It’s odd to think of a music shop as a retail outlet. Most retail stores aren’t places where you might discover a life-changing passion, practice a skill, or spontaneously interact with a stranger through a shared activity; they’re rarely more than a place to buy a basic commodity. Of course, music—and thereby the instruments and equipment required to make it—has never been a basic commodity.
In the modern world of retail, there’s little most industries can do to compete with online shopping. But among music stores, the social power of music gives businesses a chance to go far outside of sales to build and shape communities. The four brick-and-mortar shops featured here—those stores that do more—fit the description by offering educational programs, hosting jam sessions, taking part in schools and community events, and fostering a welcoming space for musicians to explore and connect. As a result, they’ve found that community efforts have made them viable in a rapidly changing economy, while giving customers an enduring vehicle for connection.
“Watching [people] have a sense of community, have a sense of purpose and a sense of place—that’s the greatest joy that we get,” says Rand Cook, owner of The Candyman Strings & Things, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, “That’s the impact that we see. That’s what music can do for anybody, for any age group.” In some cases, stores like The Candyman not only create communities but transform the ones around them—going well beyond the role of your average retailer.
A Hybrid Model
Out in the Southwest, The Candyman Strings & Things—which takes its name from two different blues songs, both called “The Candyman,” one by Reverend Gary Davis and the other by Mississippi John Hurt—has been a defining aspect of the city’s culture for nearly 50 years. The store was founded in 1969 by a New York transplant, Matthew Schwartzman. Cook says, “He moved from Manhattan to California to open his music store, and stopped in Santa Fe overnight. After later signing a lease in California, he realized he had missed the grand opportunity of opening a store in Santa Fe. So he doubled back, and in June of ’69 The Candyman opened.
“We had a fire in 1981 that destroyed our original location,” Cook continues. “Schwartzman looked to the south and constructed a building literally on the edge of town. It proved to be a very smart move because now we’re in the center of town as Santa Fe has grown around us.”
A central hub of musical activity, Candyman has developed a community that’s largely based around its educational programs. “It’s pretty vast. I can barely keep up with everything that’s going on,” says Cook, whose wife and business partner, Cindy, acts as education and marketing director. At press time, the store’s many programs included a ukulele club, Djembe Madness (focusing on the African drum), a guitar master class hosted by staff member Daniel Murphy, group lessons for beginner guitar, and Pappy O’Daniel’s Porch Time Jam—a group Americana jam session for all skill levels, held on the store’s front porch, weather permitting. In addition to its ensembles, the store has about 200 private lesson students per week.
Surprisingly, that teeming educational atmosphere has only come about over the past ten years. Following the recession of the late 2000s and the sudden passing of the store’s founder in 2009, the Cooks took a step back to reevaluate the business—which at the time was strictly retail-oriented—to see how it could expand. “The world and consumerism have changed quite dramatically in the last decade and we realized that, even though we’d been in the community for many years, you can’t expect to succeed by hanging a sign and expecting a bunch of people to come in.”
Driven by active efforts to welcome new beginner musicians of all ages, the store boasts a new kind of hybrid retail, made up of their education department, retail store, and instrument repair services. “We did a lot of market research, and what we found was that 85 percent of the population doesn’t actively make music, but all of that 85 percent wants to. There’s a great intimidation factor. So we decided to approach music education from a different angle, making it a sort of joyful recreational experience.”
Cook, who describes his role as “somewhere between janitor, accounts receivable clerk, and the guy who leaves his coffee cup everywhere,” sees maintaining his staff’s well-being as a key factor in the store’s success. “Almost everybody here plays professionally, so I’m juggling gigging schedules all the time. But we all work together to create a positive foundation for individual growth. The only downside to that is that great employees move on after a while. But we keep great employees coming in because of that philosophy, too.”
The largest contemporary music center in Sydney, Australia, aptly named Big Music, has gone outside of creating a community to building the equivalent of a small town of music-making patrons. The business—which features a retail branch in addition to its booming contemporary music school—has 22 studios, four band rehearsal spaces, and its own 200-capacity performance venue. Between private lessons and performance groups, Big Music serves about 800 students on a weekly basis. It was founded in 2009 by brothers Richard and David Berkman.
“We bought a building and fitted it out, and we figured that we’d try to create a place that was like a one-stop shop—where you could buy an instrument, learn how to play it, and then have a reason to play and perform with others,” says Richard Berkman, Big Music’s managing director. Both he and his brother worked in finance before they realized their desire to change careers and the opportunity to bring a music center to Sydney. “I worked for 20 years in the finance industry, and no one ever said to me, ‘Thank you very much, you’ve made my day,’” says Berkman. “I get a real kick out of selling instruments and providing music education, because people are always saying, ‘Wow, thank you, that was just such an awesome experience.’
“For me now, music is part of my health regime,” he continues. “It’s like the ultimate form of meditation. I didn’t realize before I started this business that music could have such a profound effect on your well-being.”
In June, Big Music was recognized for its impact on the community at the NAMM 2018 Top 100 Dealers Awards, receiving the Music Makes a Difference prize. The accolade was granted to the business for its work in creating the Lord Howe Island Rockfest, an event that transformed the culture on Lord Howe Island, a remote territory between Australia and New Zealand with a population of 400. The festival began when, in 2010, the Berkmans—who would often vacation there—discovered a lack of music performance and education on the island and decided to send teachers and instruments from Big Music to offer lessons and concerts. Eight years later, the festival is an annually sold-out event, and as Berkman puts it, “a hell of a lot of fun.”
