Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

A Christmas Story: 60 years for a Northside Music story

Merry Christmas 2022
Merry Christmas 2022

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 Mills works on the stain of a piano, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, at Northside Music Company in Lafayette, Ind. 


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.

View |17 PhotosGenerations of tradition at local piano company

Local family business Northside Music Company has been fixing up pianos around the midwest for generations

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.

Northside’s present

Being one of the only major piano restoration stores in the Midwest, the question arises about how Northside survived while others went out of business.

“I sometimes joke to customers that at Northside Music, we’re not necessarily bigger, stronger, faster, or better. We just outlasted everyone else,” Milo joked about the business’s longevity. 

The Mills family’s willingness to go above and beyond for the customers becomes apparent as the special trait that sustained them for the last 60 years.

An old organ sits. The organ was bought to be a personal project for the company, but it has been too busy to get to. … Show more  


John reminisced about an arduous six-month-long search to find one item to complete a restoration. 

There have been times where we’ve fixed electronic and digital pianos where the manufacturer in 10 years says that they don’t want to mess with anymore. And so, the chips aren’t available,” Mills said.

“We had one in Illinois last year,” John said. .”It was from a big Lutheran church.

“They had a $40,000 organ that crashed. They liked their organ. They didn’t want a new one, and it may be $40,000 and ten years old, but hey, you know, they liked it.”

The Illinois Lutherans turned to Northside Music for repairs.

“They tried to hire the people that sold it to them, but they went out of business,” he said. “The people that did services for them also went out of business. So they finally got to us and said, ‘Could you help us out?’

“I told them that it would be kind of hard because the parts that they need aren’t available,” John said.

They trusted him.

“We were able to fix most of its problem, and we got down to a chip that was not available,” he said. “Not available from the manufacturer, couldn’t get one anywhere. We looked and looked.”

John almost gave up until Milo recommended that they post online for the specific chip.

John figured that it wouldn’t hurt to try.

They posted the request and waited. Weeks went by, but nothing.

Six months later, they received their first email about the subject.

“A person from Ukraine, before the Russians came, sent us an email saying that they had 10 of them, used and we want $300 for them,” John said.

Mills ponder on whether or not to purchase the chip from their new-found internet friend. He recognized that there was a high possibility that he’d be walking right into a scam and be out $300.

Throwing caution to the wind, John bought the chip.

When the chip arrived several weeks later, John excitedly installed the chip, hoping the organ would spring to life.

The chip was a dud.

It wasn’t programmed to interact with that specific model of organ, but it was compatible with the organ.

They sent the chip out to get reprogrammed for the organ, and once it arrived, the $40,000 organ played as if it was brand new.

That level of commitment to every repair is the special ingredient to the Northside Music Co.’s success. 


John is in transition. He’s turning over the reins of his business to his children, Milo and Ivy.

He is still concerned about the future of the business because the industry changed so much over the last 60 years.

“The competition has changed,” John said. “Fifty years ago, you had a genuine competition between different people selling things.

“We went from 1,000 American manufacturers 100 years ago, to two or three, depending on how you count it.

“Most makers either went to Asia or they consolidated into bigger companies.” 

With advancements, an entry-level piano could potentially cost an individual around a couple hundred dollars rather than a couple thousand dollars.

Technology also means that when a piano breaks, it makes more sense to purchase a new piano rather than repair the old one, John said.

In the grand scheme of things, this is just one small concern for John and the future of Northside Music. 

He’s certain there will always be a market for piano repairs.

“One of the things that we do is, we do a lot of unique repairs,” John said. “Not just pianos, organs, digital pianos, or pipe organs, but you look at the things we do, in our culture. There aren’t many people who really know how to do what we do.”

There will be a day in which John will no longer be able to work in the shop. Luckily, he has a replacement for that day — his son, Milo. But who will follow Milo is still unknown.

Northside has had several workers come through who potentially could be the third-string quarterback on this team, but many of them leave for different life opportunities.

John Mills works on the stain of a piano, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022, at Northside Music Company in Lafayette, Ind. 


As Johns shared these concerns, the banging of piano keys could be heard coming from across the room.

The composer of the avant-garde rendition of Beethoven’s 5th was none other than Mills’ grandson.

Ivy ran to her son and brought him back into the room.

As she carried him, a twinkle could be seen in John’s eyes.

The twinkle reveals that John believes in his family, and the business will be OK.

The joy of the music long forgotten lies dormant in the shells of pianos inside the workshop. The broken will be made whole through the skillful hands of John or one of his descendants.

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