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Rockeology: When 48th Street Was the Center of the Universe

Editor’s Note: With all due respect to Steinway & Sons and Guitar Center, not to mention New York Woodwind and Brass, perhaps no two music stores have had the kind of meaningful impact on NYC’s music scene as the late shop Manny’s and its one-time rival and still-thriving Sam Ash (which took over Manny’s in 1999). Manny’s was all about Manhattan; Sam Ash had its roots in Brooklyn. How did the two come together? How did they start? All is revealed in this in-depth report from our intrepid contributor — and “Breaking It Down” podcast host — John Montagna.

Manny Goldrich (1904-1968) opened the first “Manny’s Music” location at 120 W. 48th St. in 1935. “My grandfather started out selling brass and woodwind instruments,” says grandson Ian Goldrich, “and decided to open his own store.” In addition to catering to top jazz and big band musicians from John Coltrane to Benny Goodman, Manny famously offered reasonable payment plans to struggling musicians. “So when nobody else would give them a horn,” Ian explains, “he’d say, ‘Here, take the instrument and pay me off.’ And he’d accept ten dollars a month or whatever it would be. And then because of that, Manny’s became a hang for musicians.” Store credit might have attracted many musicians to Manny’s, but more crucial to the store’s success was its address.

“What are the three principles of retail? Location, location, location,” quips Ian. “And we were right there in Times Square. You couldn’t get any more location-centric than that, you know? You had the theaters, you had the recording studios, and you had the songwriters at the Brill Building. It was all right there. The guys would get out of the Brill Building and say ‘Let’s meet at Manny’s and then go to lunch.’ And that continued [through the years]. It was just the continuation of a hang.” When asked if the “hang” aspect was intentional on his grandfather’s part, Ian is succinct: “Listen, he started collecting signed pictures from the day he opened, you know? He was a smart guy who knew how to market himself. We never advertised at Manny’s until the late ‘90s. Everything was word of mouth.”

Meanwhile, across the river in Brooklyn, another music retailer was beginning a slow, steady expansion. Samuel Ashkynase (1897-1956), an Austrian-Hungarian immigrant, opened his first “Sam Ash” music store in Brownsville at 409 Saratoga Ave. in 1924. His son Jerry was born a year later, followed by Paul (1929-2014) and Marcia — and all three children would ultimately join the family business. Like Manny’s, Sam Ash was built on a reputation for reasonable prices and strong customer service. That success enabled them to quickly open a second location, less than a mile away at 236 Utica Ave. The family put in long hours at both stores to ensure that the musical needs of the community were met, from local players to teachers and students. Brothers Paul and Jerry both served brief stints in the military, but when they returned home to the family store a new musical and social phenomenon had taken hold: rock n’ roll.

The rock revolution meant a shift in focus from sales of horns to guitars, for both Sam Ash and Manny’s. By this time Manny’s son Henry was working at 120 W. 48th, and continuing the “hang” tradition that his father had started among the jazzers. Henry created an environment where the biggest rock musicians of the day could safely browse and shop without being harassed by the public; the famous Wall of Fame of signed photos grew exponentially on Henry’s watch, along with the store’s reputation as a hub for music industry professionals of all stripes. By the late 1960s, the Rockefeller Group was expanding its real estate holdings in midtown and set their sights on 120 W. 48th St., which Manny Goldrich owned. The Rockefellers made Manny an offer he couldn’t refuse: a larger building up the street at 156 W. 48th, closer to Seventh Ave. “It was 40-foot frontage and 100 feet deep,” Ian says, “and they built it to my father and grandfathers’ specs.” Sadly, the store’s founder did not live to see the completed new building. After leaving the business to Henry (and Henry’s sister Helen), Manny Goldrich passed away in 1968, the year before the new Manny’s location opened.

Related: “Rockeology: Old Yellow”

As the store continued to thrive under Henry’s stewardship during the 1970s, they welcomed neighbors like Rudy’s Music Stop, Alex Music and We Buy Guitars to the block. Fred Giovanelli, a longtime Sam Ash employee, fondly remembers the Music Row of his youth. “48th Street was the original internet! Whatever you wanted to buy, whatever you saw in a magazine, and we didn’t have Guitar Player or Bass Player back then: we had Circus and Creem, and they used to put the product ads in there. You’d read articles: ‘Jimmy Page uses DiMarzio Super Distortion humbuckers [pickups] in his Les Paul,’ and all of us kids had to run out and buy Super Distortion DiMarzios! Whatever it was: You went to 48th Street, and if one store didn’t have it, the next store did. You could always walk away from that block with what you were looking for. You hung out there for the day, you met other musicians, maybe you got a gig, you got advice about stuff. The window shopping was the best; you’d stare at things for hours and not talk to a salesman!”

