The jukebox man: Terry Swords brings music to the streets in Prospect Heights
Out of a Dean Street garage, an entrepreneur restores and rents jukeboxes
On the sidewalk in front of a converted garage at 838 Dean Street in Prospect Heights stands a jukebox with an accompanying chalkboard sign coaxing passersby to “Play Me, Rent Me.” The shiny piece of nostalgia and its songs’ half-block-long reverberations is how Terry Swords lures pedestrians into New York Jukebox, where he sells, repairs and rents jukeboxes of a bygone era.
“Every. Single. Person. Expresses a feeling of being thrilled or delighted when they see it for the first time,” Swords told the Brooklyn Eagle of his sidewalk jukebox. “It’s really nice.”
There are a half-dozen more inside, with rows of 45s perched overhead. Some jukeboxes await repairs. Others have been restored to dazzling glory as rentals. There are also a couple skeletons, their outer shells removed to reveal circuit board guts and veins of wiring.
A former teacher and assistant principal in the New York City public school system, Swords received a jukebox on his 40th birthday as a gift from his wife, who is also a teacher. It was a 1954 Seeburg R model, the same one depicted on the homepage of New York Jukebox’s website. Swords, now 51, positioned the jukebox in the living room of his family’s Carroll Gardens apartment and learned some minor maintenance methods.
“It was nothing but a fun hobby,” he said of his jukebox tinkering at the time.
But as his 50th birthday approached, Swords felt a professional change was needed.
“I thought a little bit about what I’d like to do, and I enjoyed working on my jukebox,” Swords said. “I enjoyed sharing it with people who came over, and had a lot of fun making the title strips [and] then the more I thought about it, the more it made sense” to turn that hobby into a career.
Though he’d met other jukebox enthusiasts through online message boards, nobody appeared to be renting them in the area and it was difficult to find a repairman. Then, during a 2014 trip to Los Angeles, he called a local man who ran a jukebox rental and repair business, and asked to serve as an apprentice for two weeks. The business owner had promised a jukebox for an event on the Queen Mary ship in Long Beach, and as he and Swords wheeled it past some crew members, one of them said, “Now the party can start!”
“If there was a moment where I realized this [business] could be viable, that would be it,” Swords said. He figured “people aren’t gonna stop liking music,” and that eventually somebody would build a business like New York Jukebox. So he gave it a shot.
Swords used some inheritance money to buy about 15 additional jukeboxes, all ’54 Seeburgs, from four different sellers. For four years, the latter half of which were spent in the Dean Street shop, he read up on jukebox restoration, disassembling five of those 15 or so jukeboxes, cleaning their parts and rebuilding them — a period he called “Jukebox school.” Mixing and matching some parts from the original jukebox batch, he got three up and running. Pieces of the rest are still used as spare parts, and two years ago he began renting the restored jukeboxes out. He’s since fixed up two other jukeboxes for rental purposes, while promoting himself as a jukebox repairman and working on them in clients’ homes or in his shop.
People throwing parties rent Swords’s jukeboxes, as do filmmakers in need of an authentic scene prop. (A couple panes of glass on one jukebox base were recently cracked in transit, but Swords said that’s the worst damage any of them have suffered to date.) With a rental, clients can ostensibly craft the old-school equivalent of a streaming playlist by requesting specific 45s out of Swords’s collection, which numbers somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 records, sorted mostly by genre and era. The jukeboxes can be rigged so that no payment is needed for a play, but some people prefer they require a coin.
“You can set it to play six for a nickel, if you want, or one for a quarter or token,” Swords said. “It’s appealing to put the coin in, it makes a satisfying sound. When you do, the select light comes on. It’s part of the experience, just like pushing the buttons; the buttons feel good to push.”
Swords disclosed that about 60 percent of New York Jukebox revenue comes from rentals, which he prefers to repairs because most of the required work — their restorations — has already been executed. Rental packages for events range from $445 to $710. The rest of Swords’s revenue arrives via repair gigs, for which rates vary greatly. (He said he’s fielded some celebrity clients.) Swords also welcomes offers from prospective jukebox buyers, and hopes to score around $6,000 for a single unit.
But to Swords, the financial incentives to managing New York Jukebox appear to be secondary.
“The best way to understand it is to put your fingers on it, literally, and then hear it,” he said of the jukebox. “It’s a good sound system; it’s a good way to hear music.”
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