As an aimless explorer sort of person, I first wandered up
to Faust Music late one afternoon in early 2010. The store's lights were on,
but the door was locked. This was during one of the long, snowbound weekends
that test Milwaukee's willingness to get out of bed at all. But Bill Faust, the
sole employee, from what I could tell, let me in. I tracked in a little snow,
and the two of us stood in his showroom for a second. He seemed to want something from me.
Faust was a small, spry old man,
a former gymnast, boxer and swimmer prone
to sudden gesturing. He had the easy smile of a salesman but, when provoked, the eyes and aspect of a mugger.
“I'm just browsing,” I said.
There were moments (and this was one) when he exploded in a squall of anger and set about pacing the room. “I'm
just browsing!” he yelled, the third or
fourth words he’d spoken since I’d walked in. “I'm just browsing!” He gestured at the drums on high shelves in one room, the guitars
hanging in the other, and an L-shaped display case. He's a sought-after instrument repair professional called daily
by nationwide musicians, is paid hundreds for his services by customers who
travel across the country and know when they call what they want and why and
who can do it best. “I'm not a
clerk!” he shouted. He doesn't go into
a store unless he knows what to buy, how much money he needs, and he has the
cash there with him, ready. Everything
today is waste.
I tried to rally. I said I
had just moved back to Milwaukee
for a new job at a magazine. “Oh, I’m a reporter!” he howled, as if,
instead of describing an entry-level editing job, I’d just produced a
gold-plated business card that read: Sea King of the Mediterranean. Immortal
Force of Nature. Past President of the Tide Council.
Somehow, with the sun going down, I lied a bit and said I was interested
in buying a banjo. Faust shook off his old, belligerent feathers and became
mellow and charming. This is a wonderful
brand, he said. One of the best, and a very
“No thanks,” I said, too
quick. Boy, did I come in on the wrong
beat. “I’ve still got some looking
around to do.” He asked me what I normally
paid for a hamburger. “You’re
paying for nothing,” he said. That’s how it comes out in the end. Nothing.
That’s all you’re left with. And what I can only describe as an unspoken death
wish kicked in, and I asked to buy a plastic kazoo from the cardboard display
resting on the L-shaped case.
I expected more. But before Faust could respond, a knock came at the
door, and the shop-keep pulled out the screwdriver he’d inserted to hold it shut. Two
ruddy young men in winter coats, neither much older than twenty, stood
on the sidewalk below.
One said he was shopping for a cheap saxophone. “Go to the
shopping malls!” Faust yelled and pointed
into the night.
The two men chuckled for a second, until they realized he wasn’t joking.
Faust Music is located in the city’s Bay View neighborhood,
once just another south side, working class neighborhood but now something hip
and resurgent. A younger crowd has
opened a number of small, experimental theaters, coffee shops and well-designed bars on Kinnickinnic Avenue, the main drag and the street Faust
looked out on from the building he owned. The 1882 structure contained both the
store itself and an essentially unknowable network of warehouse space
positioned up and around and behind the main show floor. It was secret space, and few people had ever seen all
of it. Faust would make reference to rooms full of some of the best musical
equipment on the planet, and you just had to believe him.
He didn’t recognize me when I came back in 2011. At least he
didn't say anything. His hair was
a little long, a little thin and coming a little loose, and he gestured for me
to come in with a hand sticking out of a rolled-up sleeve.
I explained I was researching
Kinnickinnic. Also known as “KK.” But of
course he knew this.
“Oh, we don't need coffee shops,”
he said, waving at the door.
“People say there's a renaissance
in Bay View,” I said.
“They call that progress, tearing
down beautiful buildings to build coffee shops. Coffee is bad for you.” He
glowered at me. “It's killing us.” He had patronized the Maritime Savings Bank,
he explained, until developers tore it down to build Alterra’s new bakery headquarters. “This used to be Milwaukee,” he said, “but now they call it Bay View to get more money out of you.”
