Gearing Up for the Dream
For decades, dedicated music retailers located in the Berklee neighborhood have offered musical gear and career opportunities to students and alumni.
Anyone with a business sense could deduce that the blocks in Boston’s Back Bay area where two conservatories and Berklee are located hold promise for music retail shops. As Berklee began experiencing exponential growth starting in the 1960s, retailers supplying instruments, amps, audio gear, strings, drumsticks, trombone mouthpieces, saxophone reeds, and more flocked to the area. At one point, business from local musicians as well as nationally recognized artists passing through the neighborhood supported Jack’s Drum Shop, E.U. Wurlitzer Music and Sound, Cambridge Music, Daddy’s Junky Music, and Rayburn Musical Instrument Company (a few blocks away on Huntington Avenue).
For the first time in decades, by 2011, there was no big-box retailer located in the center of the Berklee campus. In October of that year, Daddy’s Junky Music at 161 Massachusetts Avenue closed its doors. Happily, for musicians, Guitar Center opened a store in the same spot a year later, and business resumed.
In addition to supplying the day-to-day needs of musicians, these stores have also been significant training grounds for Berklee alumni and students employed there who plotted career paths in various sectors of the music products industry. What follows is a look at a handful of alumni who got their start in these beloved stores in Berklee’s neighborhood.
The Early Days
In 1939, Rayburn Musical Instrument Company opened up shop. During the late 1940s, it served those attending Lawrence Berk’s Schillinger House (which was later renamed Berklee) in the late 1940s as well as today’s students. While the store changed ownership and moved across Huntington Avenue to a new site in recent years, one constant for the past four decades has been Rayburn’s legendary repairman Emilio Lyons. Dubbed the “Sax and Clarinet Doctor,” Now an octogenarian, Lyons still works there two days a week. Through the years, his customers have included sax superstars spanning the generations from Illinois Jacquet to Wayne Shorter to Michael Brecker to Kenny Garrett.
Trumpet player Lee Walkowich ’81, who earned his Berklee degree as a professional music major, entered the music retail business and ultimately worked at Rayburn for 15 years. “I was playing gigs with the Artie Barsamian’s big band, and decided I needed a day job too,” Walkowich recalls. “I started working at Boston Music Company down on Boylston Street near the theater district in 1981 and eventually became the store manager.” Walkowich stayed for nine years until being lured away by the late David Ginott (then the owner of Rayburn), in 1990.
Ginott enlisted Walkowich to help him realize his vision for the store. “We built the brass department into one of the finest in the world,” Walkowich recalls. “We had the high-end stuff—custom-made horns and mouthpieces—you name it, we had it. Our customers were some of the finest players in the world. Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, Arturo Sandoval, and many major symphony players from around the world used to shop there. Walkowich recalls the patronage of Berklee musicians in the development and success of that store. “We made a lot of international contacts through the Berklee students.”
Walkowich learned the ropes during his years at Rayburn. “Emilio taught me so much about the art of the deal and how to work with the public,” he says. “He taught good common-sense practices and integrity. In my book, he’s a star.”
After Ginott passed away in 2003, Walkowich stayed on for two more years. “A lot of other retailers around the country were watching to see what would happen next at Rayburn,” Walkowich says. Alan Levin from Washington Music Center, located just outside Washington, D.C., called and offered him a job in 2005.
“I relocated to Washington and have never regretted the move,” he says. “This is a huge store, and I manage the band and orchestra room here. We sell to military bands, Broadway musicians, L.A. studio players, and orchestral players. We have an $8 million inventory in stock. It’s somewhat of a unique institution.”
Looking back, Walkowich says, “This industry has been good to me. I wanted a good day job that would allow me to play gigs on weekends, and I discovered that I had an aptitude for the music retail business. It’s a great industry. I’ve loved being involved with musicians and product development. Overall, I’ve enjoyed just helping people out.”