In The Beginning
Visit any Sam Ash Music Store at any time and you’re guaranteed to see somebody making music. After all, making music is what Sam Ash is all about and they mean business. Playing the incredible selection of instruments is not only allowed, it’s encouraged. You’ll find people of all ages, from novice to pros playing guitars, keyboards, drums or brass and woodwind instruments. The huge inventory of musical instruments and accessories, sound and recording equipment, sheet music and videos, computers and music software covers every musician’s needs no matter what his or her playing style or ability may be.
Sam Ash is known as “The World’s Favorite Music Store,” but they didn’t arrive at that title overnight. The Sam Ash saga is a classic business story. It encompasses the American dream, retaining the basic concepts of a family-run business even today. From very simple beginnings the company has grown to forty-five music superstores. But the story begins in Brooklyn.
In 1924 Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States, George Gerswin premiered his “Rhapsody In Blue,” Johnny Weissmuller brought home Olympic gold and in a small neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, Sam Ash opened his first music store.
Sam Ash (Ashkynase) was born in Austria and traveled to the United States in 1907 at the age of 10, the same year that his future bride, Rose Dinin, left her native Russia at the age of 3 to settle in Brooklyn. Sam, a violinist, set out to make a career in music. After playing with various groups Sam decided to strike out with a band of his own. The Sam Ash Orchestra would entertain at weddings and dances playing the popular music of the time. After Sam and Rose were married, the new Mrs. Ash decided that a musician’s life was too precarious so the young couple decided to open their own business based upon what Sam knew best – music. Having very little savings the couple was forced to pawn Rose’s engagement ring for $400 in order to make the down payment on what was to become the first Sam Ash Music store.
The Early Years
With no previous business experience, Rose and Sam utilized their family traits of perseverance and hard work. Totally dedicating themselves to the new enterprise, the couple worked around the clock, learning the trade as they went along. That first Sam Ash store featured mainly sheet music and violin repairs, as the fledgling concern could not yet afford to stock musical instruments. These first years were very hard on the young couple. The store was in a poor neighborhood and not easily accessible by public transportation. Sales were few and far between. In 1925, their first son Jerry was born. Another son, Paul, followed a few years later and then a daughter, Marcia. The family lived in a crowded three-room apartment behind the store. In order to make ends meet Sam continued performing weekends with the band while Rose minded the store Facing almost immeasurable odds, Sam and Rose managed to survive the Great Depression, keeping both their family and business intact.
During these tough times, musicians were affected as well. Gigs were scarce and the ones that did come along often paid well under the standard wage. There were very few day jobs available due to the depression, so it was a common to see many of the local musicians hanging out at the Sam Ash store, trading stories and telling jokes. Jerry Ash recalls seeing some faces so often that he “thought they were relatives.” These local musicians appreciated Sam’s honest business policies and fair prices and soon the word began to spread. As the 1930s grew to a close, Sam Ash Music developed a reputation as a quality music store.
The 1940s were a time of change for American and Sam Ash Music. The country entered the second World War and in 1943 Jerry left to serve in the army. Though business began to pick up, The Ash family faced the problem of a declining neighborhood. In 1944 they decided to move the store to a better area in Brooklyn. By now, the entire family was deeply involved in the business. Paul added a record department which was an immediate success. Still in high school, Paul would come directly to the store after school and work until 10:00 PM every night. Meanwhile, Sam began to deliver sheet music to area schools and music teachers and, as money permitted, started to bring a selection of band instruments into the store. Jerry returned from the army and was married in 1948 to Bernice Kibrick, who had already been working in the store for a year. In the early 1950s Paul entered the military. With Paul’s absence and the advent of the LP, Sam Ash found it hard to compete with the giant record retailers such as Sam Goody and dissolved the record department. Jerry and Paul both attended college after their stints in the military, returning daily to help with the growing music store.
The Second Generation
In the early 1950’s Jerry noticed the increasing popularity of the accordion and began to stock different models. Soon Sam Ash became known as the leading accordion dealer in the area. Another trend the Ashes noticed was the new found prominence of the electric guitar, first through jazz artists such as Les Paul and then with the newest sound in music – rock and roll. Sam Ash began to add guitars to the store, becoming the second dealer in New York to carry the Gibson line and also carrying guitars from a new company, Fender.
Sadly, as the family began to enjoy it’s first real success, founder and patriarch Sam Ash passed away in 1956. Leaving the company in the hands of his wife and two sons, Sam Ash had established a way of doing business that would become company policy. “Our father prided himself on treating everyone fairly and offering the best selection of musical instruments at low prices,” says Paul Ash.
The family didn’t sit still. The store was moved again to a larger location in Brooklyn, this time with Paul designing the store with specific departments in mind, a new concept for the Ashes and the beginning of a lifetime of designing music stores for Paul. This new location finally established Sam Ash as the only music store of merit in Brooklyn, their only real competition coming from Manhattan’s music districts on Park Row and 48th Street.
