Kimric Smythe was thirty-four years old when Santa brought him his first accordion. The portentous moment took place on the streets of San Francisco during the Cacophony Society’s annual “Santa Rampage,” a prank where a hundred or so disheveled Kris Kringles descended on unsuspecting holiday shoppers.
“There was a guy with a toy accordion there,” Smythe recalls. “He was just doing the most annoying things with it. I said, ‘That’s amazing! Where did you get that?’ “
Fast-forward six years. Smythe, a boyish forty, is making coffee in the bathroom of his shop on a Sunday morning. It’s 11 a.m., and the celebrated Smythe’s Accordion Center is still an hour away from opening. The store — tucked away in the back of the 21 Grand Gallery — contains both an accordion repair studio and a bright, cozy showroom. Instruments are everywhere, from the tiny $12 button boxes to the beautiful, sparkly $2500 full-size Weltmeisters (“the Saturns of the accordion world,” Smythe says proudly).
In the four years that the Accordion Center has been in business, Smythe has become a central figure in the odd world of Bay Area accordionphiles. The shop phone rings constantly with people searching for a repairman, an appraiser, or a teacher who can help them make beautiful music with the wheezy, moaning instrument they just bought at the flea market.
And then there are the drop-ins. Sometimes they are celebrities from the local polka or Tex-Mex scenes, there to have Smythe fix a broken reed or leaky bellow. But just as often, the visitor’s pressing problem has nothing to do with accordions. Smythe is a longtime pyrotechnics wizard for Burning Man and the Survival Research Labs, and his shop is just as likely to buzz with conversation about fire cannons and lumber launchers as it is the distinction between a one- and three-row melodeon.
Smythe’s encyclopedic knowledge of the topics that truly matter to East Bay freaks (robots that break things, old machines that make cool noises, etc.) has made his store an improbable fixture on the map of the Bay Area underground arts community. But the other reason Smythe’s Accordion Center has become a cultural hub is because the accordion — against all odds — is on the rise again. Local groups like the Toids and Mark Growden’s Electric Piñata have all embraced the squeezebox for its noir, Brechtian presence, an atmospheric sound that meshes perfectly with the growing legion of performers that Smythe calls the “dirty circus” crowd.
Reveling in the romantically gothic vibe of late-era Tom Waits music and movies like The City of Lost Children, the dirty circus folks of the East Bay know they can come to Smythe’s Accordion Center for The Nightmare Before Christmas sheet music and good advice on tweaking their instruments to get stranger sounds.
As the group of old-timers who used to rule over the accordion repair world disappears, though, Smythe is finding his customer base expanding beyond sideshow musicians and hip polkaheads. In ten years, there’s a good chance that he’ll be one of the only people in the East Bay who can do repairs on the complex instruments.
“It’s just me and one other guy,” Smythe says, obviously bemused by his rising stature. “Nobody else is that interested in it. All the elderly people who are into it are passing away or just getting tired of doing it.”
Watching Smythe meticulously tune a reed or carefully reinforce the pleats of an ancient instrument with delicate Japanese paper, it’s easy to see why he has little competition. Restorations of historical or family heirloom instruments mean days or weeks crouched over a single accordion in the cramped repair studio, breathing in dust and the sharp stink of hide glue.
Predictably, the financial rewards for all the work are meager. “At this point, I’m paying myself about $1200 a month,” Smythe says, “which isn’t even survival wage around here. But then again, I’m so cheap I’m able to survive on it.”
For Smythe, however, getting to tinker with complicated, ill-tempered machines for a living is a dream come true. His fortunes will further improve in a couple months when he and the 21 Grand Gallery move to a new, larger space a few blocks away on 23rd Street, between Telegraph and Broadway. The move will end the costly, well-publicized problems Smythe and the gallery directors have had with their landlord (see “Grand Imbroglio,” June 22, 2001). And though the increased elbow room in the new location probably won’t increase his output or sales, Smythe will be attaining something equally valuable: “I’ll finally have a window,” he says, laughing.