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FREEHOLD TOWNSHIP – Freehold Music Center−Musical Instruments & Lesson Studio, whose clientele over the past 73 years has included students, amateur guitarists, up-and-coming musicians and legends, will close at the end of the month, its owner said.
Bill Marinella, the owner, who himself has worked at the store for more than 40 years, said the store operated on a month-to-month lease. His landlord has lined up a new tenant who is willing to sign a long-term lease for the space.
“I’m 68 years old,” he said Friday. “I’m not ready to commit to another long-term lease.”
Freehold Music Center at the Freehold Mall on Route 9 sells instruments such as guitars and drums, provides repairs and offers lessons. And it’s a branch of an iconic store founded by Michael Deal, whose music students include Bruce Springsteen.
(Freehold Music Center−Pianos, a Route 9 subsidiary whose owners include Diehl’s grandson, Chris, remains open).
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The instrument and studio business has been hurt in recent years by online shopping and COVID-19, when, Marinella said, the store closed for three months and missed a wave of consumers who became isolated and decided to learn to play guitar.
Since announcing its closing in a Facebook post on Feb. 5, longtime customers have been drawn to the store, buying discounted instruments and reminiscing about taking their kids there for lessons or finding just the right guitar.
More than a hobby
Gab Cinque, 22, of Freehold Township, stopped in for a day last week to buy a 12-string guitar.
Cinque said she bought her first guitar and took music lessons at the store. She didn’t grow up in a musical family, but she befriends employees there who launch her on the path to her current profession as the lead singer of the Gab Cinque Band, a rock group that launches in 2022.
“My dad used to take me there and before I could even play anything, I was looking at the instruments and wishing I could,” Cinque said. “It’s sad to see a place where I started making music go.”
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Marinella grew up in Union Beach and Aberdeen and was taught how to play the accordion by his grandmother. He hated it. But he learned the basics of how to read music. And he transferred his skills to the organ and piano, taking lessons from musicians he describes as heavy hitters and becoming proficient enough to become a touring musician.
He joined a rock band called The Box Tops and toured North America for three years before returning to Monmouth County to seek permanent employment. He was one of 50 people who applied for three positions at the Freehold Music store in Monmouth Mall, and was hired, first selling pianos and then overseeing a new part of the business: non-piano instruments.
In 1992, Michael Diehl decided to split the business between pianos and other instruments and sold the non-piano business to Marinella. The two continued to work together in Freehold Township under the same roof.
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Marinella worked almost every day, while still playing in a local band on the weekends. Although the store faced increasing competition from chains, “I could handle it because the customer still had to get in their car and go to the store,” Marinella said. “We had a lot of knowledge because we were all musicians. It’s what we do and what we’ve always done.”
The business model doesn’t hold up. The Internet began to suck away customers. And the Freehold Music Center made way for an Aldi supermarket and moved to two separate locations: Musical Instruments & Lesson Studios found a new space in the Freehold Mall, and Pianos opened two miles away on Route 9.
“It was kind of bittersweet”
The pandemic was another blow. Users remained isolated with a lot of time on their hands. But they turned online to buy tools. Online retailer Sweetwater said its customers grew from just under 1 million in 2019 to 1.5 million in 2020, and sales topped $1 billion for the first time in the company’s 42-year history.
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Freehold Music has reopened, but Marinella said it is struggling to be profitable. When the landlord told him there was a new tenant for the space, he decided to close rather than move, noting that it would be expensive to replace the store’s existing studios.
“When they told me I had 30 days to get out, it was kind of bittersweet,” Marinella said. “I was awake at night with my eyes open, (thinking), I’m really going to miss this. I will miss my clients and getting up every day to go somewhere and do something. It’s going to be a big change.”
“But as time goes on, I’m coming to terms with it,” he said. “Because at 68, it’s probably enough. It’s a tough business, isn’t it? It’s really hard.”
Michael L. Diamond is a business reporter who has covered the New Jersey economy and health care for more than 20 years. He can be reached at [email protected].