On a recent Saturday afternoon at the Burlington Farmers Market, 7-year-old Henry Adrian is tending to a display of artful harmonica cases. “Do you want to know anything about them?” he asks a passerby.
The cases are intriguing, but they’re not Henry’s — they belong to Bob Hoffman, or “Hoff,” as he’s more commonly called. The eccentric, beanie-wearing 67-year-old is owner of the world’s largest collection of handmade harmonica cases — which, in case you were wondering, aren’t for sale.
This is the fourth summer Hoff has exhibited at the market. And he has help from Henry, a big Hoff fan whose parents let him hang with the collection while they roam the stalls. The cases, says the little helper, who’s clad in a monster-truck T-shirt and neon-green Crocs, “are really awesome, and they’re inspiring to people, too.”
Hoff starts a lightning-fast tour of his collection (only about 100 of his more than 450 cases are here today). Here’s one made from an antique gunpowder flask — half harmonica case, half drinking flask. Here are three “strange dolls” by Burlington artist Beth Robinson, including a New Orleans-style voodoo doll whose harmonica case opening is discreetly located under her skirt.
Henry follows Hoff breathlessly as he shows off various creations. “What about the Brother John one?” he suggests eagerly. Hoff obliges and reaches for a self-portrait of a Jamaican artist carved out of wood.
Hoff, who works for AARP and spends winters in Washington, D.C., and summers in Burlington, has been commissioning harmonica cases since 2005. It began innocently: After learning to play the harmonica 10 years ago, he discovered a dearth of cases available. Then, at the Smithsonian Craft Fair, he met an artist willing to make one for him.
Hoff knows exactly where this first case is located in his Burlington market display — it’s beaded and simple, quaint compared with the extravagant cases he’s commissioned since.
Hoff has harmonica cases from around the world, as well as by Vermont artists such as Jake Rifkin, Aaron Stein, Cathy Hartley, Terry Zigmund and John Brickels. Susi Ryan, a Winooski felter, has made two cases in the shape of fuzzy Hoff dolls, complete with miniature felt harmonica cases around their wooly necks.
Some cases serve multiple purposes, such as the functioning glass pipes from Bern Gallery; a kaleidoscope case; a helicopter case with spinning blades, made from orange Fanta bottle caps in Kenya; a pinball-machine case; and a steampunk wind-up-toy case. “It’s designed to have no chestal interference, so it even works when you’re wearing it,” Hoff enthuses.
Hoff inspires a lot of love at the little farmers market stand. “He’s a very special man,” says Kassia Bosby, a frequent visitor to the harmonica man, who has stopped by to say hello.
And he’s essentially branded himself. As part of his guidelines for commissions, Hoff requires that artists incorporate his nickname into the back of each case.
At the market, he’s dressed in Hoff swag — a blue T-shirt with a Hoff harmonica hovering over the state of Vermont, a red-and-black knitted skullcap, Superman socks, Converse All Star high-tops painted with an image of his face, and a holster made for beer cans (he uses it for more harmonicas) around his hips.
On his wrist, Hoff wears a bracelet filled with photos of his new grandson, Ethan. A few young women stop by the collection, and Hoff hands them his bracelet. “Find the harmonicas inspired by my grandson,” he says.
Then he shows off a grittier case. This one is covered in sand from the San Juan Islands. On the back, Hoff’s name is written in ashes. “My dog Chance died a year ago, after 15 years of glorious companionship,” says the harmonica man. “Now Chance travels with me wherever I go.”
Hoff shows his harmonica collection at the South End Art Hop on Friday, September 6, 5 to 10 p.m., and Saturday, September 7, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., at Conant Metal & Light in Burlington. seaba.com