SINGING THE SHEET MUSIC BLUES

Interview: Stephanie Rinaldo and Rick Starr

By Uncle Ruthie Buell

One of my favorite, regular stops on my way home from my job as music teacher for The Blind Children's Center, is a modest store in a strip mall on Sunset Boulevard. I greet the proprietors, Stephanie Rinaldo and Rick Starr, who have been behind the counters there forever, and then I buy piano instruction books, harmony and theory books, music paper, and always song sheets and songbooks not on my list but which I must have! I usually chat with Rick and Stephanie and do a lot of laughing, but today I am here for a very serious purpose. I try to ignore the frighteningly wild shirt that Rick is wearing as I prepare to talk with these two very dear people about the possible demise of their store. Hollywood Sheet Music, is a store which is precious not only to me, but to every musician, piano teacher and student, singer, performer, arranger, and composer in Los Angeles. Seated on a high stool with two familiar and now very serious faces close to my microphone, I start my recording.

UR: This is Uncle Ruthie Buell, and I am here at Hollywood Sheet Music and it suddenly occurs to me that I don't know everything I should know about this place. First of all, Stephanie, are you the original owner?

SR: I consider myself the third (I'm really the fourth) and I'm sure Dick and Don, the previous owners, would say that too. Because the second owner, was actually,-- I only know his first name-Van--- bought the store from the original owner which was Tony Stecheson.

UR: How long has the store been here?

SR: Since, I think, 1965. The second owner, Tony was ready to retire and sold it to Van and Van moved it around the corner from the original location (it was originally on Cahuenga) and moved it over to Cole Place, a little side street just around the block, and Van pretty much owned that whole block. He had recording studios and rehearsal studios, and thought, I think, that the sheet music business would be kind of a neat store to have along with his recording studios and practice rooms and such, but he found out it was not an easy business. He didn't know the business. And so he sold it, I think it was just a year later, sold it to Dick and Don--everybody pretty much knows Dick and Don; Richard Cotterman and Donald Wonders. So they bought it, I think it was in '83. And when they bought it, Dick and Don both knew they wanted me to work there. But since they had bought the store, they didn't have the money at that time, so -they used to tease me and say they ate a lot of cheese sandwiches until they could afford to bring me in-which was in '85, so I started in '85. And I worked there for ten years, and in '95. I bought it.-Rick, when did you come in?

RS: '88.

SR: Rick came in in '88. And actually--(just a very short history-- Dick had actually worked for my father at a music publisher's. My Dad worked for a music publisher -

UR: So you grew up in the music business.

SR Yes, and my mom was a singer. She was from West Virgina but moved to New York City. Her name was Virginia McCaleb and she was what they called back then, a "professional singer" and she was a Methodist, but all the synagogues hired her to sing for the High Holy Days.

UR: And the other constant factor here is Rick Starr-- Stephanie and Rick are the two people you will always find here-and, Rick, how long have you been working here?
RS: Since 1988. Before I was an actor and a stage manager.

UR: What did you do before, Stephanie?

RS: She was a little whippersnapper!

SR: From the time I could walk-my grandparents--I have to backtrack to my favorite history for a little bit-- my grandparents on my mother's side-they couldn't take the cold weather any more so my parents moved them to Florida, and opened up a music store. So, from the time I could walk, I was working in a music store.

UR: Do you play an instrument?

SR: I call myself a closet piano player

UR: That must be very stuffy, playing in the closet. (laughter)

SR: It is. You know I didn't have electronic keyboards back then, so can you imagine the spinet in the closet? I had to turn it up on end. (more laughter) It was kind of fun, you know, cause since I had a whole music store -- I tried the trumpet out-I got to play on all the instruments.

UR: So when you worked there you must have had a lot of knowledge to help all the customers.

SR: I didn't actually work there. I was in school, and my Dad got transferred out here to work for a publisher so when I got out of school I came out here and worked for a publisher. I've always been in the music business.

UR: So, Rick, you came here from acting. Acting is a difficult way to make a living at out here, isn't it?

RS: Well, I was a young character person, and in those days they didn't really have much room for me in the movies, I came here to do a movie and so, as I realized I had to make a living, this is my background, this is what I'm interested in.

