Strains of piano and voice drift through the walls of the Frank Music Company, New York City’s last remaining sheet music store, five blocks south of Central Park and ten stories straight up. Outside it is frigid and pouring snow, but in here 15 or so people warm the room with their body heat; in the musty air of the store’s cramped front area, it feels more like 50. The music filtering through the walls comes from the practice rooms that fill out the rest of the building’s 10th floor, an oasis of song in Midtown Manhattan. At the front desk, owner Heidi Rogers tells a joke about four violists and a lawyer to the waiting customers.
MORE MUSIC: Old Town Music Hall and its Mighty Wurlitzer Organ | Best Albums of 2014 | Photo Essay: Firefly Music FestivalThe front door, belled, rings every minute or so with a newcomer. They’ve have been showing up in droves since they heard the news. In the store’s small front vestibule, rows of boxes at hip height have been filled with music, separated by instrument. There is a poster of Itzhak Perlman, the famous violinist, on the wall. A corkboard with cards for flute, voice, piano and cello lessons and two of New York’s concert piano tuners hangs near the door. There are reminders everywhere, in posters and handwritten pleas, that photocopying music is a copyright infringement and is ethically and legally wrong.
The second saddest mark of Heidi and Co’s failed campaign against photocopying, music pirating and the rise of music-buying online — that is, the store’s closure after 37 years of operation — looms eight feet tall behind the front counter where Heidi is chitchatting with customers. There, an ancient metal shelving unit stands packed with manilla folders marked in sharpie ink: Dvorjak. Beethoven. Mozart. Haydn. Britten. Shostakovich. Gershwin. Behind that metal shelving unit is another filled with many more names, then another. The loaded giants define the back section of the store, a comfortable, messy archive of the history of music, dotted with leather armchairs and old computers and printers, signs of long-lived business residence. The number of composers great and small in this tiny room, let alone individual pieces of music, boggles the mind. With the store’s closure, most of the music has been bought by an anonymous donor to be donated to the Colburn School, a music conservatory in Los Angeles. It will be around a long time, in one form or another, carrying on the legacy of these composers to future generations of musicians. Just not here.
“I’ve waited on 70 people today, which is more people than I’ve seen in five years,” Heidi explains to the waiting crowd. She sighs.
The saddest mark of the failed campaign, though, is Heidi Rogers, whose second-to-last day in her store is coming to a close. She’s owned the place since 1978, when she was 26. Hers is a tired sadness, buoyed constantly by a bright and easy sense of humor. Her customers aren’t made nervous or uncomfortable because she isn’t trying to hide it. She is sharing it with them.
“I’ve waited on 70 people today, which is more people than I’ve seen in five years,” she explains to the waiting crowd. She sighs. Then she brightly tells everyone that when she closes up the store tomorrow night for good, she’s moving on to raising chickens. At first I take that as a joke, but she’s serious — she and her husband own a farm upstate, and she really is looking forward to taking care of 160 or so egg-layers.
An older regular customer, Henry, has made it to the front of the line and sticks there, waiting for the crowd to leave when the store closes at 5 p.m. so he can have some time with Heidi. He is a pianist, and Heidi teases that he’s spent $300 a week in the store for 25 years. They banter like old friends. When she disappears into the back, I strike up a conversation with him and say that I’ve never heard of the store before this week, when I heard it was closing. He turns bulldoggish. “That’s the problem. Too many people have never heard of this place,” he says, scowling.
Heidi chimes in from behind the music shelves. “Henry keeps saying, ‘Where were all these people all these years?'” She has no answer.
Later, when the customers have finally meandered out and the store’s second-to-last day — a penultimate measure in a very long symphony — ends, I’ll hear Henry at the front desk with Heidi, saying: “I’m not mad at the people for not coming here. I’m just mad that this is happening to you.” They will share a moment of silence in this doomed museum-for-profit that Heidi and customers like Henry have turned into a livelihood and a legend. Again, there is not much else to say, though Heidi, in her dogged sweetness, finds a way.
But that won’t be for a little while. For now the place is still packed, the line patiently waiting while Heidi schools a young trombone player on composers who have a real estimation for brass parts. He listens as if in awe and then asks if he can have a pencil from a jar as a keepsake, not seeing a small sign that declares them 75 cents each. Without hesitation she hands one to him. He sees the sign and tries to give it back.
“While I was in business I had to worry about money,” she says, pushing the pencil back into his hands. “Now I don’t have to worry about that anymore.” He settles up, shakes her hand and leaves, the door locking behind him so no more customers can come in.
About the Photos: What better way to capture one swan song than with another? We loaded up one 36-frame roll of Kodak Portra 400 and walked into Frank Music not knowing what we’d end up with. The results were a pleasant surprise — the black box beauty of film continues to mesmerize.