Changing its tune: Downtown Sounds to become worker-owned cooperative after retirement of founder Joe Blumenthal

  • Tom Shea, one of the six future worker-owners of Downtown Sounds, talks about the shop becoming a cooperative. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Shea, one of the six future worker-owners of Downtown Sounds, waves goodbye to a customer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Aaron Borucki, one of the six future worker-owners of Downtown Sounds, talks about the shop becoming a cooperative. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

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

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

  • Jim Armenti, a teacher at Downtown Sounds for the last 40 years, talks about the change of ownership and the music store becoming a cooperative. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tom Shea, one of the six future worker-owners of Downtown Sounds, talks about the shop becoming a cooperative. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

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

  • Joe Blumenthal talks about making Downtown Sounds a cooperatively owned and run music store. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Blumenthal talks about making Downtown Sounds a cooperatively owned and run music store. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Blumenthal talks about making Downtown Sounds a cooperatively owned and run music store. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Downtown Sounds, owned by Joe Blumenthal, which is being made into a worker owned cooperative.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Robin Hoffman teaches a class to Stacey Dakai and Diane Dakai in one of the newly renovated music rooms at Downtown Sounds. The music store owned by Joe Blumenthal is being turned into a cooperatively owned and run business. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joe Blumenthal talks about making Downtown Sounds a cooperatively owned and run music store. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/8/2019 9:56:23 PM

Correction: David Faytell’s name was mispelled and his employment status was misstated in a previous version of this story.

NORTHAMPTON — Downtown Sounds, a city fixture for more than 40 years, is preparing to become a worker-owned cooperative, as the only owner the business has ever known, Joe Blumenthal, readies for retirement.

“It’s really an institution in the community,” Blumenthal said this week.

Blumenthal, 70, opened the store in 1976, with no musical background. Yet his father told him that if he was going to own a music store, he would have to learn how to play. More than four decades later, music is a vital part of Blumenthal’s life. He plays in the groups Klezamir, Orkestar Banitsa, Mando Paradiso, and the Expandable Brass Band, leads the ukulele club AEIOUkes and plans on devoting his retirement to playing music.

But before he steps away from the business he built for good, Blumenthal is seeking to pass it down to his employees.

“In a way, the closest thing I have to kids is the people who’ve been working for me for a long time,” Blumenthal said.

Change has already been in the works at the beloved local music shop for a while, as employees have taken on a greater role in its management and in setting priorities over the last two years to prepare for the turnover.

“The workers here are making the bold choices,” said Dana Wilde, who was hired at Downtown Sounds last year. “We’re set up pretty well to take it over.”

“We hope to make it more of a community-oriented store,” said David Trenholm, an employee of 22 years.

Indeed, Blumenthal said that he has been largely absent from the store since January of last year, leaving its management to the employees.

Located in the heart of downtown Northampton on Pleasant Street, Downtown Sounds has both longtime employees and newer hires, both of whom seem excited for the change.

“People have been responding very positively to the idea,” said employee Aaron Borucki.

Borucki, 32, has worked at Downtown Sounds for 15 years, and other than a paper route, shoveling snow, and mowing lawns, this is the only job he has ever had.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have this great job,” Borucki said.

Borucki also met his fiancee on the job, who gave him her number after she came into the store for an adapter that would allow her to plug her phone into an amp. Afterward, Borucki called and left a message on her voicemail. On whether he thought he would hear back from her, Borucki said, “I hoped so.”

Borucki grew up in Holyoke, and he was a customer of Downtown Sounds before he became an employee.

“This was the coolest place around,” he said.

“This would be the place I would go after school,” Borucki continued. “Just like teenagers still do today. Going to make a lot of noise and be really annoying.”

Borucki is currently in two bands, Amazing Love and the True Believers, and he estimates he has been in 30 different bands “at least.”

Trenholm, 52, also voiced his appreciation for his job at the music store.

“Joe’s been really good to us,” he said. “Hopefully things will continue in a positive way after him too.”

Trenholm plays in the bands King Radio, Free Range Cats, and Soul Magnets. Among his instruments are guitar, saxophone and clarinet.

Tom Shea, another future worker-owner, has had two tenures at Downtown Sounds: Once in the 1990s and his latest run, which began about five years ago.

“I think people who work for me like working for me,” said Blumenthal, on the duration of service for some of his employees.

Borucki first approached Blumenthal when he was 25 about continuing the business, but that ended up not being practical. Borucki expressed enthusiasm for the idea of transforming Downtown Sounds into a worker-owned cooperative, and for getting to work alongside his fellow worker-owners going into the future.

“It’s a crew that I’m really grateful for,” Borucki said.

Wilde, 44, is the newest addition. She started working at Downtown Sounds last May, and is set to become one of its six worker-owners when it formally makes the transition on May 1.

Wilde, who plays drums in the bands Ex-Temper and Psychic Energy started taking drum lessons for the first time in her 30s at Downtown Sounds.

“This store made a difference in my personal life,” said Wilde.

She said that while she’d wanted to play drums as a child, her dreams had been “blown-off.”

“As a lot of girls do when they want to play drums,” Wilde said.

Wilde said over the last few years an effort has been underway to change Downtown Sounds’ reputation from a store catering to what she described as “guitar dudes” and “experts” to one that is for everyone. This effort has sought to make the store more friendly to both beginner musicians and to women.

“We’re just trying to be more welcoming to people of all ages, and not just experts,” she said.

One major element of this transformation has been an expansion in the store’s music lesson programming.

Blumenthal said that the store has, “always been a place for beginners,” but that its lessons and repair business are now run better. He also said that the store has “always tried to treat women who come in here with respect,” saying that it has avoided hanging up sexist advertising.

He did acknowledge, however, that for 15 years the store had an all-male staff, and that changing that had been a part of the transition plan.

Blumenthal got the idea for transforming his business into a worker-owned cooperative because of his friendship with the former sole proprietors of Real Pickles in Greenfield, who successfully transitioned their business into a worker-owned cooperative. The idea began to really take off around two years ago thanks to the involvement of Jim Armenti, who has taught music at Downtown Sounds for four decades, and David Faytell, a business professor at the  Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Blumenthal said that Faytell came up with a plan to make the store more profitable and to transition it to a cooperative model.

“His job is restructuring businesses,” Armenti said.

Blumenthal said the store is doing much better than it was before the plan. And in April, Downtown Sounds will have an event to attract investors who will allow the workers to create the cooperative.

“They will be raising the capital to pay for these people to take over the store,” Armenti said.

“It’s going to pay dividends,” said Blumenthal, of the shares that will be on sale.

Separate from the investors, there will also be a membership program in the future. The worker-owners will also put in their own money.

“I’m really excited about everyone in the community learning about it,” Wilde said. “I definitely want to do this.”

Madeline, who goes by the stage name Rosie Porter in the band the Neon Moons, also works at Downtown Sounds. And while she said she was given the opportunity to become a worker-owner, and supports the effort, she declined to join because she’s a full-time musician.

“I’m gigging too much right now,” she said. “Being in my 20s, I don’t want to be anybody’s boss except for the boss of my band.”

Blumenthal bought the building that houses Downtown Sounds the year he opened the business, and he credits owning the building with allowing the store to stay open. Blumenthal will continue to own the building after the co-op takes the business over, and he said he will give Downtown Sounds a favorable lease and the right of first refusal to buy the space if it ever goes up for sale.

Despite remaining the businesses’ landlord, Blumenthal said his involve  ment with Downtown Sounds will end when it is turned over.

“I’m not having a hard time  letting go of it,” he said.

Bera Dunau can be reac hed at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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