UR: Do you play an instrument?

RS: My dad was a musician so he taught me saxophone, flute, accordion, and piano.

UR: WOW!

RS: That's enough! (laughter)

UR: Well, when we help this place to stay open we'll have to put a piano in here.

SR: We have a piano!

UR: Where is it?

SR: It's around the back. We kinda keep it hidden just because it's always those people who can't play who always make themselves at home at the piano. If you look at the sign, it says "PLEASE NO CONCERTS."

RS: Or teaching. Sometimes teachers will sit down at the piano and start teaching.

UR: So you both have been together here for...

SR: Oh Gosh, we've been together here for so long people think we're married-

UR: Well, you have a kind of a marriage!

SR: Yes, we fight like husband and wife.

UR: What do you fight about the most?

RS: It changes on a day to day basis!

SR: There isn't any one thing!

UR: I don't remember how long I've been coming here!

RS: I remember you from the old store

UR: I just remember if I wanted any kind of music I came here, and in coming here I found ... all sorts of other kinds of music. You know, I remember how nice you were to me one day when you had to refuse to let me copy even one verse of a song, because of the copyright laws. You said you couldn't break the copyright law even for me!

RS: You mean they copyrighted Stephanie's niceness? (laughter)

SR: Technically you cannot copy even one verse -you know what I told this LA Times writer the other day? We used to be one of the few stores that totally protected the copyright ...

UR: Oh, you are, indeed. I know that!

SR: You know, a really famous person in music called up and wanted us to copy a song for him. And he was an official in a big music organization! And quite a few in the music industry have asked us to do that. Some of the writers are the worst.

UR: Well let's talk about the store and what you have in it. You have sheet music, all the standards, song books and fake books, and classical.  As a piano teacher this is where I come to get all my music books.

SR: Yes, we carry all the methods books-for adults and for children.

UR: And movie and TV music. And here's where the problem of the internet comes in. When people can't find something, you've always been the ones who order it for them and know where to find it.

SR: Yeah, with our knowledge and with our tie-ins with a lot of the publishers -even if it's out of print, sometimes we've been able to track it down.

RS: I like to say I know where all the bodies are buried!

UR: It's a wonderful store, because even though they say you can browse on the internet, you really can't, not real browsing!. If you come in here for just one thing, you discover new music that you suddenly want. And songs that you've wanted for years, you find here. Not to mention the nice people you meet here! It's a very warm and social place. So what has happened? Because this interview is happening at a very sad time. So, exactly what is putting Hollywood Sheet Music in so much danger?

SR: I think primarily it's the Internet. In all the trade magazines I was constantly hearing that the Internet made the playing field level, but it hasn't. With sheet music, the youth of today-- they don't care about the packaging. I know when I go to buy a CD, I love to see the liner notes and read about everybody involved with the CD-the preparation, all the musicians, ‘cause you know, a lot of the time, we know the people that were involved, so its great to see their names acknowledged. But with the Internet, with the kids today, it's all about instant gratification. You know, they spend all their time behind the computer.

UR: Well, what about sheet music?

SR: Oh they can download that!

RS: But in the category of the books and everything, people don't want to leave their houses, they don't want to leave their computers, so they sit there and they order it online which has cut us out of the business.

UR: So the people who just order off the Internet are the reason?

SR: But the Internet too, it's also the illegal stuff from the Internet, just like with CDs and DVDs you know there's a lot of illegal stuff out there that can be downloaded , and, you know, the Internet has just gotten so large, like with the CDs, they just can't enforce it,-- and, just to continue on with the Internet, one of the things that kept coming up with a friend of mine, who put up a Hollywood Sheet Music Blog, and probably, five or six times, people were saying, "You need a web presence!" And I had to just finally say, nicely, "We had a website, on E Commerce, for five years, and nobody shopped! I was getting fifteen hundred hits a day but it didn't develop into orders so I had to just finally shut it down, like two or three months ago, and also too, as I was telling somebody else about the Internet too when you order on the internet, whoever you're ordering it from, a lot of times, it's not a real store, it's a virtual store. It doesn't mean that that item you want is there-they're going to turn around and order it themselves from a distributor, so, bottom line, if you're going to order from somebody, at least order from somebody in your community,--if you're here in LA, don't order from somebody back in New York, support your local community.

