Saxquest: Passionate Pursuit of the Horn
“Sax players are a finicky bunch,” Mark Overton says, shaking his head. “We can play head games with ourselves because so much of what we do is mental. Sometimes we hear and feel things that aren’t there.”
Overton, who with his wife, Elke, owns a growing saxophone (and now clarinet) specialty shop, knows what he’s talking about. He’s relentlessly pursued his zeal for the instrument one Adolph Sax created, making a hobby of buying and selling used saxophones into what is, today, a worldwide Internet operation, as well as a cool storefront employing nine. Saxquest serves the St. Louis region and beyond and, while the base of his business is reconditioned used horns, Overton is increasingly getting into new products, as well: He’s the number one P. Mauriat dealer, and he’s most recently taken on Buffet Crampon products.
Mark grew up in Ankeny, Iowa, where he sat next to girl named Elke in fifth grade Band who would eventually become his partner, both in life and in business. When they went to college, the initial intention was to both study music. “But that didn’t make sense, so I changed my major to biology and chemistry with a minor in jazz studies,” Overton says. After graduation, they moved to St. Louis where Mark would complete his Ph.D in molecular genetics (yes that’s right, it’s Dr. Overton to you).
Amazingly, he still had time to pursue his passion of saxophones. “I’d find a Mark 6 in a pawn shop for $1,200 and later sell it for $2,000. It became an obsession.” That was all harmless fun until he put up the Saxquest website in 1999. Overton hooked up with collectors from all over the country and around the world, and the customers pursuing those instruments followed. “It just suddenly became a big deal. Instead of selling one horn a week, I was selling 10 or 15.”
He’s asked something along the lines of, “What the hell were you thinking?” when he stood at the crossroad of either a career as a scientist or one as a guy who sells horns. “It was never about the money,” he laughs. Sure, he had several tempting offers in hand, but Overton seems to not have hesitated to turn his back on all of that to set up a shop of sorts in the couple’s older St. Louis home (the kitchen was converted into a repair shop).
But by 2007, they were “busting at the seams,” and moved into a charming old building in the increasingly hipster Cherokee-Lemp area of St. Louis, a neighborhood on the way back to its glory days of the 1930s and 1940s and filled with antique shops, great dive-y ethnic restaurants, and a brewpub. A big appeal was an upstairs area where Mark could have his saxophone museum [see sidebar], which he credits as key to educating his staff.
“I want every one of our customers to come away thinking, ‘Man, they really know what they are talking about.’ I want people to trust us. And they do because we’re all players, and when we get something new in, I tell the staff to take it out on a gig and see how it responds.”
The Heart of the Business
MMR: There are many good horn shops in town with long histories – what made you think you could be successful?
Mark Overton: We’re primarily known for our repair shop, especially our ability to restore vintage instruments. It’s the heart of what we do. Players even bring us their brand new instruments for us to set up.
I’ve put a lot of energy into making sure our repair work is top notch. Even our part time guys are maniacal about their work. We just brought in Audrey [Deny], a fantastic clarinetist who is used by the principle clarinetist of the St. Louis Symphony. We’re really getting more into clarinets since we are a Buffet dealer now.
MO: I was very lucky to get George Bunk. He was formerly with McMurray Music. [McMurray Music was sold to Brook Mays, which went bankrupt in 2006 – Ed.]. I was going to him with vintage instruments while he was still there, and he’s just an incredible technician. So he came on full time with me in 2007.
Chris Funck is another former McMurray guy. He’s another master craftsman. Both work on saxophones and clarinets, and both gig professionally. Actually, every single person here still plays out.
MMR: How many folks do you have working with you, total?
MO: Five full-time and four part-time.
MMR: What new lines are you carrying?
MO: A lot of P. Mauriat. It’s interesting being a vintage horn guy, yet being really impressed with these instruments. These are high-end professional instruments, made in Taiwan. Taiwan today is the Elkhart, Indiana of the 1920s, except better because of their research department. They take a very scientific approach. It’s more analytical and the P. Mauriat guys are taking advantage of modern technology, and I’m blown away by what I’m hearing. I’m as proud to have one of their horns, as I am a vintage Selmer.