By decade’s end, The Goldrich family would welcome some new neighbors right next door. The Ash family, having expanded with two locations in Long Island, finally opened the first Manhattan Sam Ash store in 1978 at 160 W. 48th St. Before long the family owned enough stores to start manufacturing their own in-house product line, bypassing distributors and middlemen. “Samson was a company that Jerry Ash founded in the early eighties,” explains Fred Giovanelli. “It was parts first: drum thrones, sticks, guitar stands, accessories. And then somebody came to Jerry with a design for a wireless guitar unit. There was no wireless market at the time; you had to spend $3,000 to custom-install a transmitter in a guitar. But the Samson units cost you, like, $200. Then they went to the microphones, and by the mid-eighties it was worldwide, producing PA equipment, everything.”

During this era, Jerry’s sons Richard and Sammy joined the company, bringing a third Ash generation into the fold. Likewise, Henry’s sons, Ian and Judd, started working at Manny’s in the early ‘80s, a peak period when business was booming up and down 48th Street. “I talk to Richard and Sammy about this,” says Ian. “You basically needed to have a deli checkout thing where you took a number, to get taken care of in any of these stores! We laugh about it now, but we bemoan it as well because all these stores were printing money, you know? It was just so busy!” NYC guitarist and former Manny’s employee Jack Morer agrees, recalling his tenure at Manny’s in the ‘80s. “That store was packed every day, from about eleven in the morning. You’d get the jingle guys coming in early, and the session guys, and then the Broadway guys came in later. All these touring companies coming in…I remember spending two days on the phone with Whitney Houston’s tour manager putting together stuff for them. This was the late eighties and the music business in New York was thriving and musicians were everywhere, and that block was full of musicians.”

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“I was there the famous day that David Bowie and Mick Jagger came in together,” Jack says, “and I remember it vividly.” Ian Goldrich also recalls the sudden arrival of the pair of English rock legends at Manny’s: “Yeah, that was actually Black Friday, believe it or not. They had just done a video together (“Dancing in the Street”). The funny thing is, they came up 48th Street in two separate limos! But they did walk in together, and the place just shut down. And this was my father at his best. He never cursed, but if he could have said ‘What the fuck are you guys doing here today?!?’ that’s what he would have said because business basically stopped! And I remember what they bought. Mick bought one of those early TASCAM PortaStudios, and a little microphone so he could record in his hotel room. And then Bowie asked Henry, ‘What did he buy? Give me the same thing!’”

Percussionist Alfredo Hidrovo worked in the drum department at Manny’s in the early ‘90s and remembers his own elite clientele. “Suddenly all of these people whose names I’d read on the back of the albums would come to me: Manolo Badrena from Weather Report, [Soundgarden drummer] Matt Cameron used to come in and hang out with us, Sterling Campbell was a good friend from there. We treated people with a different sense, we were not that formal. Like [Michael Jackson drummer] Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett, he would take things for a gig at Madison Square Garden and give me tickets and passes for the concert. And you would take the freedom of doing fun things like that instead of being so formal.” Jack Morer concurs: “Steve Khan used to come in, Charley Drayton and Steve Jordan, the Letterman guys…I remember one day I see this guy looking at guitars and I walk up to him and say ‘Can I help you?’ And he turns around and it’s Sting!”

But as the ‘90s wore on, the tide began to turn for Manny’s. “By ’96 or ’97 my dad was only working two or three days a week,” Ian says. “He was playing a lot of golf, and my brother and I at that point were pushing different things. We bought this company called Audio Techniques, which was a recording studio company; we had a business in Brazil, and we had a mail-order catalog, kinda stretched ourselves a little thin.” Alfredo Hidrovo remembers the catalog’s impact on the sales staff. “When the catalog opened around 1995, they started doing a lot of sales without us,” he says. “People would call to order from the catalog, but then the catalog salespeople would call us to help them. And I said “Oh no, fuck that.’ You know, I’m trying to sell because I need commission! We had a feeling, just from the catalog thing, that things were changing. Because the internet was not a thing then.”