UR: That's happening everywhere, to repair a machine we have to call India.

RS: This was just last week. There was a gentleman here and he started a conversation with another lady next to him, and we didn't have what she wanted. So he proceeded to tell her the exact procedure to go on the Internet and get it for free.

UR: Right in front of you!

RS: Right in front of me! I said, "Are you really wanting to put me on the unemployment line?" He thought he was doing her a big service!

UR : He sure was! Well I remember I once sent one LP, this was way back, to somebody who had been very nice to me, and she wrote back and said ."I LOVED your record, and I made forty copies of it for all my friends." (laughter)

RS: And, you know, people think that this stuff just appears. They don't have any concept of how a writer sits down and slaves over it and--

UR: They think they're honoring you by telling you they're going to copy it....So, let's talk about who were all the different people who came here before the net began impacting you.

SR: Oh gosh ! Everybody!

UR: Give me the categories.

RS: Practically every piano teacher in town, to the biggest stars-Barry Manilow, Liza Minelli, Bette Midler, Julie Andrews, I mean everybody who sang, came here..Michael Jackson--

UR: Music Students?

SR: Students. Yeah. And all the studios.

RS: We were sort of like an arm of Musicians Institute, because they didn't want to carry their own books. And we had them here and then they decided to carry their books. And then they decided not to carry their books...

UR: Where do the studios get their stuff now?

SR: From the internet.. Musicians Institute-- the students there used to be, probably, the largest group of customers-very rarely do we see a student from Musicians Institute any more.

RS; And students from Japan, they'd come in and think nothing of dropping five hundred dollars in a day.

SR: Yeah, they're that generation, the Internet Generation!

UR: So now that we know what's hurting you, what are some of the things you've done to try to fix things? I know you had a concert. Who sang at the concert?

RS: All the wonderful cabaret people in town, Andrea Montevicci, the incredible composer, Paul Horner, Jason Grau, who's a big cabaret singer, Ray Jessup? You know Ray Jessup,

UR: No I don't know him.

SR: Oh, because he's got that same humor in writing that you have.

UR: Are you going to have another concert by any chance?

SR: At the time that the first one was planned there were two or three people who wanted to do something, like Sue Rainey. Sue Rainy wanted to do something at the Jazz Bakery

UR: But there has to be something else. It can't be just rescue concerts. That really won't change the problem.

SR; See, that's it. Concerts are just band aids. And we were talking the other day with a good friend of Rick's. A couple of people were having the idea of maybe, like a coffee shop. I know there are Starbucks everywhere. But this friend, Billy Zane the actor, was in the other day and he thought it would be a cool idea to have a coffee shop where theater people and musicians could hang out, and network, so you know, we could get a niche that way.

UR: And you've also talked about having a studio.

SR: Yes, I'm thinking I don't really need all this space back here, so I ‘m thinking we could probably get three studios in here, maybe.

UR: And you'd let teachers rent the studios for teaching?

RS: And also for rehearsal rooms, that's how they do it at other places.

SR: We always have people asking for practice rooms, but really, for a teacher, you'd want the room to be booked up for the whole day so you wouldn't be worrying if someone was going to come in or not, to practice. But that's a definite possibility. Of course, the main problem now is the money.

UR: The rents here must be very, very high.

SR: Actually, for Sunset Boulevard, it's always been good, but there are new owners-- that happened six months ago.

UR: Don't new owners always raise your rent?

RS: It's in their handbook. "New Owner-Raise Rent!" (laughter)

UR: Is it permissible to ask you what the rent is?

SR: Thirty one hundred a month. But this is unusual, because most strip mall businesses pay a "cam" fee, I think that's what it's called., but this has been just a flat rate. Cam fee includes maintenance, and insurance, a percentage. And you know. Even with the economy being what it is, most landlords just don't care, they just jack up the rent and they don't care, I don't think they really care. They don't care that that they've had a good tenant here for sixteen years. They don't care just as long as they pay the rent on time.

UR: So right now what's going on? I notice you have very little stock here.

SR: Well, it's the whole cash flow. If you don't have a cash flow, then you can't bring in the inventory.

