For decades, musicians from around the world flocked to a segment of West 48th Street in Manhattan that was known as Music Row. Both sides of the block, just off Times Square, were lined with shops that sold and repaired guitars, drums, keyboards and other instruments.
But the music finally died there in December when the last holdout, Alex Carozza, packed up his accordion store and 50 years of memories and moved off the block. Now, all that is left of Music Row are the signs and awnings that beckoned to virtuosos and neophytes alike. The block is haunted by empty buildings and the occasional tourist straining for some echo of its harmonious past.
Where once there were Manny’s and Rudy’s and New York Woodwind and Brass, Frank Wolf Drummers Supplies and We Buy Guitars, now there are demolition crews, “for rent” notices and a construction office for the glass tower going up around the corner.
“Musically, it’s kind of depressing,” Mario Tacca, an accordion player and longtime patron of Music Row, said. “I guess it’s part of the new world that we’re living in. The old world is kind of disappearing slowly. It’s kind of sad to see.”
Music Row’s demise was a long time in coming, brought on by the soaring value of real estate and the conveniences offered by the Internet — those modern forces that have reshaped so much of New York City’s commercial landscape. The earthbound merchants of musical instruments that have survived are scattered about the city now: Rudy’s guitar shop to SoHo, Sam Ash’s superstore to 34th Street, Jon Baltimore’s horn store to 46th Street.
Mr. Tacca said he had not yet visited Mr. Carozza’s new location, tucked into an office building on a block of West 54th Street filled with the standard Midtown mix of restaurants, hotels, a bank branch and a gym. But when he does, he will not have to stand in line.
In the middle of a weekday just before Christmas, there were no customers to interrupt Mr. Carozza, 88, as he reminisced about the heyday of Music Row, when his shop employed 30 people and took in as much as $40 million a year.
“I used to sell 10, 15 accordions a week,” he said, adding that “my wife used to count the money all day.” But now, sitting in a cramped office wedged into the scaled-down version of Alex Musical Instruments, he said, “If you sell one, it’s like, hallelujah!”
Mr. Carozza, who was born in Italy, moved from Argentina to New York in the 1960s to be part of the city’s thriving music scene. He went to work in an accordion store on 48th Street and eventually opened his own shop on the block.
Not long after, Rudy Pensa left Argentina to pursue his dream of finding a place for himself on Music Row. “Everyone who was coming to America was coming to 48th Street,” he recalled. “Every band I was really watching and reading about, you found out they were coming to this place called 48th Street.” In 1972, he arrived and looked up Mr. Carozza, who hired him. “I came with a hundred bucks and a guitar,” Mr. Pensa said.
Before long, Mr. Pensa was on his way to being a purveyor of guitars to the stars. He opened his own shop, which came to be known as Rudy’s, in the 1970s. He kept it going for four decades until rising rent and a growing downtown clientele spurred him to leave the block for good in August.
Still, Mr. Pensa, 66, remains wistful about the object of his childhood daydreams.
“It was a big family there,” he said. “I used to know everyone. It was really beautiful, man.”
It took no prodding to get Mr. Pensa to wax nostalgic about Music Row. “It was an experience,” he said. “You would go store to store. It was beautiful because everybody had different things.”
Tourists and wide-eyed teenagers would wander the block hoping for a brush, or at least a glimpse, of a famous musician. They traded tales of spotting Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend and other rock stars ordering instruments for their next tours.
But not everybody received a warm reception. Some New Yorkers remember how brusque the salesmen could be. “They used to be so rude, it was unbelievable,” Mr. Pensa said. Before they would let a customer handle a guitar, he recalled, “They would ask you, ‘Hey, do you have the money? Show me the money.’ ”
He remembered going into Manny’s Music in the 1970s, when the Times Square area was a more treacherous place, with his money tucked into his belt, “basically in my underwear.” As soon as he inquired about a guitar, he said, he was immediately asked to prove he could afford to buy it. “It was rude,” he said.
That attitude, he said, was one of the reasons he decided to open his own shop, which he originally called the Music Stop, then Rudy’s Music Stop, and eventually just Rudy’s. It thrived even though it practically faced Manny’s, an emporium of stringed instruments that was one of Music Row’s main draws.
David Amlen, who loitered on Music Row in his youth and now operates a recording studio, MSR Studios, on the block, said even budding superstars could get a bum’s rush. He recounted a story about the jazz guitarist George Benson being told: “Dude, you have got to leave. Either buy something or get out.”
MSR, a relative newcomer to Music Row when it arrived in 2005, is “the last man standing,” Scott Kubrin, who manages the studios, said. But it has no retail component. It provides space for performers of all sorts, including the casts of Broadway musicals, to record their work.
“It’s definitely depressing” to be surrounded by the ghosts of Music Row, Mr. Amlen said. “What was nice was if somebody was working here and said, ‘Hey, I need a guitar string or a drum head,’ they could just literally run across the street and buy one.”
Now, he said, he would send a runner as far as Sam Ash, about 15 blocks away.
Developers have bought up most of the surrounding property with designs on building hotels and office buildings, but, Mr. Amlen said, “We’re not going anywhere.”
Mr. Carozza capitalized on the demand for prime lots in Midtown years ago. After buying a building on Music Row for about $500,000 in the late 1970s, he sold it in 2008 for $33 million.
Hoping for a similar score, Mr. Pensa repeatedly offered to buy the building that housed his shop, he said. But his former landlord rebuffed him, saying, “Rudy, Rudy, Rudy, I don’t buy guitars, you don’t buy buildings.”
Mr. Pensa and others pegged the decline of Music Row to the closing of Manny’s in 2009. Without Manny’s, Music Row was reduced to a half-block of stores, most of which had common ownership.
In the end, Mr. Pensa’s new landlord wanted to double the rent on 48th Street. Mr. Pensa balked, telling him that “nobody comes here anymore.”
“I would have loved to stay on 48th if more people had stayed,” he said. “What are you going to do? Nothing lasts forever.”
Besides, Mr. Pensa said, in SoHo he is closer to the lofts occupied by many of the stars of both stage and screen who can afford the expensive guitars he specializes in. He rattled off a list of contemporary musicians and actors who he said have been customers.
Then he added with obvious pride that one of his latest big sales was a jazz guitar to Mr. Benson.
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