Paul Wilson: Pongetti's – after 55 years, the day the music died

Pongetti's Music began on Barton Street East in 1957. It ends, pride intact, at a store on Upper James.
Elena, Rolando and Mark Pongetti have come to the hard decision that it's time to close the family music store. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

He didn’t say it out loud. Mark Pongetti is trying to stay positive about this. But it would not be wrong to believe that his guitar now gently weeps.

Fifty-five years ago his father opened the family music business on Barton East. They stayed on the street 40 years, then did another 15 on Upper James. And now, head held high, it falls to Mark to close it down.

The store, he says, has been buffeted by "the perfect storm."

First, the recession of a few years ago. "Music is a luxury," Mark says, and some couldn’t or wouldn’t buy it anymore.

Second, there’s on-line retailing. We used to walk into a store for expert advice, then make the purchase. Now many do the research on line, click around for the lowest price and wait for FedEx to drop the package at the door. Or head into Costco, Future Shop, Best Buy.

Kids less keen on music

Third – and this is a big one – kids don’t seem as keen to make music anymore. Mark is sure of it.

"Music makes you smarter, it makes you think," he says.

"But it takes effort, time, patience. And now there are cell phones, social media, gaming... It’s so easy to take out the Xbox, and there you go."

Pongetti's moved to the Mountain from Barton Street East 15 years ago. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

The final music classes in the basement at Pongetti’s finished last week. In 2005, the store had 550 kids taking music. Last year it was 260.

"And I see it in the sales of entry-level guitars and drum sets at Christmas," Mark says. "They were substantially down."

Home of the accordion

It was a different world when the store began in 1957. Rolando Pongetti had arrived from Castelfidardo, the town on Italy’s Adriatic coast where the accordion was invented.

In Hamilton, he and wife Elena opened a small shop in their home at Barton and Sanford, selling just accordions and Italian records. A salesman convinced them to put a $325 set of blue Bolero drums in the front window. Those soon sold, so along came the guitars, keyboards, brass and winds.

Music was all around. Rock and roll. Polka bands. Orchestras. And every child at least tried to learn an instrument at school. The Pongetti kids – Debbie, Mark, Larry – were on stage young. (Mark tells you the guitar is his instrument, but he also knows his way around the bass, mandolin, drums, piano.)

Pongetti's first just sold accordions and Italian records. Drums came next. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

In 1985 the store moved to bigger premises on Barton, near Ottawa. Then, in 1997, a final to the Mountain. Barton East was in great decline.

Rolando had this comment at the time: "I can’t say much against this street. It brought up my family. It gave me lots. But it can’t give me much any more."

Move to the Mountain

So they opened on Upper James, just south of Mohawk and saw a dramatic increase in sales. And then, that perfect storm.

In the old days, the young guys used to come in and say, "Hi, Mr. Pongetti, how ya doing?" Sometimes they’d start playing and singing, right there in the store. He loved that.

But Rolando’s world is smaller now. He can no longer play the accordion, or banter with customers or understand the business world.

Fortunately, he still has Elena. She has always been part of the business, bookkeeping and helping out on the retail floor. "After working for so many years, it’s hard to see it close," she says. "It’s heartbreaking."

The retirement banners just went up. The doors will close sometime after Christmas. "We’re leaving on our own terms," Mark says. "We’re proud of the Pongetti name." | @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson.