'Hard Times' For Joseph Patelson Music House

At the Joseph Patelson Music House in New York Tuesday, members of the Philadelphia Orchestra wandered the aisles as they do when they visit Carnegie Hall. But rather than finding the usual feast of scores and sheet music, this time they were left wondering where the stock had gone.

The landmark store’s clerks were overheard speaking in anxious tones about reduced work shifts and fretting about depleted shelves.

It’s clear that Patelson’s — across 56th Street from Carnegie Hall’s backstage entrance and for decades the source of music for the likes of Isaac Stern and Beverly Sills, as well as Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra — is struggling.

“All I can say is your eyes are not lying,” said a clerk. “We’re having hard times. Hopefully the economy will pick up, but at this point it’s very uncertain.”

Asked whether the store was planning to close, the clerk said it was possible.

“There’s no definite timetable. If I had to say, the end of the year.”

Marsha Patelson, owner of the New York institution and a cellist, did not return phone calls, and no one answered her home phone.

The economy has taken its toll on Patelson, and so has the availability of both hard scores and downloads on the internet.

“It’s not the way it was ten years ago when I first started here,” said the clerk. “Teachers would order $800 worth of this and $800 worth of that. People from Japan who would buy a ton of stuff. But it’s dried up.”

The Patelson store traces its roots to 1920 when Ernest Cook opened the Half-Price Music Shop on Cooper Square. The business moved to W. 59th Street, then 57th, and in 1929 Cook hired a student named Joseph Patelson. By 1939 Patelson had so firmly proven himself that when Cooke died he left the business to Patelson.

The business moved to 56th St. in 1940, next door to its present location, and when the 1879 carriage house went up for sale in 1942, Patelson bought it. World War II delayed renovations, but by 1947 work was completed, and the business moved to its current site.

The spot just across the street from Carnegie’s stage door made it an inevitable locus for musicians, and there, a few hours before visiting orchestras played Carnegie, musicians could be found foraging for a particular edition of a chamber work or happening upon a previously unknown sonata.

Patelson died in 1992, leaving the store to son Dan Patelson. Dan Patelson died in 2004, and the business passed to his widow, Marsha.

The store boasts having provided services to a wide swath of the music world: composers Copland, Barber and Rorem; conductors Erich Leinsdorf and James Levine; singers Placido Domingo and Eileen Farrell; pianists Jorge Bolet, Van Cliburn and Mitsuko Uchida.

Non-classical customers included Michael Jackson, Jaco Pastorius, Claudette Colbert and Lee Remick.

It’s that sense of discovery — both in terms of who you might run into, as well as what obscure work you could find — that would be hard to replicate if Patelson closed up shop.

And Philadelphia Orchestra members would have to find another place to loiter between rehearsals and concerts.