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End Of An Era

...rising rents and shifting New York neighborhoods. Rudy Pensa, who opened Rudy’s in 1978, has successfully relocated his store in Soho, while Alex Carozza of Alex Musical plans to retire. The street took its biggest hit in 2012, when Sam Ash Music closed its multiple locations and relocated to 34th Street, across from the landmark B&H Photo store.

The shuttering of Rudy’s and Alex Musical marks the end of what had been the world’s most vibrant music retailing center for close to seven decades. Conn opened the first store on 48th Street in the 1920s to cater to the influential musicians who worked the pit orchestras at nearby Broadway theaters. Then in 1933, Conn’s top salesman, Manny Goldrich, left to open his own store, Manny’s Music.

Goldrich was an aggressive merchant who pioneered the concept of “40% off” and in the process made 48th Street a destination for musicians around the world. Numerous competitors opened alongside Manny’s to benefit from the traffic, and at one time there were as many as 30 music stores on the street.

Sam Ash Music, which had gotten its start in Brooklyn, constantly chafed at 48th Street competition and eventually opened a store there in 1974. Jerry Ash later remarked, “The 48th Street store gave credibility to all our other locations. It signaled to customers that we had the selection and price.”

The Beatles and the subsequent “British Invasion” in the 1960s dramatically raised the profile of 48th Street. Manny’s “Photo Wall” of prominent customers was a “whos who” of rock ’n’ roll, including signed photos from Jimi Hendrix, all four Beatles, Pete Townshend, Paul Simon, and countless others.

Growing up in Argentina, 11-year-old Rudy Pensa dreamed of shopping for a guitar on 48th Street. On his first visit to New York in 1971, his first stop was 48th Street. “It wasn’t America I wanted to come to,” he says. “It was 48th Street, which happened to be in America.”

The decline of 48th Street actually began in the late 1980s. A growing number of Sam Ash Music stores in surrounding New York City suburbs siphoned off customers. With comparable price and selection available closer to home, fewer buyers made the trek to midtown Manhattan. The increasing number of intercontinental flights took a toll on the street’s international traffic. Customers from Europe and South America who once headed to New York City for the best price and selection began flying to Miami, Washington D.C., and Atlanta instead. These woes were further compounded by online competition.

Declining sales and skyrocketing rents—New York possesses some of the world’s most expensive real estate—made for an impossible situation for most music stores. Sam Ash began taking over struggling competitors, including arch rival Manny’s in 1999. However, even it was eventually priced out of the street by real estate developers looking to replace low-rise retail stores with office towers.

Pensa has spent the past few years lobbying city officials to create Walk of Fame-style stars on the sidewalk that would commemorate the Row’s famous clientele, complete with guitar-shaped pillars welcoming people to the block. His pleas fell on deaf ears at City Hall, and he says today, “I look at the numbers; I should have left before. But I always had the romanticism, and the idea that it will come back.”

Although Music Row is gone, music retail is still alive and well in New York City. Guitar Center has locations at Union Square and Times Square; Matt Umanov operates a vintage guitar store in Greenwich Village (not far from Rudy’s elegant new store in Soho); and more than 30 other stores are scattered through the five boroughs.

Jeremiah Moss, the pseudonymous blogger behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, which chronicles the changing city, calls the death of Music Row “a tragedy.” He adds, “When you have different districts you have a diverse city, where you move through the Flower District, the Diamond District, the Garment District. [NYC is] getting bulldozed by this wave of sameness.” Alex Carozza takes a more philosophical view. “The time comes for everything,” he says.

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