“There were a couple of things,“ Ian admits. “I could see how those guys on the sales floor would look at that one part of it but there were lots of issues. There were family issues…just classic third-generation business failures is what I like to say. That kinda summarizes it all.” By this time, Sam Ash had continued its expansion by acquiring multiple storefronts on 48th Street. In 1999 Ian and Judd sold Manny’s to the Sam Ash Music Corp., who continued to operate the store in tandem with the Goldrich family. But the days of Music Row were numbered, due to shifting economic factors better explained elsewhere; with many of their neighbors already gone, Manny’s ultimately succumbed to the same fate and officially closed its doors in 2009.

Though many musicians and native New Yorkers lament the loss of New York’s Music Row, Ian Goldrich maintains a refreshingly positive outlook today. “The nice thing is that Judd and I both landed with Sam Ash, which is a great company,” Ian says. “I’ve known the Ash family since I was a teenager. I have a lot of respect for these guys, and the fact that they’re still around and they’re still making money. We’re both in the business, and it’s still a great business! Listen: Like you probably, when I meet friends or my wife’s friends, I’m still the most interesting person in the group, you know what I’m saying? [Laughs] And I’m still interesting because I’m still in the business.”

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After finally moving all of its stores off of 48th St. in 2012, Sam Ash opened its current flagship location in Manhattan at 333 W. 34th St. The company operates fifty stores nationwide, and Ian manages four of them on the east coast: two each in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “It’s one-hundred percent the same and one-hundred percent different,” he says. “These are meat-and-potatoes stores, and this is where the company thrives. We have three or four big, big stores that do a lot of business and New York is number one.” Fred Giovanelli heads up Sam Ash’s online businesses, but he first joined the company as a store employee in 1984. “It’s a family,” he says. “Jerry’s still around. He’s kind of retired now, but up until a couple of months ago, he was coming in two or three days a week. And he still comes by. Dude, let me tell you something about him: At 93, that man has a faster pace walking through these halls than any of us. And he can remember the make, model number, and color of an accordion he ordered back in 1956, okay?”

As for Manny’s, Ian Goldrich is rightfully proud of his family’s history on 48th St. It’s a history that his sister Holly Goldrich and filmmaker Sandi Bachom are lovingly keeping alive online, via the Virtual Wall of Fame social network website. The Goldrich and Ash families are also collaborating with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to create a Manny’s Music exhibit, to celebrate this integral part of the cultural history of New York City. “People say ‘I’m so sorry that Manny’s is gone,’ they tell me that all the time. And I’m saying ‘Well you know what, you got your memories.’ And it’s never gonna be replicated in any way. Those times, from the very beginning with my grandfather and all the big band guys, to my father and the rock and roll guys, that’s not gonna get replicated anywhere.”

-John Montagna

Photo Credit: Archival images of Rose and Jerry Ash courtesy of Sam Ash; a small assortment of photographs autographed by famous musicians from Manny’s music store and an original letter by John Lennon on display during the Guernsey’s Rock & Roll Auction Press Preview at Guernsey’s Auction House on September 14, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images)

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5 comments on “Rockeology: When 48th Street Was the Center of the Universe

  1. Avatar

    great story, with fond memories of working and hanging in NYC, we built Green Street Studio, NYC only superman proof studio, jaaa
    thanks again
    come to Bubba’s and jam sometime 42 years every Friday night on Cliff RD Wilmington, he knows thousands of songs,
    Cheers

  2. Avatar

    Beautiful. Bought my first REAL guitar at Manny’s – took the train down from the suburbs and found a used Ovation acoustic that they could flip the strings and make into a lefty. Bought several more guitars through the years, and stopped in to gawk whenever I was in the neighborhood. Great folks, great store, great memories.
    Thanks.

  3. Avatar
    Matthew Whittington

    I lived in NYC in the mid 80’s. Scuffling, of course. I went to Manny’s one day, just window shopping. I walked out to go over to Rudy’s and had to wait for a truck to pass. After it did I found a $20.00 bill in the middle of 48th Street! I immediately turned around, walked back into Manny’s and bought a Ronnie Lee “No Mishap Guitar Strap”. Providence, serendipity, you make the call. True story!

  4. Avatar
    Christopher Abell

    Thanks for the story. I worked at Sam Ash from 1986 until about 1990. First at the Forest Hills store, and then 155 W. 48. Great memories, and great people. I still talk to some of the old gang.

  5. Avatar
    Peppy Castro

    Ah the good old days. Great memories all around. From the time I was 14 yrs. old on up. 48th st was the place to dream. Then the place to celebrate one’s success. Henry and Family saw many of us go from wanabe’s to Rock Stars. Too many stories to tell but the memories of the Ash and Goldrich families are vivid and life changing.
    Henry would look at me always with a twinkle and love in his heart. He saw me live my dream.

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