Don Garber, 1935-2017

(Photo: John Atkinson)

Don Garber, founder and sole proprietor of the influential electronics company Fi as well as a noted artist, passed away on June 4th, following a brief illness. He was 81.

Born in Virginia, Garber spent his formative years in Lititz, PA before a brief stint in the Army, during which time he was led by his love of jazz to take up the saxophone. But before long, Garber's interest in the visual arts eclipsed whatever thoughts he had of becoming a professional musician, and he put all of his energies into painting, supporting himself with carpentry and other jobs. He remained an avid fan of jazz and early country music, and, in the early 1970s, an interest in playback gear led Garber to try his hand at building a Heathkit amplifier. That experience was, in its small way, portentous: In the early 1990s, Don Garber—then living in Brooklyn with his wife, the architect Ikuyo Tagawa—rented a storefront on Watts Street in lower Manhattan, and opened Fi, arguably the most unique hi-fi shop in history. Garber channeled his artistic sensibilities into not only the aesthetics of his retail space and the gear he sold but into the concept of the audio store-as-gallery, through which he championed the work of such designers as J.C. Morrison, Tadataka Uchida, and Noriasu Komuro.

Soon after, Garber focused on his own design work: He had a talent for creative and good-sounding circuit layouts, and he's credited with making one of the first practical direct-coupled single-ended power amplifiers. Near the end of 1993, Garber closed the store on Watts Street, and Fi the hi-fi shop became Fi the hi-fi manufacturer. From that point forward, Garber devoted his time to building and selling amplifiers and preamplifiers—and painting. In his spare time, he enjoyed skiing, fly-fishing, and attending jazz and chamber-music recitals.

More than anyone else I've met, in any field of endeavor, Don marched to his own beat—yet he was also the most self-effacing audio designer I ever met. He was kind and humble and generous with his time: independent of thought though he was, Don delighted in the company of his friends and family, and the warmth and depth of his laughter were well-known.

Donald Graham Garber was predeceased by his wife, Ikuyo, in 2002. He is survived by his stepson, Pier Gugliotta, a commercial pilot; his daughter, Nara Garber, a filmmaker; and his son, Graham, a dentist. His work—paintings and amplifiers alike—lives on in a number of homes.

popluhv's picture

This is really sad. I've never had a chance to listen to his work, but I've always loved his design aesthetic. Straight-forward and purposeful, yet avant-garde as well.

Nara's picture

Thank you, Art, from all of us. Knowing how much he valued your friendship gives these words extra resonance.

rockdc's picture

Although I'm not fortunate to have bought any of his amps, I did make a couple of trips to his really cool little shop. Great guy, seminal SET dude, way back when the whole thing was such a breath of fresh air. So much more meaningful than anything I ever heard at Sea Cliff......Thanks Don! Anyone have links to any of his paintings?

Nara's picture

Rockdc, I'm not sure how to contact you directly, but my brothers and I are planning, weather permitting, an outdoor exhibition of his paintings in October as a celebration of his life. We're in the process of getting the necessary permits to shut down the street in front of Don's home/studio in Cobble Hill. We're also going to try to set up a website cataloguing his work. Is there a way I can let you know when we've set a date and the website is up and running?

jpaxton's picture

Please let me know:

Nara's picture

Thank you for your interest. Sending you an email now.

ken mac's picture

After moving into Greenwich Village in 1990 I'd often stroll downtown and past Garber's storefront. I didn't start reviewing gear until 1995, but this small shop with the unusual "Fi" logo/sign captured my imagination. I wandered into the store, nosed around, everyone was pleasant and chilled. That's the Village, or Soho, in the early 90s. Before the vultures descended.
Thanks for a beautiful tribute, Art.

Squiddy's picture

Nara, will his artwork be for sale?

Nara's picture

Squiddy, I've realized that it will take me at least until the end of the year to catalog his paintings. It's still difficult for me to wrap my mind around the commercial side of all of this, but since some friends of mine had inquired about certain pieces while my father was still alive, we have a rough sense of what prices he would have attached to various works. Short answer: yes, in a few months. The event we're planning for October, however, will be purely a celebration.

profpopesax's picture

Don's amplifiers are among my most prized possessions - and the best that I have ever heard. I was only his customer, but he treated me like a friend. He made the world a better place, and as always, I will think of him every time I fire up my stereo, which is most every day. Rest well, Don.

jusbe's picture

I came across Don's work in Listener magazine. I purchased a Ypre, Yph and Super X3 and wish the audiophile in me had not tempted me to sell them looking for something more. They were 'more', and a delightfully reliable access to my music collection. Don was a gentleman in a world of rogues and poseurs and always had a sincere word or joke to share. His ilk is rare. I'd like to thank Don for his work and acquaintance, and to Listener for introducing me to his art. J.

jpaxton's picture

I was very sorry to read of his passing. I admired him on several levels; contacted him to order an X and Y, 6-7 years ago, and let him guide me on options-- based on my tastes, 46's, and upgraded transformers, posts, wiring etc. Absolutely no ego (on his part), if was like a patient friend walking you through what was best for you. And good lord it was and is best for me; we joked about the likelihood of my being his only customer in Mississippi.
I inquired about buying one of his paintings, and he sent me some pictures, but never a price and I got the feeling he might hate to part with one.
I just sent him an article a couple of weeks ago and was looking forward to hearing from him.
A life well lived by a gracious and humble man.

Paul S.'s picture

Nara, I hope you'll post news of the upcoming celebration of your father's life and a link to the upcoming website (when it's running) here.

I never met Mr. Garber - only had some email correspondences when ordering an Yph phono stage - but even from those limited contacts, I could sense that he was a good and welcoming person.
My heartfelt condolences to his family and to his friends.

mwhouston's picture

I would imagine not many fi clones around but I - retro-thermionic - thought I’d give it a go.