More than um-pah

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It’s not obvious looking at it, but anyone walking past the old White Castle building at 33rd & Lyndale around 3 p.m. on a Thursday will hear that it’s not a burger joint.

Thursday afternoon is Randy McPeck’s one-on-one teaching time, when his little building resonates with the distinct hum of the instrument that in recent years has become his livelihood: The accordion.   

McPeck knows and loves the instrument. Aside from playing it and giving lessons, he collects, repairs and sells the contraptions. It started as a side project about a decade ago, but turned into his main source of income during the last couple years when the jewelry business he runs in the same location started slowing down.

"Unfortunately with the economy, the luxury items have taken a hit," said McPeck, who started making custom jewelry in 1974 and bought the historic White Castle building 16 years ago, after it was moved from Northeast Minneapolis. "But the accordions are strong. People aren’t going to give up their music."

Rediscovering the squeezebox

McPeck, 56, did give up his music — on the accordion, anyway — for many years.

He learned how to play the instrument in grade school, when he was about eight. But by the time he was 12, a different kind of music caught his attention.

"Then rock and roll hit and I was interested in girls," he said. "Playing the accordion wasn’t too cool. I picked up electric guitar. That was the thing to do."

As McPeck spent his adolescence playing in a basement rock and roll band and chasing girls, the accordion got put away. It didn’t resurface until 15 years ago, when McPeck started following a Twin Cities group called the Rockin’ Pinecones, which featured Dan "Daddy Squeeze" on the accordion.

McPeck started playing the instrument again and soon began looking for other accordions. It wasn’t long before he had amassed a sizeable collection and started tinkering.

"It was a hobby," he said. "And I had this back room that I really wasn’t using. And I had quite a collection of accordions already because I just couldn’t help myself. Not that I was in business or anything, there just wasn’t an accordion I didn’t like."

He put up some shelves and soon, he was in business — taking in used accordions and refurbishing them, buying and selling new ones and eventually giving lessons. Castle Accordion was born.  

Today he’s got about 200 accordions crammed in his shop. They range in age from new to more than 100 years old and the ones up for sale range in price from $300 to about $4,000. McPeck has a personal collection of about 20.  

Castle Accordion has a strong local following, but McPeck said he’s had customers from throughout the U.S. and beyond. In early March he was working on a vintage accordion sent from a man in Texas. His furthest sale was to a customer in Iceland.

For years, McPeck crisscrossed the nation in a big yellow bus selling loads of accordions at conventions. He attends those events, but he parked the bus in recent years because of gas prices.

Accordion repair shops are hard to come by, McPeck said, and parts don’t match up to serial numbers as they do with other items, such as cars. Custom work and scavenging parts from other accordions is the norm. But McPeck said he never realized how many people were willing to pay for such work.  

"I was surprised, overwhelmed by the amount of accordion interest there is," he said. "I never planned on making any money on this."

The happy instrument

McPeck said he loves the accordion for its look, its sound and the way he becomes one with the instrument as it breathes in and out. And, he said, it brings joy to anyone who hears it.

"There’s not really another instrument that has the life to it," he said.

The accordion is often regarded as a polka instrument, but McPeck said it’s more than that. Jazz, blues, Cajun and other musical styles can be played on the accordion, he said.

Mark Anderson, a lifelong friend of McPeck’s who started helping out at the shop last summer, said the accordion is cooler than most people give it credit for.

"I’ve really come to respect the instrument," Anderson said. "The problem with the accordion is the perception of it being an um-pah machine."  

St. Louis Park resident Robert Kramer, a student of McPeck’s, said he plays piano, but wanted an instrument that was portable.

"And you’ve never met an accordion player that wasn’t smiling," he said.

Student Carol Bouska, who lives in CARAG, said she found out about McPeck’s accordion business because he made her husband’s wedding ring. The couple had an accordion orchestra play at their wedding and she later received accordion lessons as a birthday gift.

Bouska said she was drawn to the accordion as a worldly instrument.

"There are so many interesting places in the world that have interesting folk music with accordions," she said. "I was sort of drawn to the French accordion."  

Both Bouska and Kramer are middle aged, as are most of McPeck’s students and customers. But he’s not worried about the future of the instrument. He does have one young pupil.

"My youngest student I think is 14 or 15 and he thinks accordion is cooler than hell," he said.

McPeck’s 23-year old son also plays professionally.

No sliders here

Someone stops by McPeck’s building at least once a week looking for burgers, he said.

Because it’s a historic building, he can’t remove the White Castle signs, but he doesn’t mind.  

"It’s just entertaining," he said. "It’s funny."

No one asked for sliders on a Thursday afternoon in early March, when the muffled hum of accordions drifted beyond the castle walls.

With a large blue marble-patterned accordion perched on his lap, McPeck guided Kramer through "The Echo Waltz," a lazy tune by composer Jim Wise.

"Soft," Randy coached. "Loud. Soft."

The song ended and Kramer whooshed his small black accordion to a close. McPeck put a little silver star on the sheet music to mark a section Kramer completed successfully and the accordions stretched to life again.

Passersby stopped to stare in the window. The mail lady popped in and smiled widely.

McPeck said he has no intention of changing anything.  

 "I will probably always be making jewelry and repairing accordions," McPeck said. "My hope for the future is to just keep doing it."

Open accordion night

What: Randy McPeck hosts an open accordion night on the first Sunday of every month at Dulano’s Pizza. All accordion players are welcome to join in.
Where: Dulano’s Pizza, 607 W. Lake St.
Cost: Free
Contact: 827-1726