We talked about a few more things, and I mentioned in passing that I was
a part-time student at UW-Milwaukee.
“Oh, I thought you were from Marquette,” he said. “I'm doing you a
favor. I'm saying you're from Marquette when you're from UWM. What kind of
students go to UWM?”
“College students?” Always skating on the edge.
“You go there, and you don't know?” He turned around. There’s one thing that
matters, he said, and it’s the source of all power. “Money! If you don’t know
that, I don’t know what to say to you. The Vatican is the wealthiest country in
the world. Did you know that?”
Go over here, he instructed, pointing out the door and lowering his
voice, to the Basilica of St. Josaphat on Sixth Street on Christmas Eve.
“Oh, it's the most beautiful sight you'll see in Milwaukee,” he said and shook his head.
Center,” as Faust called it, is the city’s oldest music store, dating to 1939,
when Bill’s father opened it under the name “Faust Music House.” The son, a
capable percussionist, served in the Air Force and took over management of the
store sometime around 1955. On the wall that divided the showroom for drums from
the one for guitars, he’d affixed several square feet of business cards, many
now yellowed or creased, from past customers.
“Those are nothing,” he said. “You should see the new ones I
have.” Also covering the wall were many
signed, black-and-white photos of famous drummers. When I asked about
these keepsakes, he ran down a list of big-name customers, including Max Roach,
a legendary jazz drummer, and Jimi Hendrix.
“He was in here?” I asked.
“Yes! I'm known internationally for
this room and this room,” he said, referring
to the drum room and a display
case filled with expensive-looking guitars. “This is the B.B. King model,
the Les Paul model, the Jimi Hendrix model, the Paul McCartney model.” In back of the case hung a 1987 award
from Milwaukee Magazine naming his the best drum store in the city. “They
brought me up on stage, and everybody was clapping. The idiots!” he said. “The best drum shop in Milwaukee. I'm the only drum shop.”
He pointed to drum-brand stickers
on the door. “The best. The best. The best. The best. Beautiful American made. I had a woman in here, and she wouldn't even pay the discount
because, she said, ‘This is the
Later, he maligned hamburgers and bratwurst and wieners and fast food as
trash. “They brag about how quickly they can give it to you,” he says.
“But what do you eat?” I said.
The same as Jesus, he said. Fish, bread and wine. And not even the big
fish, sometimes only a can of sardines. He told a story about a military
superior who praised his body as a model of physical fitness for other
soldiers. “He’s the same weight today as when he was eighteen!” the officer had
said, and Faust asked how much I weighed today, versus eighteen. Two-hundred
thirty both times, I said. “That’s good,” he said. “Maybe keep it around 225,
but that’s good. You don’t have a potbelly coming on, do you?”
I shrugged, not wanting to tell the truth.
During these topics,
the svelte Faust would run over to the door to count the passengers on passing
buses. Kinnickinnic serves as a major leg on a particularly busy route. “There
goes another one, nobody on it,” he would say. “There's waste!” As the
afternoon wore on, the counts began to rise. “Look,” he said, running over.
“That one’s got four people on it!” Eventually, the number rose too high to
count in time, and he asked for help. “Yes, here’s a dump truck,” he said as
one carrying concrete rumbled by, “carrying the garbage.”
When a middle-aged man rode by on a
bike, Faust grumbled, “Oh look,
he's got a bicycle.”
“What wrong with that?” I asked.
“It's pathetic!” he shot back. “He’s an old man. Bicycles
are for children.” He pointed at the
floor and told me what his father had explained to him, when he was a little
boy. “Billy, between this white line and this white line, you don’t belong. Do
you know how you look walking in the street? Imagine a car driving down the
On the other side of Kinnickinnic, a woman in her twenties got
out of a car and started up the
sidewalk but stopped and turned around.