At their headquarters in Crows Nest, a suburb on Sydney’s North Shore, Berkman has felt rewarded countless times over the years by the feedback he hears from customers. “I’ve had parents come and see me and say, ‘I bless the day that I brought my daughter to Big Music, because we felt that we were losing her as a teenager, and she may not be with us anymore if she hadn’t gotten involved with music.’ It reduces me to tears when that happens,” he says. “But it makes you realize that what we’re doing is far bigger and far more important than just selling stuff.”
Presided over by Robert Christie, who has been with the company since 2007, A&G Central Music supports community music in Madison Heights and Macomb Township, Michigan, by creating opportunities where they’re needed. That can include aiding community centers in forming ensembles, going into schools to offer private lessons, bringing students together in musical activities, or being a part of community events to share their services with everyone interested in making music.
“We like to go into the community and provide people with the means to get things started, kicking the can down the hill in a way. We’re very involved in the beginning, then very little towards the end,” Christie says.
Members of A&G played a key role in forming the Ferndale Community Band, among other groups. In a recent collaboration with the Auburn Hills Public Library A&G joined a student reading event to share what’s known in the music education industry as an “instrument petting zoo”. Staff members arrived at the event with their Band Van, a minivan loaded up with instruments that students could explore for the first time. “The best part is, the parents are there to see how much their kids are enjoying themselves,” says Christie.
In 2017, A&G’s community-oriented approach was recognized when it won the NAMM 2017 Music Makes a Difference Award and the Dealer of the Year Award. The former was awarded for A&G’s efforts to remove financial barriers that prevent kids from participating in music programs, particularly in the Detroit area. “The city is struggling with a million problems, but the one nearest to my heart is the lack of opportunity for kids and adults to be a part of music,” says Christie. “One of our guiding values is to positively impact our community by providing opportunity to students. To be recognized for making that difference was an amazing experience for our whole team.”
Christie sees fostering connections between musicians as an important aspect of community, a philosophy that guides many of the store’s programs. “We asked customers in our stores and at our events to donate a dollar in support of a students who can’t afford the materials they needed to participate in band class. Along with the donation, they were encouraged to write a message of support to a student on a postcard we provided.” As a result, students “realized they were part of a broader musical community.”
While most of A&G’s educational and community efforts are happening in the field, the store also offers lessons and ensembles on location. “The way I think about it,” Christie says, “is every human can do two things that are somewhat musical: bang a drum and sing.” Which is why two key programs A&G hosts at their locations are a ukulele club and a drum circle. The culture around the store is influenced in part by its proximity to several auto industry giants, with their own group comprised exclusively of automotive engineers. “They come into the store often, which is great, because it shows others that everyone is open to making music,” Christie says.
“One of the biggest hurdles is how self-conscious we are when we put ourselves out there with anything artistic, and all the value judgments that come with it,” he adds, which is why, in his opinion, it takes a village to help build and preserve a healthy environment for future music-makers. “With the divisive state of the world today, music is the one last place where it’s all positive.”
Step Right Inn
“You can walk into a clothing store and try on dresses, but you can’t hang out there all day. You can come to a music store and stay there playing for hours,” says Jeff Slatnick, the current owner of Music Inn World Instruments, a fixture in New York City’s Greenwich Village since it opened in 1958. (Full disclosure: I am currently apprenticing as an instrument repair technician at the shop.) The Music Inn was a cornerstone of the Village’s thriving folk scene in the 1960s. It started out as just a record store, but the original owner, Jerry Halpern, soon added guitars to the mix. “We then started selling banjos, mandolins, and American folk instruments. And it just kind of took off to include all kinds of world instruments,” says Slatnick, referencing the Inn’s current inventory of folk instruments from Japan, China, Africa, Tibet, Indonesia, Turkey, Bolivia, Mexico, and other countries, in addition to the standard fretted instruments.
As a historical and cultural center in New York City, the Inn is a landmark of musical pop culture, preserving both a living memory of the city’s famous performers as well as offering a platform for young local performers today. Longtime friends and customers have included Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and Sean Lennon, and everyone from Jeff Buckley to André 3000 (OutKast) have paid a visit. But most vibrant is the Inn’s local community of performers, who find a stage at its Thursday open mic nights and weekend events.
“The city is a competitive place for performers, but there are a lot of original voices to appreciate,” says Joe Siena, the store’s manager, who produces the open mic and events in collaboration with local artists. Founded in 2013, the open mic has a reputation for attracting unique acts, who often borrow from the store’s diverse collection of instruments for their performances, as well as a variety of artists. “The Music Inn has provided me with an amazing performance space and welcoming community of oddballs and misfits,” says Clayton Smith, a regular at the open mic. “It really feels like a piece of the old West Village.”
The Inn’s deep roots also connect it to other small businesses in the historic neighborhood, such as the famous Smalls Jazz Club—whose founder, Mitch Borden, supplied the hundreds of 1920s and ’30s sheet music covers that paper every inch of the Inn’s downstairs walls. The unmistakable backdrop (installed by Siena) can be seen on the Emmy-award-winning Amazon show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Between the store’s history and palpably laidback character, tourists, Bob Dylan diehards, and community members know they can stop by to experience a piece of history, explore hundreds of obscure acoustic folk instruments, and/or participate in an impromptu jam session with strangers and artists from around the world. “We’re different in that. By selling world instruments, we cater to something much greater than ourselves,” says Slatnick. “People might learn about something they never knew existed. But it’s also a place where everybody can be themselves.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.