Photo by Jeremy Cohen
Mar 23, 2022
Out of a cramped garage on Dean Street, Terry Swords is keeping a subculture alive, one Seeburg at a time
I first noticed Terry Swords’ Dean Street garage on my way to grab a midafternoon coffee with a pal at Wild Birds—I must’ve passed it a million times, but that oddly warm fall afternoon was the first time I took note of his chromed-out 1954 Seeburg jukebox. The glass face was pulled up and the mechanism exposed in anticipation of a new, all-French discography Swords had created for a pop-up event for the Wes Anderson film “The French Dispatch.”
Before I could ask too many questions, Swords—a soft-spoken ponytailed man in his early 50s—asked me to help him move a different unit out of his van. My friend waited as we gently pulled a 1970s-vintage black Seeburg down a ramp and into the garage for repair. While he does sell the occasional jukebox to collectors, and leases others out for months at a time, rentals and repairs are the core of Swords’ business at New York Jukebox.
“There’s the appeal of the machine, and the music is permanent. It’s attractive to young, old, across political lines,” Swords says of his trade. “There aren’t a whole lot of them around, but it also serves a practical, contemporary purpose. I figured if people love theirs the way I love mine, and no one else is doing it right in New York … ” he trails off, assuming his conclusion is obvious.
Swords is one of very few jukebox repair professionals in New York City. There are a handful of retired experts in Brooklyn and Manhattan and a few on Long Island, where there’s more space to store machinery. Your favorite local bar may have a jukebox—Swords leased one to the bar Mama Tried near Industry City during its first years of operation until it changed ownership. You can currently find a Swords jukebox at Bar Meridian in Prospect Heights. You might even find him in there, doing some maintenance on it.
A bit of nostalgia
Like many people in the neighborhood, Bar Meridian owner Sage Geyer met Swords while strolling past the open gate of his repair shop. “I remember a time when there were [commonly] jukeboxes in bars, and it’s a little bit of nostalgia for me,” says Geyer. “He inspired me to incorporate a jukebox into the design of the bar.”
The jukebox industry is small. Most jukebox repairers, sellers and collectors exist outside the city due to space constraints and have largely disappeared because demand is vanishing. Yet jukeboxes occupy an important place in American musical history, having offered listeners easy access to new records for decades.
The first jukebox—originally called a coin-in-slot phonograph—was installed at Palais Royal Saloon in San Francisco in 1889. In the late 1920s, the record-changing mechanism was introduced, and by the mid-’40s, three-quarters of all records produced in the U.S. went directly into jukeboxes.
Swords notes that there were four major jukebox manufacturers during the machine’s heyday: Seeburg, Rock-Ola, Rowe/AMI and Wurlitzer, maker of the iconic bubble jukebox you may recognize from “Happy Days.” Don’t get Swords started on that one: “It drives me fucking crazy, that being treated as like a ‘50s symbol. It was a ‘40s jukebox that played 78 [rpm records].”
Swords says some of these companies rejected the mantle of “jukebox” due to its association with juke joints—bars and venues of “ill repute” that generally played Black music and catered to a Black clientele. They tried, and failed, to develop alternative, less catchy names. Notes Swords, “Like anything else you take a deep look at in the U.S., race is an issue.”
Each manufacturer had a proprietary system, though the record-changing mechanism is similar across models. Some jukeboxes deploy tube amplifiers, others are solid state and a few have very early circuit boards. In addition to having a brief apprenticeship with a master jukebox repairman in Long Beach, Swords taught himself how to repair these varying components by reading vintage technical manuals and tinkering. His small but well-organized garage bears all the trappings of an experienced mechanic—labeled boxes full of amplifiers, vacuum tubes and wires; binders of ancient manuals; and the faint smell of a warm soldering iron and a recently extinguished cigar. But Swords is not an engineer by trade.
From Khartoum to bar rooms
A former middle school principal, history teacher and debate coach who spent years working in New York’s public schools, Swords spent two years teaching at an international school in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital, with his wife. By the time they came back to Brooklyn, he says, “I knew I did not want to set foot in a classroom.” With his family’s support, and with the encouragement of his late friend Tom Jory, Swords began exploring his passions—including toying with the idea of developing a line of everlasting gobstopper-type chewing gum, and tinkering with the jukebox his wife had purchased years earlier.
