Millennials not old masters in accordion shop

Mike Bulboff, owner of Liberty Bellows in Queen Village, plays an accordion in his Philadelphia shop.

New accordions in the Liberty Bellows showroom are stacked and arranged like jeweled beetles at a natural-history museum, some with shells as green as a lime's rind and others with keys like red velvet cake.

Some are adorned with ruby-colored rhinestones, to catch the eyes of the Mexican norteno players, and others have a simple, dark sheen like coffee direct from Italy.

There are accordions in boxes in every crevice and alcove in the narrow Queen Village shop, a former Second Street salon just off South.

Someone was playing an accordion beneath a stuffed bobcat on the second floor, and there were more accordions shelved in bits and pieces another floor up, never to be played again. There were even pictures of scantily clad women holding accordions in the men's room.

One thing Liberty Bellows doesn't have is what you might expect when you think of accordions: an Old World master, hunched over beneath a lamp with sawdust in his hair, wearing a shellac-stained apron and magnifying glasses to make all of an accordion's tiny innards look larger.

Instead, there's Dorie Byrne. She's 33 and plays in a trio of bands. On Friday, just before lunch, she was fixing an accordion strap wearing a vintage mechanic's shirt, bandanna, and chemistry lab goggles. She had a Rosie the Riveter look, and it fit.

"I'm just riveting this stupid thing," Byrne said, tapping a little hammer on a leather strap.

This is not your opa from Bavaria's antiquated accordion ship. All employees at Liberty Bellows are in their 30s, reviving machines often older than their parents with their bare hands. Reid Hoffman, the tattooed technician upstairs, is 39, so technically he's Gen X.

Owner Mike Bulboff is 35 and probably could have one day been chairman of the Fed had he not gone rooting around in his attic as a teenager. The Northeast Philadelphia native studied computer science at Princeton and applied economics afterward at Wharton and did time on Wall Street.

Today he's in a band called Polkadelphia, making music he says goes well with beer.

Bulboff was always a musician, like his father, Henry Zacny, but his introduction to the accordion has a Hollywood feel to it. His father played in the Duffy String Band and died when Bulboff was just 5. When he was about 17, Bulboff found his father's old Sano accordion, forgotten in the attic, and couldn't believe how much sound it made. Now he's teaching his son, 5-year-old Reed, to play.

"It's the best instrument to learn. You have everything right there in your hands," he said.

The shop first opened in the Italian Market in 2009, and Bulboff had to expand quickly, opening the Queen Village location in 2013.

"We like to think we take a lot of things that are really not useful and we make them useful," Bulboff said. "There's no one else in Philly doing it, and we ship all around the world. They are out there. They are in people's basements, in their attics. I always say, if you shake a family tree hard enough, an accordion falls out."

Accordion infrastructure is intimidating, even for skilled players, and that's why all of the technicians at Liberty Bellows were busy, even on a Friday, when no one's supposed to be busy. Bulboff offers an apprenticeship, typically for a couple of years, training employees to become technicians.

"I think it would be easier to build a ship in a bottle," Bulboff said.

Techs were mostly tuning, flexing the thin leather strips that open and close reeds until the sound was clean in both directions. They were drilling and soldering and blowing out dust and resealing bellows, the accordion's lungs, and Byrne held up pieces of a concertina, a handheld accordion, revealing words written inside in Cyrillic, from another era perhaps.

Salesman Dustin Beck said the tools of the accordion technician's trade are similar to a woodworker's. He holds up a small scraper, then grabs a stick with a metal hook at the end called a twister.

"This is to put the little edges on. I could explain it further," Beck said, with a laugh. "They're all little things that are accordion-centric."

Beck is usually on eBay selling and looking for parts. Liberty Bellows shipped to Brazil, Guatemala, and Australia just last week, and all day, accordions are accompanied by the sound of packing tape.

Accordions often are tuned specifically for different cultures, some for Irish, Russian, or Italian folk music. There's polka, of course, and norteno players are some of the biggest customers.

Liberty Bellows does sell T-shirts, featuring the Rocky statue with a concertina spread between its gloves, but American kids just aren't dreaming of becoming Frankie Yankovic or "Weird Al" Yankovic, two legends connected by bellows but not blood.

"We're the only people who have this strange stigma with it," Beck said. "Everywhere else in the world, this is just an instrument. Except for here."

narkj@phillynews.com

215-854-5916 @jasonnark

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