“She doesn’t even know where she’s going,” he said. “Is that a cap or a
helmet? Do you see that?” I did: She was
wearing a round, warm-looking hat with a small brim. Sort of fashionable, I
If you try to talk to her, Faust added, make sure that she treats you
with respect. “If she doesn’t respect you,” he said, “break it off.”
Yet another woman in a hat passed in front of the store. “That honey’s
got a yellow hat,” he said, smiling this time.
After a while, we sat down in two chairs positioned in front of the case
that held the store’s priciest guitars. “The man is first,” he said, holding up
a finger. “No, first is God the Father, then man. Today, the woman is first in
everything. Look at the shopping malls. They're built for women.” It’s not like this in Europe, he said. There,
the man is first. “All
societies decline. Read history. I have lost faith in the educated people,” he added. “People used to say, ‘I
work for Allen-Bradley,’ or Allis-Chalmers.
Now, it's all waste.”
Not long before I left, he stood in front of the door and held forth one
last time, on labor conditions. “The Chinese work,” he said. “They
make four dollars a day if they're good, two dollars if they're not so good,
and if they're no good, they get sent to the prison camps.”
I said that sounded terrible. “Because this is what you know!” he
yelled, shaking his arms at the street.
Online message boards for musicians sometimes veer into “Faust
story” threads. “I leave shaking.
He's a horrible man,” says one poster, who claims the store owner struck him
with a ruler and pointed repeatedly to a sign, “Ask, Listen, Learn.” Another poster says he went into Faust
Music looking for a job but was told to “get trained somewhere else then come
back.” A drummer says Faust told him to “get out” but was “all smiles and
handshakes and business cards” after a sale. A former apprentice to Faust says, “I have heard all the stories
and even experienced them myself,” however, “I really love Bill.” The
apprentice says Faust would introduce him to bandleaders in town and other
musicians. Another drummer who rated the
store five stars out of five says it's “not just a shopping experience but a
life experience.” Faust shared wine and anchovies with the customer, a woman. “He has some amazing
stories,” she says.
D.J. Hostettler, a
music writer and drummer for the popular Milwaukee band IfIHadAHiFi, says he walked into Faust Music in 2003 with
his then-girlfriend and IfIHadAHiFi's guitarist to buy a new cymbal, and Faust launched into a rant about the
Japanese walking around the U.S. as if World War II had never happened, the
problem of liberated women and how everyone calls it the “United Nations” now
instead of the United States. He barely made it out.
About a week later, a “Thank You For Your Business” card arrived
in the mail, a pleasantry I never enjoyed
because I never actually bought anything at Faust Music. “You've pissed
me off!” was how Faust finally suggested that
I leave his store, on the day we counted bus passengers. “Now I'm going to put up this sign,” he said. It was a little piece of paper that listed his phone number and said, “Call
for appointment, William Faust.” He taped
it to the door, and then he smiled a bit. “I wish you luck,” he said, shaking my hand.
It’s hard not to remember or point out that Faust is a recurring
character in literature and other art dating back centuries and originating in
German legend. He’s an ambitious scholar who, by collaborating with a demon and
the devil, damns himself for eternity. “Faustian” is an adjective referring to
someone who betrays closely held morals in pursuit of some success. But, Faust was not actually Bill Faust’s
name. Nosing around after my last trip to Faust Music, I learned that his legal name was, in fact, William P. Regalado, as his obituary confirmed
on Sunday. Being the resourceful (Sea King) journalist I am, I based
this conclusion on property records and city directories
dating back to the 1930s.
Bill’s father, founder of the original Faust Music House, was
named Fausto Regalado. Regalado is a
Spanish name, and “fausto” happens to be an adjective in three languages. In
Italian, it's “auspicious”; in Portuguese, it's “luxury”; and in Spanish, it's
“splendor.” But the industrious Fausto Regalado, opening
a store in Milwaukee in 1939, lanced a vowel from his first name and produced a
new surname that his son would
also take on.
In German, Faust is “fist.”