I remember the day that I got my first bass. Months of daydreaming culminated in a trip to Medley Music, a local music store just outside of Philadelphia. I knew that place well. It was a few blocks down the street from an ice cream parlor, a movie theater, restaurants, and various businesses. A frequent Friday afternoon destination, there were plenty of opportunities to walk around the neighborhood, stop in to the music store, and gaze longingly at the instruments. After a while, all of the employees looked familiar… some of them taught lessons to my classmates and most of them had worked at the shop for years. They had their own bands that played around town, doing everything from top 40 covers to original bluegrass tunes. Concert posters and album ads lined the doorway creating a mosaic of announcements. There was a mural on the brick wall outside, a painting of a group of children huddled around a stoop with instruments in their hands. They all had smiles on their faces, and rightly so.
The shop seemed like a never-ending maze of instruments with secret alcoves, aisles of books, and accessories for days. Follow a hallway to the right and you walk into a jungle of percussion instruments and shiny drum sets. Circle the counter and go down three steps into a sea of amplifiers, contained only by the walls of colorful guitars and basses. It was a magical place, and one fortuitous day in November, I was given the opportunity to step into that room and leave with something that would change my life. The music store was a facilitator of dreams, four walls that contained the tools necessary to indulge a hobby, inspire a song, or become a virtuoso.
In 2008, Medley Music closed its doors after 54 years of business. By that time, two of the large, chain-based music stores had opened nearby. Combined with the ease of online shopping, an independent music store like Medley lacked the strength to compete. What had once been a lively and diverse showroom was now reduced to bare walls and empty boxes. While all good things must come to an end, this particular end was an unfortunate one, not only because the community lost a long-standing institution, but because the same story has been told over and over again about businesses all over the country.
Despite the loss of Medley, the old saying goes “one door closes and another door opens.” Roughly a year later, a new music store popped up a few miles away. Although it was considerably smaller and limited to mostly stringed instruments, it nevertheless provided local consumers with a new haunt. Lucky for me, I knew the owner and was given the opportunity to teach lessons out of the studio rooms in the back. Fresh out of college, it gave me a chance to establish local roots, discover my passion for teaching, and interact with other musicians in the community.
If a student didn’t show up, I would sit in the armchair by the lesson rooms and watch customers come and go. Sometimes they were parents hoping to find a Christmas present, asking questions about beginner instruments. Folks would drop off old guitars for repair jobs or to sell on consignment. Teenagers would stumble in and drool over Les Pauls, Beatle Basses, and ukeleles. Someone needed a cable, a stand, a bag of picks, or a capo. Tuesday afternoons were often slow and the staff would stand around chatting about old records, telling jokes, or relaying gig stories from the previous weekend. Saturdays were busy with the shuffling of students, people running errands, and the owners’ friends stopping in to say hello. The store proved to be a welcome addition to the neighborhood and every now and then, you’d be lucky enough to see a wide-eyed middle schooler walk out of the store with their first guitar.
While I have long since left my hometown, I have very fond memories of the students, customers, and co-workers from my past. Perhaps it was “just a store,” but that store was a meaningful part of the community. It was a place for music lovers to meet and converse, for students’ passions to be encouraged and nurtured, and for people to leave with smiles on their face after purchasing an instrument they’d been admiring.
Every time I need to add or replace a piece of gear, I think about the local shops and go out of my way to visit them. Not only does this support the business, it supports all of the salesmen, teachers, and repairmen that work there. The purchase of a cable helps ensure its existence in the world of large chains and Internet sales. I may have to pay a bit more, but I’d rather walk into a store where the employees know my name, understand my needs, and are willing to introduce me to fellow musicians who happen to be there. A local music store is an asset to the community and will only survive if the local consumers support it.
So, while it may be easy to shop online in the comfort of your home, it’s difficult to create the life-shaping memories that accompany a physical purchase. The butterflies are faint when you press the PayPal button, but they ferociously flutter as the salesman hands you a receipt and a brand new instrument. You can receive a package in 3-5 business days, or you can experience love at first sight when you see a navy blue P-Bass within arms reach. Reader comments and star ratings can’t tell you how the instrument will feel in your hands—you have to pick it up, play a few notes, and decide if it’s right for you.
So, next time you need to make a purchase, get in your car and visit your local music store. Even if you don’t find what you need, you may find who you need, such as a teacher, a friend, or the next person to hire you for a gig.