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The Howling Winds Of Change

When I heard the news that Sam Ash, the music retail giant, was closing its doors, it felt like the end of an era. The Sam Ash location in Hempstead, NY, was where my journey into music retail began in late 1987. This wasn’t just any music store—it was the headquarters, where the Ash family had their offices, and a sanctuary for aspiring musicians. It was a destination as much about community and inspiration as it was about the instruments on display.

Walking into Sam Ash as a young bassist was an experience like no other. The walls were adorned with guitars, basses, drums, and other musical treasures, each one holding the promise of endless musical possibilities. The energy in the store was palpable, especially on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings, when it was bustling with customers. Yet, as a kid, you were often just a bystander, observing the pros try out the high-end instruments while hoping for a chance to touch one yourself.

One person who helped bridge that gap for me was,guitar salesman, Henry Behrens. Henry had a dark demeanor, his face often set in a scowl. Yet, when he saw me lingering around the bass section, he'd sometimes hand me an instrument to try. Perhaps he saw something of himself in me—a kid eager to learn and filled with curiosity. Maybe he just wanted me out of his hair. Whatever the case, his small act of kindness made a huge difference to me. It was a moment that fueled my passion for music and set me on a path that would shape the rest of my life.

My brother Keith, a decade older and an aspiring guitarist, also played a key role in my musical journey. He noticed my interest in music, since I’d been playing the violin since I was eight. He also knew that whenever he left the house, I'd sneak into his room to play with his '73 Stratocaster. To encourage me, he started taking me on trips to the city. We'd see a movie in Times Square, then head to Manny's, another iconic music store that's now part of musical lore. These excursions were more than just shopping trips; they were an exploration of the world of music and all its possibilities.

The closing of Sam Ash and the disappearance of places like Manny's signal a broader shift in the way we experience music and music retail. Today, you can order almost any instrument online and have it delivered to your doorstep. While this convenience is undeniable, it lacks the personal touch and sense of community that physical stores once provided. The experience of wandering through a store, discovering new instruments, and getting advice from knowledgeable staff is irreplaceable.

Back at Sam Ash Hempstead, I started my music retail career in the stockroom, eventually moving up to the mail-order department. I learned the ropes, gained insights into the business, and developed a deeper appreciation for what it took to run a successful music store. These lessons would carry me forward in my career and inform my understanding of the music industry.

The decline of big-box music stores is partly due to their inability to adapt to changing consumer habits. The high overhead costs associated with brick-and-mortar stores, combined with the rise of online shopping, created a challenging environment. Yet, in a twist of irony, we're now seeing a potential resurgence of smaller, local music stores—the mom-and-pop shops that have always been the backbone of the music community. These stores offer something that online retailers can't: a personal connection, a sense of community, and the chance for a young musician to try out an instrument with a guiding hand.

As we navigate this new landscape, it's important to support these local stores and the people who keep them running. There are still young, aspiring musicians out there who need someone like Henry Behrens to take a chance on them, to hand them that instrument, and to ignite their passion for music. These moments matter. They create lasting memories and can change the course of a life—just like they did for me.


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