An era ends: Last Center City store with classical recordings to close

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A bust of composer Franz Schubert looks out over shelves of classical recordings as banners tell of the imminent closing of F.Y.E. at Broad and Chestnut Streets, the last store in Center City to sell physical recordings of classical music.

You have to walk past the Beanie Boo stuffed animals and up a flight of stairs to find the last vestige of recorded classical music in the city, but you'll have to hurry. F.Y.E., the big chain that has become more about pop merchandise and less about music, is closing its flagship store at Broad and Chestnut Streets.

After Aug. 31, the Beanie Boos will be gone, and so will the nicely curated collection of new and used classical CDs, DVDs, and vinyl in the southeast mezzanine space just above the Land Title post office.

No more 50-CD collections of Fritz Wunderlich, classic recordings by the Quartetto Italiano, or newly released CDs by orchestras, chamber musicians, and singers.

And so comes to an end a long-running feature of city life that started around the time the Victor Talking Machine Co. set up recording studios across the river in Camden: the ability to fish leisurely in the low bins of a record store and leave with a catch. For more than a century, new classical recordings were in abundance downtown, where a famous orchestra once pumped them out and eager customers brought them home, first as 78s, then 33s, and eventually as CDs.

You could always find classical with ease, whether it was at the HMV on Walnut Street, Tower's classical annex at Sixth and South Streets, Sam Goody, the Kimmel's lobby shop, or H. Royer Smith (which had various sites in the city from 1907 until the mid-1980s, and which even put out its own record-review publication, "The New Records").

It seems impossible, but with the closing of F.Y.E., Center City may be without a brick-and-mortar store selling new classical releases for the first time since the dawn of the recording era.

It played out gradually but in plain sight, as these things do. F.Y.E. put considerable care into its classical department, and for years after it took over from Tower in 2007, the store was a place where you would bump into other classical lovers. Much of the city's arts sector today is concentrated along Broad and up Walnut Streets. Record stores had tentacles that reached into local music schools and concert halls. There you might spy a pianist performing that night for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, or get seduced by a clever bit of album art.

"There were many long discussions at the counter, not necessarily about whose interpretation was better, but just music discussions, between clerks and managers and customers, and that was always a lot of fun," David Osenberg said about the Tower classical annex on South Street that he managed for most of its existence (he is now music director for WWFM in New Jersey).

Mark Obert-Thorn, an audio restoration engineer, remembers Nathan Muchnick's at 17th and Chestnut as a gathering of kindred spirits.

"During the 1990s, their buyer was an extremely well-informed Penn law student from, I believe, Australia - although he spoke with a perfect British accent - named Simon Roberts," Obert-Thorn said. "At lunchtime, collectors would converge in Muchnick's basement classical department to discuss with him, and with each other, the new releases. That's the kind of interaction you'll never get online, and which I'll miss."

As one observer pointed out to me, F.Y.E. was populated by that kind of regular, until one day you realized it had been months since you'd seen so-and-so. In recent weeks, the present music critic found himself among only one or two customers roaming the aisles. No music was playing. A bust of Schubert sat above the bins, looking concerned.

Yes, times change, as composer Robert Capanna says. He was a Sam Goody man himself, "mainly because they stocked everything according to the Schwann catalog. You could look up what you wanted in the catalog and then find it by the catalog number," he recalled. "I thought it was brilliant because you didn't have to browse through extraneous stuff to find what you wanted. In fact, it was very much like shopping online in the sense that if you know what you want, nothing is easier, but if you are shopping around and not sure of what you want, it can be frustrating."

Now, he downloads from Amazon or iTunes. "I hate to say it," he says, "but I love buying music this way because it is so convenient and complete."

There are many like him. Revenue from the sales of digital music matched that generated by physical recordings in 2014, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, with sales of physical recordings declining from 60 percent of sales in 2011 to 46 percent in 2014.

Of course, stores can't exist in the age of no longer having to plunk down your money. Someone, somewhere has put up on YouTube your favorite recording - whether it's violinist David Oistrakh and pianist Lev Oborin in a 1962 recording of the "Kreutzer" Sonata, or something performed last week - and it's yours free.

Listeners today are trained to get what they want, when they want it, for whatever they want to pay (or not pay). Funny, though, that with the proliferation of choice, it can't be said the customer today is any happier.

But something else has changed, and it's probably the more worrisome trend for music in general, and that's the experience of listening. How many people actually put on the radio or a recording and actively listen without doing anything else? Music today is increasingly seen as the accompaniment to something - dinner, a workout, a drive. Music is a sound track.

Back when music was harder to get, listeners valued it more. When you spent a lot of time hunting for something, you reveled in the triumph of finding it.

Says Obert-Thorn: "I'll never forget the day I went into [H. Royer Smith], hoping against hope that they would have a copy of Fritz Reiner's Pittsburgh Symphony recording of the Gershwin-Bennett Porgy and Bess Suite on a 10-inch Columbia LP back in the stacks, still unsold since it went out of print in the '50s. They checked but couldn't find one, so I started rifling through the used LP browsers, when, lo and behold, there it was! What are the odds?"

It should be said that the loss of F.Y.E. has nothing to do with two commonly blamed villains - downtown decay, and the decline of interest in classical music. Center City is awash in restaurants, high-end retail, and multi-million-dollar condo floors. Classical music as a share of the recording industry remains low but constant.

Rather, this is a story about technology, and, to use the tired cliché, disruption. I stopped into Jacobs Music on Chestnut Street, and though it doesn't stock CDs, the nice saleswoman there was happy to show me a recording of a sort - with a price tag of $85,700. The Steinway Spirio, a "high-resolution player piano system," reproduces, on a real piano, the interpretations of pianists like Stewart Goodyear - note for note, dynamic nuance for nuance.

She pulled out her iPad, tapped the screen a couple of times, and there, with piano keys gliding up and down in ghostly absentia, could be heard Goodyear playing an excerpt from his wonderful transcription of The Nutcracker.

The future is here, if you can afford it.

In a way, CDs planted the seeds of their own demise. Digital technology made it possible to go back and clean up takes that would have been only marginally acceptable before. Suddenly, every new classical recording was in competition with every classical recording ever made. CDs were also indestructible (mostly), which means once you bought the recording you wanted, you never had to buy it again.

But with progress, ironically, demand for classical recordings online may outpace what it's been for CDs. As anyone who has fumbled with technology knows, it's just a matter of time before you lose your iPhone or wipe clean from your laptop by some errant stroke every recording you've ever downloaded.

Inescapably, happily, music remains as ephemeral as ever.

pdobrin@phillynews.com

215-854-5611

Online: Mark Obert-Thorn remembers what it was once like to grow up as a classical-record listener in Philadelphia: philly.com/pdnthorn