Never Can Say Goodbye

Now that Sequenza21, Musical America, and even The New York Times have all weighed in, I too should probably write something about the imminent closure of Joseph Patelson Music House. While this might seem to be a local New York tragedy, the store attracted customers from around the world. In fact, the first written account of the demise of this 60-year-old shop came from Philadelphia.

I first got a sense that Patelson’s was in the process of going out of business back in January when I popped in between sessions of the 2009 Conductors Guild conference, which was held in a hotel around the corner. The store was quieter than a funeral parlor and there were many empty spots on their once-brimming shelves. I apologize for not writing about this sooner. All I can say in my defense is that my silence is a contradictory amalgamation of disbelief and collector’s mentality (e.g. if I broadcasted it here before I went back just one more time, nothing will be left). But now that the sad rumors of the past four months have been universally confirmed and, after six trips there, I’ve completely wiped out my bank account and then some, here goes:

Shortly before I entered high school, I chanced upon this quaint sheet music shop housed in a small, incongruous-looking 19th-century building across the street from the back entrance of Carnegie Hall. Believe it or not, it was the place where I first saw in notated form music other than popular songs. Although I had been a songwriter since I was nine years old, I date my identification with the word composer from only shortly after my initial visit to this store. At first I gravitated toward the stuff with which I was already familiar—vocal sections from various Broadway musicals and piano/vocal reductions of the most famous operas, which I was only starting to discover. But within a year I started to acquire inexpensive pocket scores of Bartók concertos and even one of the 21st Symphony of Nicolai Miaskovsky which I greedily snatched up for only two dollars about 30 years ago—it must have been sitting there for at least another 30 and was never re-priced. But once I got completely immersed in new music, Patelson’s felt less and less like an oasis for me: its wares were the past. Some pundits have commented on a seemingly negative attitude toward anything contemporary and I must admit it was something I felt, too. I remember asking about John Cage scores and being looked at like I had descended from another planet. I special ordered several Penderecki scores from them and they took forever to arrive. I was hoping my patronage of such fare would result in them eventually keeping it regularly in stock. It did not. So eventually I stopped going more than once a year.

Although it always operated on a much smaller scale, Patelson’s (affectionate patrons inevitably add the possessive) was something of a sheet music version of The Strand. Many times it was impossible to find what you were looking for there, but inevitably other things found you. In some ways, my entire aesthetic outlook derives from this way of acquiring things. I eschew seeking things I want, because if I only looked for what I wanted, I’d miss all the stuff I didn’t realize I needed. While sites like J.W. Pepper and Sheet Music Plus offer many choices, arguably more than Patelson’s had in quite some time, if you can’t peer through a score you’re tempted to buy, you’ll probably only buy scores you already know something about. And while tons of self-published composers and even some of the bigger houses are starting to post perusal materials online, there is no aggregation of the material in a way that allows a chance discovery. Serendipitous browsing inspires thinking outside the box, and it will be a long time before an online simulacrum of such a process can truly replace this kind of interaction. For me, this is the saddest result of Patelson’s demise. And it is a demise that transcends geography because there are few places like it anywhere else in the world at this point, although I did chance upon a Patelson-like shop in London last September.

So now my apartment has piles of scores of all types all over the floor—everything from a Daniel Pinkham harpsichord piece to a series of miniature chansons by Erik Satie to a crazy looking indeterminate percussion composition by Hungarian conceptualist László Sáry. It will probably take the rest of the year to get through it all. And then I’ll be really sad.

4 thoughts on “Never Can Say Goodbye

  1. Kyle Gann

    Was it Travis & Emery on Cecil Court Road?

    (Yes, it was. Great shop! And yet another reason for me to pine to return to London. – FJO)

    Reply
  2. Kyle Gann

    Travis & Emery is a charming place with a tendency toward unexpected finds, but Foyle’s bookstore has a magnificent music score department, far better than Patelson’s ever had. I never walk out of Foyle’s solvent. That’s not to say that I don’t regret poor Patelson’s, for whom I did everything within my budget to keep them in business.

    Reply
  3. glendowerjones

    Yes, the loss of Joseph Patelson Music House is a tragedy. As a former employee of the company from 1985-1990, the news has me searching the web to discover thoughtful comments as the ones I found on your blog. Thank you Frank for your comments and all that you do to promote contemporary music.

    At Patelson’s I got my start in the print music business. After 22 years I’m still in the business and have Joseph Patelson to thank for that. I did want to buy the business after Joseph died but didn’t have the means (money) to do it. Unfortunately his son took over the business and that is when the company started its decline. Danny was a good man he just didn’t have any interest (passion) for what he was doing at the store.

    I left in 1990 as there was obviously no future for me at the firm. There was no management and little training then much less any demands on the staff to greet customers cordially and to go the extra mile to help them. The internet evolved and more and more revenue was drained from the store behind Carnegie Hall. The right person could have made this work but it still would have been difficult. New York is just too expensive to run a sheet music store. The property taxes there alone were over $80,000 a year.

    I left New York City in 2006 and along with the move I moved 1300 bankers boxes of old New York. All of the file cabinets of Binzer’s Music House from the East Side and 17 file cabinets of vocal music from what was once Lincoln Square Music in the Ansonia Hotel. So New York, your old vocal music is now in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I thought you just might want to know what happened to it. At least it isn’t in a land fill somewhere. People call me from all over the world. The internet has helped all of us and has certainly hurt all of us. I feel it has robed us of our soul.

    Glendower Jones

    Reply
  4. mdwcomposer

    Frank, I think the most important lines above are

    if I only looked for what I wanted, I’d miss all the stuff I didn’t realize I needed . . . allows a chance discovery. Serendipitous browsing inspires thinking outside the box

    Whether it’s browsing in a CD store, browsing through scores (at least a library has physical scores available for browsing), going to a concert (audience members don’t choose the playlist) with the possibility of hearing a completely unfamiliar composer, or even learning a notation program or programming language. There’s nothing like having to look something up in a physical manual, having your eye land on some unrelated page along the way to looking up what you need to know, and finding that informative, interesting, useful. In short, making connections and patterns based on a certain amount of random unrelated input is a very creative way to learn.

    There’s also the idea that we still carry some of our ancestral monkey DNA, which means we humans still seem to want the full physical sensory package: we like to pick up stuff, touch it, smell it, taste it, shake it, put it down, pick it up again . . . the online world is still a much scaled down distillation of the physical in that sense. More browsing, please.

          — Mark Winges

    Reply

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