Paul Ash, President of Music Store Chain, Dies at 84

February 11, 2014 | Alumni

By DOUGLAS MARTIN

February 11, 2014

Sam Ash preferred playing the violin to being an entrepreneur, and he said no when his sons, Jerome and Paul, asked him to expand beyond his single musical instrument store in Brooklyn.

But five years after Sam died in 1956, the sons opened the family’s first branch store, in Hempstead, N.Y. It was just the beginning.

Today, 46 Sam Ash music stores are scattered across the United States, selling instruments, recording equipment, sound and lighting gear, guitar picks and much more. The biggest is the 30,000-square-foot superstore the company opened last year on West 34th Street in Manhattan to replace its cluttered patchwork of stores on West 48th Street.

Paul Ash, who died of a heart attack on Feb. 4 in Syosset, N.Y., at 84, collaborated with his brother, who is four years older, to make Sam Ash Music the nation’s largest family-owned chain of musical instrument stores. At his death, which was announced by his nephew Robert Abrams, Paul was president of Sam Ash; Jerry, as Jerome is known, is chairman.

Operational control of the company has passed to a third generation of Ashes, while a fourth generation is increasingly involved.

Paul J. Ash — he said his birth certificate had only an initial, though his mother had intended to give him the middle name Jay — was born on March 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, and grew up in an apartment divided into living quarters and a 500-square-foot store, Paul’s first playground. At 9, he began unpacking merchandise and accompanying his father on deliveries all over Brooklyn.

He was part of a family-cum-business story that has become legend. His parents, born Sam Ashkynase and Rose Dinin, emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York as children and married in 1924. Mr. Ash, who legally shortened his name, was a cutter in the garment industry but hated the work. He liked playing the violin, and started the Sam Ash Orchestra to play weddings, dances and bar mitzvahs.

Mrs. Ash decreed that music was too precarious a way to make a living. So the couple decided to start a business, and pawned her engagement ring for start-up capital. (She eventually got it back.) The first Sam Ash store, in the Brownsville section, opened in 1924 with a few windup phonographs, a paltry selection of sheet music and a violin or two.

The two brothers and their sister, Marcia, helped in the store and around the house from an early age. Business was not helped by an out-of-the-way location, and the introduction of inexpensive radios decimated the phonograph business. “A good week was when we sold one instrument,” Paul said in an interview with The Music Trades magazine in 1994.

In 1944 they moved the store to another location in Brownsville, where sales were better. They added band instruments and began to deliver sheet music to schools. Later, Sam, who remained a professional musician, grasped the impact of rock ’n’ roll and profited by quickly adding guitars to his line.

Sam assigned 15-year-old Paul to start a record department. Paul stocked the store by working out a deal to buy records at 10 percent over cost, a small markup, from larger stores in Manhattan. A few years later, when the store was finally able to buy directly from the major record companies, the record department accounted for half of its sales volume. The business later disintegrated because of sharp competition from record discounters like Sam Goody.

Paul served in the Army from 1953 to 1955, then earned a bachelor’s degree in business at Baruch College. He and Jerry came up with ideas like advertising in the musicians’ union newspaper and combing the union’s roster to decide where to hand-deliver promotional materials. Personal services like repairing instruments overnight and tracking down obscure sheet music enhanced the company’s reputation.

By the end of the 1950s, Paul and Jerry had determined that half their customers were coming into Brooklyn from Long Island suburbs. Paul scouted locations and settled on Hempstead. The store they opened there in 1961 became one of the chain’s most successful.

Suburban expansion continued, and by 1969 Sam Ash had stores in Huntington, N.Y., and White Plains, in addition to Brooklyn and Hempstead. That same year it took over a small space on West 48th Street, long the center of the musical instrument business. Paul then personally contacted everyone on the block and managed to find a much bigger space, the first of several.

The Music Trades said his success in establishing a strong position on the street “transformed Sam Ash Music almost overnight, from a struggling suburban chain into a retail dynamo.”

By 1990, the company had eight stores in the New York area, and in 1992 it moved beyond the region for the first time by opening a store in Cherry Hill, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia.

Paul Ash’s marriage to Ada Moore, a jazz singer, ended in divorce. In addition to his brother and his sister, Marcia Ash Abrams, he is survived by his wife, Nobuko Narita, known as Cobi, a founder of the Universal Jazz Coalition, which provides help to musicians.

Paul, who lived on Long Island in Upper Brookville, never learned to play an instrument.

Originally published by The New York Times