MO: We’re a Buffet Crampon dealer, and also Keilworth. We do well with both. There are other lines that we’d be interested in, but some already have dealers in town and want to be loyal to them, and I completely respect that.
Really the next two big ones we’d like to have are the Selmer and Yamaha lines. But getting new lines hasn’t been a big priority because we haven’t needed to expand in that way.
MMR: Who are your customers – is it all high-end players?
MO: We don’t do rentals. We do have a few student models. Sometimes a person comes in and wants that $500 sax, and we have used Bundys and Kings laying around for them. But our average customer who walks in the door is that advanced high school player or college player looking to step up.
MMR: How do people hear about you?
MO: We advertise in JAZZed and Jazz Times [magazines]. We do the shows: JEN, the Midwest Clinic. I’ll set up the booth and bring 30 to 50 saxes and usually players flock to it. Though the crazy thing is I usually leave with more horns than I go with!
Otherwise it’s mostly word of mouth and the website.
MMR: You have two beautiful old cases of accessories in the store – how do you do with them?
MO: We do tons of accessories. And we carry everything. We stock all the reeds: Vandoren, Ricos, Zonda, Superial.
We do a big online business in accessories because we keep a lot in stock. We get five to 15 orders a day shipping out. It’s actually a little weird, as we ship all over the world. I’m shipping Vandorens to Japan, Germany, Austria, Russia [et cetera] all the time. I don’t know why! Maybe our prices are much better or they like buying from us.
MO: A little of everything there. We’re always searching for what is new and really great. We do well with Warburton. They are freakishly good. Ted Klum is another one that is good. A real new one is Randy Jones Tenor Madness TM Custom Mouthpieces.
MMR: Saxophonists tend to be traditionalist – it’s interesting you’re talking new boutique mouthpieces.
MO: There are prejudices in favor of the old stuff, but we like to find super great new products. Yes, you can get that old Otto Link mouthpiece for $1,200, or you can get a TM Custom that’s just about everything the old Otto Link is, but sells for $275.
Then again, with buying anything vintage, you’re buying into the name and legacy, but you’re making an investment, too. That $1,200 mouthpiece could bring you $2,000 in five or ten years.
Talking the Talk
MMR: By and large, your sales are online?
MO: Yes, but most of the players who buy online call and talk to us first. So we’re always on the phone. Any one of the people working here can talk sax until he or she is blue in the face. There’s where the museum plays a part of our success. It rubs off on the staff.
Vintage guys always call and talk to another player here, and they get specific. It’s not just about this mouthpiece being “better” than that one. They are both great, but how are they great? What are the sound characteristics? Is it bright, is it dark? What kind overtones does it create? There’s just a multitude of questions, and they know when they call here they will talk to someone intelligent.
Other things: Like every mouthpiece we get in, we take it out of the box and measure it. If it’s not right, we send it back.
MMR: What’s your take on reeds – are synthetic taking hold yet?
MO: What people need to understand is traditional reeds come from a big ol’ piece of bamboo, and it’s all about how that tree grew up. Any company, no matter how good, will go through periods of getting a bad lot. That’s why we have such a huge reed stock. One brand is the greatest ever until a player gets some from a bad lot and then it’s, “What the hell?” and try something new. That’s not a knock on any brand.
So there’s a push from manufacturers for synthetic reeds. While 95 percent of players still want a really good cane reed, increasingly players are willing to give synthetic reeds a shot.
MMR: Do you stage clinics and workshops?
MO: About once a month we hold a clinic or a master class. We’ve had Dick Oatts, James Carter, Jeff Coffin who plays with Dave Mathews… We’ve had Buffet artist Eric Mandat…
We send out an e-mail blast to anybody on our mailing list, and it’s a big deal. I think it costs me more than what I get out of it, but you just do it. It’s a way to give back to the community, and I do love getting great artists in here.