In One of the Last Classical Music Stores, CDs Still Rock – Texas Monthly

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In the fall of 2008, a month after Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas, I attended a classical concert at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and heard, for the first time, the Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček. It’s a wild and joyous twenty-minute adrenaline rush, calling fourteen trumpeters in two groups, one standing, and asking them to blast exuberant fanfare into the ears of the audience. A few days later, I went to a store specializing in the sale of classical music CDs and bought a copy of the Sinfonietta to hear it again.

It was a time when if you wanted to hear a piece of music, you decided to buy a CD of it, and the way to buy the CD was to go to a real store, browse the shelves, make a purchase at a staffed cash register and tear off the shrink wrap. It sounds like a fable from the distant past. But against all odds, the store I visited still exists.

Classical Music of Spring, as it is now called, is a time warp and survival tale. It’s a brick-and-mortar store in historic downtown Spring, one block from CorkScrew BBQ, that offers a selection of new classic CDs, along with a few used albums, Broadway and movie soundtracks, as well as DVDs and Blu-rays of opera and ballet productions. It does not sell instruments, sheet music or guitar strings. Just recordings.

This is such a rare business model that it is difficult to gauge how many competitors remain. When I asked owner Michael Sumbera if he knew of any other independent classic CD stores, his eyes narrowed and he looked away.

“I’ve heard rumors about one,” he finally said, the tone you might use as you drive through downtown Houston looking for a parking space. “In Berkeley [California]. According to the distributors I work with, it’s basically just us. (The rumor is true, though this store, unlike Classical Music of Spring, has an attached cafe and an online Amazon storefront.)

The fact that Classical Music of Spring is still around is a miracle, and not just because of its niche. Original owner Joel Greenspan opened the store as Joel’s Classical Shop in Houston in 2002. Greenspan had started out as the classic guy at a big-box chain called Sound Warehouse, which – alarm bells – was acquired by Blockbuster. As major retailers consolidated and diversified, Greenspan opened his own store to continue specializing in the music he knew and loved.

Sumbera, a trained musicologist, has become a regular with Joel. One day he walked in and Greenspan complained that the assistant trader had just quit. Sumbera was looking for a part-time job, and that was it.

Greenspan sold Joel’s to Sumbera in 2011 and died of colon cancer two years later. Then Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, wiping out $60,000 in inventory and a priceless collection of rare marketing promotional albums. Five weeks after landing, the lease expired.

“The previous owner charged below market rate to keep the place filled,” Sumbera explained. “The new owner wanted the market rate, and we weren’t doing the business to afford it.” As the floodwaters receded, he packed up everything undamaged and took it north to Spring, moving the business to a little old house which, because it sits on land belonging to the Sumbera family, is free.

Many of the store’s customers followed him, but Sumbera still mourns the loss of some who did not have cars and traveled by public transport. The store was never really about shopping; it was more of a community center or music lounge, where classical music enthusiasts gathered to chat about their favorite artists, discuss new releases, and listen to albums on the store’s speakers.

It’s a meeting place, thought Sumbera. “People don’t just walk in and flip through the stacks, take a few recordings, buy them and walk away. People stay and chat.

I stayed and chatted for half an hour on a recent visit, delighted that aside from moving north, the spring classical music has hardly changed. Sumbera released an album – Rodion Shchedrin’s mad, slapstick rewrite of the opera Carmen– as I leafed through the shelves. The novelty wall and neatly organized shelves tempted me to walk away with a bag of treats. Some of the inventory, however, has been around for a long time. Between two new CD cases, I found a perfectly flattened dead insect, practically fossilized.

Traffic is slow these days. No one else visited while I was in the store or when I called Sumbera the following week. He described a typical day this way: “A few people come in; I get a few phone calls. Things speed up after the Houston Symphony concerts, when attendees come asking questions about the music they just heard. Unsurprisingly, many of its visitors are older and unwilling to navigate the world of downloads and streaming services.

“But there is also another aspect,” he said. “Classic audiences, I’m not saying they’re all audiophiles, but they want fidelity. They are usually not so concerned about portability.

It would, of course, be better for business if Classical Music of Spring had a website that would allow them to ship CDs nationwide; this is the model adopted by most other independent niche record stores, such as jazz store Louisiana Music Factory and British classical store Presto Music. But the logistics of setting up an online showcase for classical music are damn terrifying.

Consider searching Amazon for a pop album you want to download. You can probably type in “Adele 30” and be done. But the classical world, with composers, soloists, conductors, ensembles and hundreds of compositions with identical names like “Piano Sonata”, is a database programmer’s nightmare. And then there’s the sheer volume of classic recordings coming out. Presto Music, for example, stores 614 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“I don’t think people realize how many classical titles are in print right now,” Sumbera pointed out, before offering a rough estimate: 150,000. Naxos, America’s largest classical music distributor, lists 297 brand new albums arrived in the month of March alone. Sumbera cannot load all of this into an online store on its own, or even integrate inventory into its building.

Like so many other things that are in danger of disappearing in the age of the Internet, the main strength of Classical Music of Spring is its human presence. Sumbera recently helped a client who had heard a piece on the radio and only remembered that there was a violin and the composer’s name started with M. (It turned out to be Max Bruch Scottish fantasy.) And if you want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth, would you rather browse through the 614 options online or go to a store and ask an expert which one to choose?

This human element has already helped revive other record stores across the country. For now – with, thankfully, no rent to pay – Sumbera is making just enough profit to keep going. Whether classical recordings can achieve similar niche success is still unsettled, but Classical Music of Spring has survived too many challenges not to find the answer.

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