“I was in way over my head almost immediately,” he recalls. “I made countless mistakes and it was an amateur repair job, but I really liked it. And then, of course, once I had the thing up and going, I loved it.” Seven years later, Swords works on jukeboxes full time, though the income from repairs and rentals isn’t enough to support his family. (“My family has been extraordinarily supportive,” he notes, “or I would have had to throw in the towel a long time ago.”)
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic slowed Swords’ rental business and forced him to move from a bigger space a few blocks down Dean to his current “tiny mousehole” garage. But work has picked up in the past six months, he notes, and now there are more repairs than he has time for.
That’s partially because repairs are labor-intensive and time-consuming; in addition to learning new mechanical systems, Swords has to contend with corrosion and accumulated hardened grease. Sixty-year-old rubber hardens on the machines; expensive chrome has to be replaced or cleaned. Swords has even found animals living inside the cabinet of a jukebox left unattended in a barn. Yet jukeboxes were built to regularly run 12 to 18 hours a day, making them incredibly durable under the right care.
“The work is immersive. It’s interesting. I’m learning all the time. Seeing the product of the learning that I have already done, that’s gratifying,” Swords says. “I love records and music; I always have. And I get to meet all sorts of people that I would not have met otherwise.”
The jukeboxes he most enjoys working on are the ones that have been owned by a single family for generations and have become prized possessions that are part of a family’s history. Swords once met a woman with a tattoo of a Seeburg HF100R—his favorite machine and the model he rents out—as a tribute to her father, who owned several of them.
Indeed, the majority of repairs come from people who have jukeboxes in their homes, not from bars or restaurants. Another client owns a jukebox that was also in her childhood home, Swords says, “and she has title strips that were written by her late father and by her when she was a kid. That’s pretty special.”
Swords has teenage kids of his own, and although they love music, they have no desire to follow in their father’s footsteps. “Both of them take a great deal of delight in the fact that this is what I’m doing,” he says. “Their friends come from pretty interesting families, but no one else has a father with a job as cool as mine. After years of embarrassing your children, it’s nice to be able to bring them a little joy.”
Swords has gifted each of his children framed custom jukebox title strips featuring records that are particularly salient. He often uses the strips (which denote an artist, song and the number to play it) as greeting or birthday cards to “deliver a message.”
While Swords loves the machines, stocking his rental jukeboxes with records is the ultimate joy. “The same way that some kids get really into dogs or dinosaurs, trains, or unicorns or whatever, for me it was records. And that never, ever stopped,” he says. Swords has thousands of 45 rpm records he uses to outfit jukeboxes for a variety of occasions, and he loves to shop in-store and on Discogs for specialty items. With the rental for “The French Dispatch,” he sourced dozens of French records from the 1960s and later from Canadian collectors.
Even when records are carefully, painstakingly collected for listening pleasure, “people just often assume that [jukeboxes are] not there to be played, that it’s a prop—especially if there’s other music in the place,” Swords says. He was “absolutely tickled” when neighboring watering hole Bar Meridian leased a Seeburg. He decided to take a unique approach to curating its tunes.
Bar Meridian’s Geyer is a collector himself, and the bar’s jukebox features a monthly curated selection of 45s from local deejays and collectors. Rather than the predictable “sounds of the ’70s” catalog, Bar Meridian’s Seeburg boasts rare Jamaican records and other deep cuts that create a unique atmosphere. “[The jukebox is] providing more touch points for guests to have a good experience, more things that they can do that are going to contribute to them being like, ‘Wow, this is a unique place.’ It brings them to a different time that maybe they’re not so familiar with,” says Geyer. Swords himself adds a bit of local color to the place, coming in regularly for libations and the occasional repair.
To Terry Swords, jukebox maintenance comes down to passion. He is likely underpricing his work for the time and deliberation it takes. “But at the same time, I really want anyone who has a jukebox that’s not working right—like, just as a citizen—I want it to work,” he says. “I want them to be able to enjoy it.”
This article first appeared in the winter/spring 2022 issue of Brooklyn Magazine. Click here to subscribe today.
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