UR: So what are you hoping to do now?

SR: It needs to be redeveloped. Obviously, because business has been so slow we've incurred some debts---

UR: There should be like a redevelopment committee, right?

SR: That's basically it. A friend of mine's parents are contractors and they've said already that they'd donate the labor. And we'd have the practice rooms, and stockwise, probably what I might change is not have the single sheets, like I did because that's taking up a lot of space and we could just download almost all of it now. But books you can't download, and I'd still want to keep all the books.

UR: But we'd all miss the single sheets!

SR: Yeah, well, you know, we might do like a top fifty, or something.

UR: Well you know I come in here and browse, and I see all those single sheets and I'm always saying, Oh, wow, Look at that song, I've forgotten all about it. I've gotta have it!

SR: Still, that takes up a lot of space. Look at those bookcases. We used to have overstock because business was so good; now they're barren. So I'm thinking we could change everything around and make more room like a bookstore, and put the lesson rooms back here where all those shelves are.

UR: I like the coffee shop idea.

SR: I think it's a neat idea...But that's not my expertise-I know the sheet music business, so I'd have to take a partner for along that other line.

UR: All right, so here's the painful question-if we don't save Hollywood Sheet Music, what are you and Rick going to do?

SR: Well, you know, I don't know. As I told you, I grew up in this business. This is the only business I've known. I've never ever in my entire life had to look for a job, just because I had a job with my dad and the publisher he worked for and the guys who worked for my dad, they came to me-I didn't have to look for the job-I love the business -though it has changed tremendously.

UR: Well what's sad is the thought of losing the store, and everything it stands for. I would so much miss coming in and not just browsing and visiting with you guys, but everything I have ever needed for teaching piano, or for my own performing, is right here in this magical place.

SR: I know­­. I would have thought a music publisher, if anything, that's known us for years and years, and one publisher in particular-- any time the sales rep would come in town or even the bigwigs from the publisher would come into town, they'd always stop here, just to look around and see what's going on. And you would have thought that somebody like them would say, "You know what? Let's partner!"

UR: You know what? People aren't doing things like that anymore--.there's so much greed and so little caring.

SR: I think the publishers are worried themselves.

UR: We don't have a sense of community anymore

SR: Well, it only takes one person to start changing it.

UR: Well I hope that person comes along.

SR: There's one publisher left in Los Angeles, Alfred. In a conversation with somebody there I was saying. "You know, if this goes bye bye, I'll probably be applying for a job there!"

UR: So Rick, if this goes belly-up, what's going to happen to Rick?

(Rick makes a funny, but less than printable remark about a possible specialized line of work on Santa Monica Boulevard) (much laughter). Seriously Rick, what would you do?

RS: I don't know. (Rick's face suddenly looks older and sadder.)

SR: It's just like-I told somebody the other day -you know, it's not the adult thing I know but I just can't believe this is going to disappear.

RS: I can't either.

(For a brief second or two, Stephanie, a strong woman, looks to be on the verge of tears. It is very hard to look at her face.)

SR: I mean, this store is so unique-there is no other store like this-this is a one of a kind store, and I just can't believe (Stephanie has to stop talking for a second) something's not going to happen.

UR: A lot of us can't believe it. How can I not come here after school and say "I need so and so book for my kids"

RS: I know, it hurts us when we have to say no to a customer, it really does hurt.

UR: When something that's part of your life is gone, it's so sad--so we'll all still try!

SR: Yes, I'm not giving up!

RS: Hope springs eternal!

SR: Whatever happens, I'm not giving up!

 

I left Hollywood Sheet Music feeling as if a small but important part of my life was about to end. I'm hoping to interest many of the artists I know in doing a second concert. But, as Stephanie says, concerts are nice, but they are band aids. Having a coffee shop, lesson and practice studio, or maybe also a performance space-all of these are great ideas. Joining up with a publisher would also be good. Maybe some of you singers, songwriters, composers, arrangers and teachers out there have some creative ideas about how to keep this Hollywood landmark alive.

You can contact Stephanie and Rick at 323-850-1075 or www.hollywoodsheetmusic.com. Better still, drop into the store, soon, at 7777 W. Sunset Blvd, tell them you care, and maybe even share some good ideas with them.