Editorial: Hoping for good vibes for Northampton landmark Downtown Sounds 

  • Dana Wilde, one of the six future co-owners of Downtown Sounds, talks about the shop becoming a cooperative. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Published: 3/15/2019 9:59:59 AM

The music isn’t ending for Downtown Sounds, but the tune is certainly changing. That’s a good thing for music lovers and for Northampton’s downtown retail scene.

Over 40-plus years, the landmark music store in the heart of downtown has adapted with the times, reinventing itself and offering a haven for music aficionados and newbies to get their fix. Behind it all has been owner Joe Blumenthal, who opened the Pleasant Street store in 1976 with no musical background. He soon learned how to play instruments and now is a member of several musical groups.

Over the years, his store has become a place for experts to hone their skills, shop for the latest equipment or simply shoot the breeze with people who share their passion for music. It’s also a place for students to hang out after school and take lessons and further develop their love of music in all its forms.

As Blumenthal, 70, prepares to hang it up and devote more time to playing music in retirement, he has taken a wise step to ensure than the iconic business lives on by handing it down to his de facto “children” — six store employees who have created a worker-owned cooperative. Put simply, that means the store will be owned and managed collectively by these workers.

The transition has been a lengthy process, as Blumenthal has gradually stepped back from the business over the last two years and allowed the new owners to assume a large role in the store’s management, including setting priorities. The employees, many of whom have been at Downtown Sounds for years as their only job, say they are ready for the May 1 transition.

“The workers here are making the bold choices,” said Dana Wilde, who was hired at Downtown Sounds last year but who began visiting Downtown Sounds a few years ago to take drum lessons. She’s now one of the new owners.  

The new worker-owned cooperative, modeled after one created for Greenfield-based Real Pickles, has already moved the business in a new direction, taking steps to cater to beginner musicians and women in addition to experts and “guitar dudes.”

It’s not that Blumenthal didn’t help women and beginners — he did — but Downtown Sounds, like the music retail industry in general, has historically been male-dominated and expert-oriented.

Sometimes fresh eyes are a good thing. That’s why Blumenthal wisely worked with the new owners, the store’s longtime music teacher, Jim Armenti, and a former UMass business professor, David Faytel, to create a transition plan that includes hiring women to the staff, adding industry-related magazines that cater to women in addition to men, and boosting the number of affordable beginner- and student-level gear and equipment in a special “Get Me Started” area of the store.

The new owners are also taking steps to increase awareness about the store’s lessons and other offerings, such as its repair shop for guitars, electronics and amps. Over the lasts two years, the store has renovated its lesson rooms in the basement, building seven bright, new rooms and adding a new bathroom. Twenty teachers are now offering lessons seven days a week on a variety of instruments.

Over the next two months, the new owners will launch a community campaign to attract investors, who will be shareholders, to help raise the money to buy the business. A separate membership campaign is also in the works that will offer customers deals to Downtown Sounds Workers Co-Op, as the new venture will be called.

The transition plan has been well thought out and is being phased in wisely. We congratulate Blumenthal on his success over the years and his desire to see the business carry on as he steps away.

Future success, like with most retail endeavors these days, hinges both on innovation by owners and support from a community whose residents opt to shop local. As Wilde said in an email to the Gazette, “If locals want Downtown Sounds to stay here and thrive, then we need their support.”

We couldn’t agree more.




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