While the pandemic’s cancellation of live performances has caused many music stores to close either temporarily or permanently, there’s a noteworthy exception: Bronstein Music, celebrating its 75th anniversary, is open in South San Francisco and soldiering on.
Store owner Ron Graham attributes Bronstein Music’s survival to adapting to the challenges that each era brings, including making changes in inventory and what the store offers customers.
“At its founding at the end of World War II, Bronstein Music sold mainly phonographs, records and televisions, with just a smattering of musical instruments,” Graham says. “As the ‘60s came on and a thriving music scene was budding in the Bay Area, Milt Bronstein found that he could not keep a drum set or guitar in stock; at the same time, overseas competition and constant changes in the audio/visual markets made selling TVs and phonographs a losing proposition. Milt decided to change the business model and focus on instruments and musical accessories of all kind.”
Office manager Amanda Scheliga is proud of what she calls the store’s “immense impact” on the community.
She says, “Every time someone comes up to the door and says ‘I thought you closed, I’m so happy you’re still around!’ it makes me smile. I especially love hearing all of the stories that people share about their experiences with music over the years. We’ve had many parents come in with their instrument that they bought from us and they want to get it repaired to pass it on to their children.”
When Rich Welker and Don Edwards, two longtime employees, bought the store in the early 1980s, they increased the reach of Bronstein Music with their own specialites. Welker played trumpet and knew about the needs of instrumentalists from school band programs and professionals, and Edwards, a keyboardist, knew everything about guitars, amps and keyboards.
Welker, the former co-owner, says he and Edwards learned from the Bronsteins, who opened the store after the war when instruments weren’t readily available: “Conn, King and other American brands were busy making bullets, but they could import instruments from France because their factories stayed open through the war.”
With the notions that “the music industry should not be commodity” and “a trumpet should last 30 years,” Welker compares how the Bronsteins survived because they adapted to today’s situation. Mentioning how the store can’t beat prices and have the same selection of instruments offered on the internet, he adds, “But you can’t do rentals and repairs online, [so] it turned out to be the right business model for a pandemic.”
Edwards says Bronstein Music has always been about family and community: “The Bronsteins raised their family, served their community, all while running a successful business. Mr. B gave time to his temple, the SSF Boys Club, and Kiwanis while Mrs. B worked with Soroptimists and the Salvation Army.”
Also, Bronstein always hired help from local high schools. Edwards and Welker, who both started when they were high school students, say, “We learned far more than just helping customers, counting change, and moving pianos from them.”
Serious threats to the store came with the 1989 earthquake, and the financial crisis of 2009, when employment displacements made the retail economy tank.
“No one was renting PA systems or buying instruments,” Graham says, adding, “Also, the pinch of the national economic recessions had put the squeeze on musical instrument manufacturers, who tried to make up their shortfalls on the backs of the dealers by imposing ordering minimums and raising prices across the board. There was serious soul-searching and talk of closing.”
Bronstein Music, closely connected with local schools, knew that parochial schools were popular and highly attended, but had no music curriculum. Welker began a partnership with one parochial school, hired a teacher, and offered after-school music programs paid for by parents. The tuition covered the teacher, and Bronstein Music rented the instruments to the kids. Within 10 years, Welker recalls, there were eight teachers in large parochial schools around the area, and public high school music programs boomed.
Graham, who bought the business in 2019, says the pandemic has brought on challenges that were completely unanticipated: “With a lot of fear and misinformation in the beginning, we had to close down completely for three months, while school band programs were scrambling to cobble a plan together.”
With schools closed and school bands idled, and the store’s 2020 rentals only a third of what they previously were, Graham says, “This will clearly have a ripple effect on all of our lives in the years to come.”
Adapting again to the situation, Bronstein Music has put a three-day quarantine on incoming repairs and is using enhanced cleaning and sanitizing protocols, and barriers to limit customer interactions.
One unexpected positive resulting from the pandemic is that adults who used to play an instrument who are stuck at home are finding time to get back into playing, bringing business to the store.
“We continue to foster the notion that music will not just ‘go away,’” Graham says. “If we all do our part to get through this crisis, we will be back to playing, seeing and enjoying live music soon.”
Bronstein Music is at 305 Third Lane, South S.F., call (650) 588-2502 or visit bronsteinmusic.com.