With an unpredictable future looming precariously before them, Rochester-area music stores, in addition to club owners, have been caught in a kind of COVID-19 limbo. In this ongoing series of The F-Word, CITY music writer Frank De Blase finds out how such businesses are staying afloat.
John Bernunzio, owner of Bernunzio Uptown Music on East Avenue, has been an East End fixture for years, a devoted music fan and purveyor of just about anything with strings. And the man has a real affinity for hats, evidenced by the line of Stetson he sells at the store. This is the guy who, after hearing that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s banjo player had lost his instrument in the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, gave the man a replacement when he was scheduled to play the Rochester International Jazz Festival that year.
John Bernunzio with some of his wares.
Before the pandemic, you could stroll into Bernunzio’s store and be immediately awestruck by all the six-string beauties lined up on the walls, like a fine furniture parade of vintage fiddles, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, and guitars. For now, some of these instruments may have to wait a little longer for their turn in the loving arms of the eager musicians who flock to the place.
The showroom at Bernunzio Uptown Music on East Avenue is officially closed for now, another unfortunate and hopefully temporary loss for local musicians in a long line of COVID-19 setbacks. But that’s not to say Bernunzio has completely shut down the operations. The business is still filling orders for instruments by mail, as it has for 40 years, and has begun curbside pick-up and delivery in keeping with physical distancing guidelines. Bernunzio is also selling instruments on consignment.
With the physical store shut down, a lot has changed in a short amount of time. But Bernunzio says it sometimes feels like the old days.
“We still sell a banjo or ukulele now and then,” he says. “The interesting thing is people are making a lot of music at home. They’re doing things from home and so they have some time to play. The downside of the whole thing is that our customers are musicians and their income is seriously curtailed.”
Ultimately, Bernunzio is unclear about when he will be able to open the store again. He does seem to think that there will be irreversible differences in how we consume and communicate through music, even after the pandemic subsides.
“I think smaller venues will be important,” he says. “I can’t see people flocking to giant events, at least for another year, if at all. I think the whole thing is giving us an inward perspective on what is important. Musically, I think everyone has agreed to the importance of it in our lives but how it gets delivered could be drastically changed.”
He adds: “The idea of quarantine and the idea of buying local kind of go hand-in-hand.”
Frank De Blase is CITY's music writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.