front of the building. He says, “Every day, there’s people who stop in the middle of the street with a tripod and do photo shoots.”
“The idea is if we can get them to just stop, then they might use the bathroom or get something to eat or check out the other shops. Instead of just driving in and driving on, we want anything that can slow the traffic down and get people to interact.”
Douglas also believes music will be a magnet that brings people to town.
“It’s going to happen organically,” he says. “A lot of my competition builds in their home shops in remote locations, but I have a historic backdrop.”
“Now there’s a lot of people saying, ‘I want to come see your shop.’”
Douglas says musicians from Tucson and the Valley are interested in coming to Miami to gather and play together.
“That’s the reason we have this front space with chairs. It’s a jam space and we can get people in here playing. If we start to have gatherings that are too much for our front room, then we can ask about moving over to the park. I think it’s going to happen.”
In the meantime, Douglas will keep making banjos and getting to know his new home town.
“We’ve been welcomed into this community,” he says. Even Sammy Gonzales, Miami’s mayor, dropped by to say hello.
“Everyone has been so awesome. It’s like a red carpet and they’re greeting us with open arms.”
Thea Wilshire works as an author, psychologist, speaker, healthcare consultant, and AirBnB host. Her passions include community development, the creation of public spaces, trying new adventures, and sharing her therapy dog with schools and medical facilities. Find her blog at https://www.acornconsulting.org/blog.