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Samuel Thompson

Our Shared Humanity - and the End of an Era

May 1, 2009 at 10:19 AM

"A crossroads of maestros and tyros, the venerable Joseph Patelson Music House in Manhattan has been like a living room for the classical music world.

For more than six decades its shelves bulged with the fruit of Mozart and Bach, Stravinsky and Strauss, to be plucked by shoppers who wore its wooden floors black and sought counsel from expert and sometimes cantankerous sales clerks.

Yes, you know it is coming: Goodbye, Patelson’s."
-Daniel J. Wakin, New York Times

Yes, it was from this article in the New York Times that I and many in the world found out that Patelson's Music House was closing its doors.

I have been to Patelson's only twice - an odd thing to many, I'm sure, considering that I AM a classical musician, but I studied at Rice University in Houston and my trips to New York were rare. It was in 1995 that first traveled to the city with violin in hand (for my Mannes College of Music audition - grad school auditions, those were the days, no?) and it was during that trip that I ventured into Patelson's Music House and bought Bartok's Second Violin Concerto.

My second visit to Patelson's was yesterday.

A friend and I went into the city with the intention of filling holes in our respective music collections. This was simple for me: a few orchestral parts and perhaps some chamber music and other things that I absolutely need. Choosing those things was easy - it was deciding which small composer prints to purchase that became difficult!

"At the store the atmosphere is sad and lonely. The holdings are a shadow of what they once were. On the wooden shelves heavy cardboard dividers with composer and work names written neatly in felt-tip pen line up with little music between them."

Although written two weeks ago, Mr. Wakin's description of the store is more than accurate - the place is bare. Apparently the plan is that the store will remain open until either all or most of the remaining inventory is gone, there is no set final date.

While I was happy to have had the opportunity to replace some things (yes, it's still going on), I had a very strange feeling during the entire visit, and I shared it with one of the salespeople: "I kind of feel like I'm looting," I said as I placed my small stack of violin parts from Beethoven and Brahms symphonies on the counter.

There were conversations with other patrons as well as the salespeople - the two men working yesterday seemed to be handling this transition with grace, preparing themselves for new ventures as we all have at times. A piano teacher (who looked conspicuously like a long-lost relative) and I spoke about the remaining retail options for buying sheet music and supplies in the city. Nevertheless, while everyone was in good spirits there was a sadness in the air, a reminder of the ephemeral nature of this life and the larger reality that everything can change.

During that first trip to Manhattan in 1995, I found myself feeling oddly protective of a half-eaten bagel while on the subway when, during the ride, a homeless person came into the car asking for assistance. I'm somewhat ashamed to admit this, as well as to share my thoughts from that moment ("His backpack is in better shape than mine", I thought as the man moved slowly and desperately through the crowded subway car in 1995).

Fourteen years later - after a few profound changes in my own life, including Hurricane Katrina and these years that have followed - I can only hope that I'm a bit more human and compassionate. While walking back to Grand Central Station my friend and I passed a homeless man on Fifth Avenue. Unlike the man on the subway fourteen years ago, this man sat on the corner, sign in his lap, saying nothing - and the world passed him by, pretending not to see.

I went back to share what I had - I do wish that it could have been more - and took his hand...

...I think he smiled. At least his eyes did...guess we do come full circle after all.

More from the road,

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 2:25 PM

may indeed sound sappy but I had a tear in my eye reading the line from the NYT article says it oh so well...the store was a “musician’s oasis"


From Thomas Gardner
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 5:18 PM

Why are they closing?  Their website didn't say.  I tried the link to the New York times article but was asked to register my name and email with them, which I would rather not do. 

Posted on May 1, 2009 at 8:12 PM


The lnk below is the NYT article referenced in the opening thread...oddly, the same search engine that was used to obtain the info is also responsible for Patelson's demise... "Nowadays numerous Web sites offer sheet music for sale, either by mail or download."

From Thomas Gardner
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 9:30 PM

Thanks for the link.  That's sort of what I thought.  I'm just as guilty though. I buy most my stuff online. 

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on May 1, 2009 at 10:02 PM


but online isn`t fun. I go to my local and pull out different editions and sit around chatting .  Time to get a life I suppose.



From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 1:36 AM

 Aww, what a shame. : (  Always sad to hear about the demise of special places. I've been mourning the demise of the independent book store for years now, shop by closing shop.

That said, wonderful blog to read Sam; I was right there with you. I do love your writing.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 2:17 AM

Thanks, Terez - now if I could write as well as YOU, though, I'd be cookin' with gas!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 2:08 PM

Flattery will get you everywhere with me. ; ) 

From steve newman
Posted on May 2, 2009 at 3:05 PM

its not just 'buying' on line.  there's tons of sheet music available Free! online.For instance IMSLP has scanned in tons of classical sheetmusic that is in the publicdomain (i.e. printed before 1922, like the BachGesellSchaft editions).  There's the Mutopia project and many others.   All that can be downloaded free in pdf form and even  Finale so you can edit it to suit your purposes..

Music stores are always hit and miss whether they have what you are looking for in stock. And what if you want a part transposed to a different key or clef? Stores won't have it but you can create one fairly easily with music scanning and editing software.

The price of printed music today is thru the roof. I laugh to see the printed price on the cover of old sheet music.Today's price compared to the past  seems way beyond the general level of inflation. You would think all the technology advances in notation software and printing would make for lower prices.

San Francisco used have its sheetmusic store Byron Hoyt in the 80s. It was fun to go there to browse and pick up goodies, but you never could count on finding what you wanted.


From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 3, 2009 at 12:02 PM

What a shame to learn about this store's existence right before it's gone!  A bricks and mortar music store in Cambridge closed a few years ago and I now I get pretty much all my music online.  Or my teacher gets it from Johnson.  I love Johnson, and when I go there I can spend hours looking through music and accessories (or trying out instruments) but it's over a 30-minute schlep and not accessible by public transportation.  So I rarely do.

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