As the 1950s came to an end, the Ash family took notice that a full third of their business came from Long Island and began to think about opening a store further east to better accommodate these customers. In 1961 they opened their biggest store yet in Hempstead, NY. The venture paid immediate benefits and soon the store expanded to three times its original size. As the Ash family began to prosper, they continued their practices of working long hours and directing profits back into the stores. Jerry and Paul spent hours selecting new lines of merchandise, establishing business contacts and charting the direction of the company. Bernice Ash had taken time off to raise her and Jerry’s three sons, David, Richard and Sam. When the youngest began school, Bernice returned to work, overseeing the sheet music department, turning it into a highly successful enterprise.
A Flagship Store Leads The Way
There were now two successful Sam Ash Music Stores and the future looked bright. Always mindful of new products and trends, even the Ash family was taken by surprise by the events of the early 1960s. The British Invasion led by the Beatles turned the music world – and Sam Ash Music stores – upside down. The focus shifted from band instruments to electric guitars, amplifiers and drum kits. “Our customer base was totally turned around,” said Jerry Ash. “It was a totally different scene. We went from parents dragging their kids into the stores to pick out band instruments to kids dragging their parents into the stores to pick out guitars.” Sam Ash Music found an entire new audience. No longer would purchases be based on recommendations by the music teacher. Youngsters were being influenced by their newfound heroes and seeking out the latest models and wildest fads. One of these new rages was the portable electronic organ. Once again, Sam Ash saw this development and soon they were known as the largest portable organ dealer in the country.
In 1964 the family opened its third store, this one in Huntington, NY. “The first Huntington store was much too small” remembers Jerry Ash, “and a few years later we moved to a larger location down the block.” Things were moving fast now, not only for the Ashes but for the music industry as well. Some of the changes left the retailers unprepared. One such change was the increasing size in performing venues. Sound systems for these bigger rooms simply did not exist. However the Ashes did not see this as a problem. Instead they saw it as an opportunity and designed and sold their own line of speaker cabinets and imported mixing boards from Europe to fill these new demands.
The turmoil that plagued the late Sixties took its toll on the Ash family. Riots and unrest in Brooklyn forced yet another move. The Ashes moved the store to Kings Highway at a considerable expense. Yet as Jerry Ash explains, such undertakings were necessary. “One thing we dared not do was stand still. If we don’t improve, other people will catch up and surpass us.” The Brooklyn store remained in the Kings Highway area until 1993 when it moved to a newer, larger building on Flatbush Avenue.
At the close of the 1960s, the Ashes made their largest expansion yet. Knowing that they would have to have a Manhattan location in order to become a major concern in the music industry, the Ashes Jumped right into the fire, opening a tiny store on 48th Street, the heart of the music district. Finding it difficult to compete they soon opened another store on the block. Over the years Sam Ash has consistently increased its presence on 48th Street to the point where they are now the focal point of “Music Row.” Today, with a total of seven stores on West 48th Street they stand as the leader of the what is considered to be the most important music retailing area in the world. While the family took a foothold in Manhattan, an opportunity became available to purchase a small music store in White Plains, NY that had a 20-year history of its own. Opening one new store was very costly; opening two new stores would put a tremendous strain on the company’s budget. Still the Ashes could not resist this opportunity to expand their ever-growing chain. They took over the store, applied their policies and procedures and within one year had doubled the business done by the previous owner.
The Future Looks Bright
Today, over eighty-eight years later, all of the work that the Ash family has put into the business has paid off. There are now 45 Sam Ash Musical Instrument Megastores located in New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Connecticut, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, North Carolina, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Sam Ash Music has won numerous awards, most recently being named “Dealer of the Year” by members of the music industry. SamAsh.com, a successful mail order division has a fulfillment center in Tampa, FL.
In 1990 the company relocated the corporate offices and central warehouse to a spacious new building in Hicksville, NY. Still family run, the business was bolstered by the additions of Jerry’s three sons, David, Richard and Sam, who now serve as executives, The firm employs over 1800 people. Rose Ash continued to work in the stores until she was 80 years old when failing health forced her to retire. Her dedication and support was a constant source of pride and inspiration for the Ash family.
As an industry leader in sales and innovations, the chain has been recognized as the first inductee in the “Retailing Hall of Fame”, a member of the “Olympic All Star Team” and “clean up hitter” on the “All Star Dream Team”. Recently Chairman Jerry Ash and President Paul Ash were chosen together as “Entrepreneur of the Year,” Long Island Region.
“I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’m in the music business.”
All through the years, the Ashes have made consistent improvements to the stores. Stores have been redesigned to better display and stock merchandise. New computer systems have been put into place to control inventory. As new products and technologies develop, Sam Ash employees are given training to keep on top of the latest developments. Lately they have noticed that band instruments are increasing in popularity once again. And they are seeing customers who first came into Sam Ash as teenagers during the boom of the early sixties, returning now to buy the instrument of their dreams.
Even with all of its successes the Ash family keeps looking towards the future. Paul and Jerry continue to dream of bringing Sam Ash stores to other areas. It has been quite a journey for the Ash Music® family since that fateful day that Rose and Sam pawned that ring (she did get it back). Though it has been a lifetime commitment, one that has left little time for anything else, Jerry Ash and Paul Ash consider themselves lucky. As Jerry puts it: “I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’m in the music business.”