A sheet music store for the analog set

These days, if it can be done with a computer, it is.  That's true in music, too, where laptops have supplanted instruments and a lifetime's worth of listening material is just a mouse click away.

But musicians - whether their keyboard is ivory or qwerty - still use sheet music, and many still buy it at Performers Music, a sheet music store notable (pun intended) because things that are almost always done with a computer at other stores are almost never done with a computer here.

Called "the most knowledgeable and resourceful music store anywhere" by Chicago-born pianist Phillip Moll, Performers Music may also be the most old-fashioned.

Everything from getting there to paying for merchandise is a trip back in time.

The store is located in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, one of the last buildings in Chicago that still has elevator operators.

And the store's Gothic facade makes it look like it could have been plucked from a twelfth-century cathedral.

At checkout time, you can use your credit card, but you may be surprised to hear the crunch of a clerk sliding an old-fashioned card reader that presses your card numbers into carbon paper.

Cash goes into an old-time cash register and receipts are hand-written.

"There's no law that says you must have a cash register tape," said Lee Newcomer, who opened the store in 1981 after the Sheet Music supplier Lyon and Healey closed their Wabash Avenue store, leaving Carl Fischer Music as the only large sheet music retailer in Chicago.

Carl Fischer was the last vestige of what was called Music row on Wabash Avenue in the Loop.  Besides Carl Fischer and Lyon and Healey, there were, among others, Gibson Guitars and Steinway and Sons Pianos.  Hammond and Wurlitzer both made organs there.

Music Row was a place where you could buy an instrument, take lessons, buy sheet music, make a recording, and, hopefully, come back to sign a record deal.

Most of the businesses gradually moved away, and in 1981, Newcomer saw an opportunity.

"In Chicago there was really only one store - Carl Fischer," he said. 

Carl Fischer was something of a Mecca for musicians all over the Midwest, especially teachers looking for band and orchestra music, Newcomer said.

Performers Music benefited from its well-established competition, Newcomer said.  When Carl Fischer didn't have what someone was looking for, customers would be sent to Performers Music, and vice versa.

"We were friendly competitors; it's that sort of business.  It was nice to have a neighborhood," he said.

When Carl Fischer closed its Wabash Avenue store in the late 1990s, there was a small panic among loyal customers.

"They should have had ambulances on Wabash" to take care of the shocked regulars who found their beloved store closed, said Newcomer.

"At that point I became the oldest store in the city," Newcomer said.

The closing of Carl Fischer, while certainly good for Newcomer's business, represented an opportunity that most business people would have been unable to pass up.  With a market share that large suddenly up for grabs, conventional wisdom says to take advantage of it.

But Newcomer, who once taught English at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee and says he was heavily influenced by the poet Henry David Thoreau's philosophy of living simply, decided that bigger wasn't necessarily better.

"I decided to do what we had always done, not to expand.  I didn't want to spoil things," he said.  "Part of the reason I think [Carl Fischer] went out of business was their size.  It's easier for us to remain small and flexible."

That philosophy has stood up well, particularly in the Internet age.  Just like in other businesses, the Internet has changed the face of retail sheet music sales.

Some businesses have not been able to survive competition from online sources.

The Music Place in Boardman, Ohio, Music Teacher's Supply in Omaha, Neb., and Music, Music, Music, in Santa Clara, Calif. all closed, with owners blaming the Internet for a downturn in business, according to local newspaper accounts.

Performers Music, on the other hand, has enjoyed an increase in sales of 15 to 20 percent in the last decade, even though the store lacked a website -- and a computer -- for much of that time.

"[The Internet] has lost us individual sales, but it's brought us customers," Newcomer said. "We'd get people constantly complaining about the Internet.  They were dissatisfied with it."

The sheet music business "is an area where you can use the Internet, but you're often disappointed," said Newcomer.  Different editions of the same piece might have the notes in common, but more nuanced details like phrasing and fingering will depend on the editor. 

"Browsing is very important," he said.

Madeleine Crouch, of the Retail Print Music Dealers Association in Dallas, agreed.  "It's really about service, service, service," she said.

But the march of technology is unrelenting, and after the Fine Arts Building was sold in 2005, the new owner had all the studios wired for internet access.

Newcomer, who insists he's not an opponent of automation, decided to give cyberspace a try.

He bought a Dell laptop computer and established a website, www.performersmusicchicago.com.

"People have been asking for years," Newcomer said.  "We've always done business by phone and fax.  E-mail is just a small extension."

The store's website, though, is an embodiment of its anachronistic bricks-and-mortar personality. There's no inventory list, shopping cart, or way to order online.

"I'm a little hesitant" to put inventory online, said Newcomer.  "We have a very broad stock but not a very deep stock."

Performers Music now receives orders from as far away as New York and Tampa, Fla.  Still, less than 20 percent of their business is from the internet.

For some, finding the store's website offers the same pleasant surprise as stumbling across a hard-to-find Bach score in Newcomer's wooden bins. 

"No one was expecting us to have a computer," said Newcomer.


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