The magic of Christmas music long forgotten patiently awaits the touch of the master’s hands to one day bring the gift of music for Christmases of the future.
John Mills holds in his hands the magic to fix pianos and organs that represent a moment in time, bound to one’s soul, restoring them to a point that reflects the pictures burned into one’s mind from a time long ago.
It’s not often that people willingly relinquish control of such an important item like grandma’s old piano.
Even with all of that pressure falling on one’s shoulders to renew long-ago keepsakes, John and his Lafayette family live up to that responsibility.
John owns Northside Music Co., one of the last major piano restoration shops still operating in the Midwest.
Some in the community might recognize the Victorian-era house that sits along the South Street hill, but few people have seen the showrooms hidden inside.
The first floor of the grand old house is a musical museum of pianos on display — uprights, electronic and grand pianos, to name a few. The Mills’ business offers 600 pianos for sale.
The magic of the Mills’ business lies not in the showroom, but in a workshop behind the business — an old farmhouse converted into a piano restoration workshop.
Inside lie pianos in all stages of repair — from piano carcasses to a few in need of just minor tweaks.
Some wait patiently in line at the paint room, hoping to receive their last coats of paint before heading home, while others can be found in different corners of the workshop, depending on the work that is needed.
Most pianos make it to the workshop in a desperate need of repairs.
Some have been sitting in the workshops for years, either desperately waiting for their last obscure piece to pop up on the internet or for someone in the shop to find the time to fix an early 20th-century self-playing piano.
In the beginning …
John Mills has been in the business for almost 60 years, and at this point, he’s normally able to diagnose a piano’s issue with just a brief examination.
Mills commonly works on the most delicate pieces of the piano — the pieces that might have taken years of searching to find.
When it comes to those once-in-a-lifetime pianos, Mills understands the responsibility of handling delicate items. He’d hate to call those families, explaining that the piano might need to stay in the shop for a few more years because of his mistake.
Much of the less complicated work, like restoring the inner-workings of the piano, is left to other members of his small staff.
Years past at Northside
Some in the community might remember a time when five different piano stores scattered across Lafayette.
One of those stores was Northside Music, which had been in operating well before Mills started working at the business.
At the time, Northside Music was one shop in a chain that sold and repaired pianos. It was also located by the old St. Elizabeth Hospital on the north end of town — hence the name “Northside Music Co.”
John moved to Lafayette in the late 1950s as he prepared to start his undergrad work at Purdue University.
Like many young college students, John needed work and gave piano repair a try at Northside.
He developed a fondness for working on pianos during his time at Northside.
When John finished his time at Purdue, he continued working at Northside instead of packing up his bags to look for work somewhere else. He even roped his brother, Dick Mills, into working at the shop.
Several years passed, and John and Dick decided that they wanted to own the business.
They saved up their money and purchased the Northside store from the original owners.
In 1963, the brothers moved their business to its current location — the house formerly owned by Joseph Horat, owner of Horat’s Manufacturing Co.
“We eventually decided to move to this location, and yeah, we were no longer on the Northside, but we weren’t about to change the name. We decided to keep it,” Mills said.
Horat had converted his farmhouse behind the house into a small manufacturing plant and made several different items over the years. That old farmhouse became the piano repair shop.
The brothers established a name for themselves as a piano restoration company, primarily fixing up 1920s-era pianos.
In 1971, the brothers purchased Gordon Laughead, a small Michigan-based piano manufacturing business, and they dreamed of becoming piano manufacturers.
As the years went by, the demand for their piano-restoration skills grew larger and the dream of manufacturing pianos fell by the wayside. The brothers’ business slowly became one of Indiana’s premiere spots for piano restorations.
As their business grew, the Mills family opened locations in Kokomo and Indianapolis.
The years took a toll as the once competitive industry of piano repair grew smaller and smaller, until Northside Music was the only store left in town.
John handed off the main responsibilities of the business to his children, Milo Mills and Ivy Meyer.
He hoped that by allowing his children to take care of the business in front of the house, it would allow him to work on the backlog that the business had accumulated over the years, and hopefully eventually catch up with his orders.
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