Turning down the sound on Times Square’s music row

Mar.March 03, 2008 02:25 PM

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones: Almost every major musical act of the last 75 years has a signed photo hanging on the “Wall of Fame” at Manny’s Music, the longest-standing store along fabled Music Row on West 48th Street in Midtown.

While there are several music stores on the western end of this block between Sixth and Seventh avenues in a cluster that feels frozen in time, many fear that the volume will soon be turned off completely. The culprit: Times Square rents that have reached record highs. The property Music Row stores are sitting on would make any developer drool.

“It’s inevitable that Music Row is going to end,” said Paul Ash, president of Sam Ash Music, which has operated stores on the block since the mid-1970s. “One day, both of these corners will be built up like [they are] on the other end of the block, and we’re just waiting for the shoe to drop.”

On the southern corner of Seventh Avenue and 48th Street stands the three-story Sage Theater and sundry retailers. A grimy, century-old, 15-story commercial building occupies the northern side. The fear among music store owners is that the premium location of their walk-ups could be used for skyscrapers that would pay far more lucrative rents.

“Those are prime corners, and developers are getting very aggressive trying to assemble larger lots by making unsolicited bids for buildings,” said Mark Spinelli, director of sales at Massey Knakal. “The Rockefeller Group owns a few properties over there and is looking to pick up a few more pieces. In 10 years, it’s going to be completely different.”

Indeed, some of the transformation has happened already. One by one, smaller music store owners in the area have gone under, said Alexander Kolpakchi, whose small second-floor store on 47th Street sells wind instruments. “I couldn’t get my nose on 48th Street; the prices are too crazy,” he said.

Along 46th Street, three drum shops and several other music stores survived into the 1990s and then shuttered. The only remaining outposts, Drummer’s World and Roberto’s Winds, are located on the third floors of their buildings. One former music store tenant, the Manhattan Drum Shop, moved to a third-floor space on West 38th Street two years ago and then relocated to New Jersey in November.

The problem on Music Row, like in many other parts of Manhattan, is rising rents that the small businesses are struggling to pay. Ground-floor retail rent on or near Seventh Avenue runs $100 per square foot — and increases to $300 closer to the heart of Times Square, said Spinelli. Second-floor retail is 50 to 60 percent lower than ground floor prices. A recent report by the Real Estate Board of New York found that on Broadway, from 42nd Street to 47th Street, rents now range from $538 to $1,000 per
square foot.

“Rents are rising astronomically, and profit margins are small,” said Barry Greenspon, owner of Drummers World. “We do
an online business, but our customers need to play and touch a lot of the [instruments and equipment] we sell.”

Greenspon, who has six years left on his lease, isn’t sure about the future. He noted that when he renewed his lease four years ago, the landlord doubled his rent.

Both he and Ash declined to disclose what they pay in rent.

The history of Music Row dates to the early 1930s, when the musicians’ union moved to Sixth Avenue and 50th Street, and the stores followed suit, said Ash. Rehearsal spaces, studios and repair shops soon began to mushroom in the area.

According to Ash, the Rockefeller Group owns most of the block. In the 1970s, the company began amassing large footprints on the block’s eastern end for what is now the News Corporation headquarters and the McGraw-Hill Building.

“They started to buy up property, all anonymously,” said Ash.

Those two skyscrapers displaced a number of music outlets. Manny Goldrich, the founder of Manny’s Music who opened the store in 1935, held out, and the Rockefellers rewarded him with a 34-foot-wide building down the block, twice the normal lot size at the time.

Other stores followed to the western end of the block.

Now, Manny’s — which was bought out by Sam Ash in 1999, but still operates under the same name — is in the middle of the block on what could be part of a mega-lot for a developer looking to assemble adjacent properties.

Manny’s still sits on property owned by its founding family, despite the fact that it operates under the administrative aegis of the Sam Ash empire, which consists of 45 stores in 12 states.

“I get at least a call a day from someone who wants to buy the building,” said Ian Goldrich, Manny’s grandson.

Sam Ash remains the most visible presence on 48th Street, with four separate storefronts sprawling across nine buidlings that specialize in different instruments.

“It was my personal push to be as strong as we can on 48th Street,” said Ash, whose father founded the now-famous store. He ticked off his departed competitors: We Buy Guitars, Stuyvesant Guitars and Alex Music — which still exists, though it sells mostly accordions.

“As others got weak, we would take
over their leases and break through walls,” Ash said.

In 2003, Guitar Center, the country’s biggest music instrument retailer, opened its first Manhattan store on 14th Street. Operators of more than 200 outlets in 42 states, the chain’s 30,000-foot outpost on the Greenwich Village border took some downtown business away from Music Row, said Goldrich. But 48th Street retains its cachet and remains a destination for shoppers from abroad taking advantage of the weak dollar.

“Some day this won’t be Music Row anymore, but you can sell instruments anywhere in the city as long as you’re near a major subway line,” Goldrich said. “We can set up another music row.”

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