Tupper & Reed Music—downtown Berkeley’s oldest business—is closing its doors after 99 years.
“I desperately wanted to make it to 100,” says owner Wayne Anderson, “but I feel sort of relieved that I’ve finally made a decision I should’ve made five years ago.”
“It’s really a shame,” said Deborah Badhia, executive director of the Downtown Berkeley Association. “It’s an important part of downtown Berkeley.”
It’s especially hard for Anderson, who came to Berkeley in 1967 to study at the American Baptist Seminary of the West, paying his way by teaching piano and working part-time as a church musician.
Then one day he walked into Tupper & Reed Music at 2277 Shattuck Ave. to buy a guitar. Four months later, he owned a piece of the business.
“It changed the course of my life,” he said.
And now, 99 years after the business first opened its doors, Anderson is presiding over its demise.
Tupper & Reed has played a vital role in the musical life of Berkeley. Take the clerk who sold Anderson the six-stringer—Thomas Rarick, who two years later became the founding conductor of the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra.
Owner Richard Cartano, another symphony founder, liked Anderson and offered him the job. Rarick, who had taken a leave to study under the great English conductor Sir Adrian Boult, returned to find that his one-time customer had become his boss.
Generations of Berkeley residents have patronized the store, buying everything from Edison Talking Machines to Steinway grand pianos and taking lessons in the basement sound rooms on all manner of instruments.
A diminishing customer base
Founded in the same year as the great San Francisco earthquake, the Shattuck Avenue retailer has been felled by a variety of forces, some national in scale and others specific to doing business in downtown Berkeley.
To begin with, Anderson explains, music stores have a very small potential market—the 5 percent of the population who buy and continue to play musical instruments.
“There are only 9,000 music stores in the United States, and they are dropping like flies,” Anderson said. “Five or six stores within an hour’s drive of here have failed this year.” Stores that do survive are starting to open up space for other in-store businesses, most notably coffee shops.
The number of music stores continues to diminish as cash-strapped schools across the country eliminate music programs. Anderson said it didn’t help his business when Berkeley’s school board eliminated music programs for the fourth, fifth and sixth grades.
Then there are the profit margins, especially for sheet music, which Anderson said are notoriously slender.
Despite its numerous vulnerabilities, Anderson’s not giving up on the music business. Though he’s shuttering his Berkeley store, he will continue to operate Stanroy Music Center in Santa Rosa, a 58-year old business he bought from its founder in 1980. He once owned a third store, in Walnut Creek, which closed when the landlord decided to replace his building with a bigger one.
While his Berkeley store drowned in red ink, the Santa Rosa business continues to thrive, and Anderson has given a lot of thought to the reasons why. At the top of his list are contrasting city policies toward downtown development.
Downtown Berkeley’s Downturn
Downtown Berkeley was an entirely different creature when Anderson first walked into Tupper & Reed. The scene was one of a vibrant commercial culture that drew residents in search of major purchases.
“When I started, there were nice shops downtown,” he said, including a furniture store with five full floors of offerings, a full service hardware store, top-line clothiers and a major department store. “The list is endless.”
“Now you can see a movie, get a cup of coffee, eat a meal and buy a book in downtown Berkeley, and that’s about it,” Anderson said. “And I’m not sure how much longer the bookstores will last.”
Stores complement each other in a strong commercial center, where customers drawn by one store stay to browse and buy at others, he said. But if stores close and landlords can’t replace them, the remaining stores find it harder to survive.
“Ross is our biggest retailer, and you can tell they’re not doing well when you walk through the store,” Anderson said. “I went in to buy shoes last week, and they didn’t have anything in my size. When they first opened, you could barely get in. Their shelves were always full and there were long lines at the checkout counter. But take a look now.”
Anderson points to the shuttered storefronts in his own block, where “we’ve had them continuously since 1980.”
Badhia acknowledges that the lack of concentration of retailers in today’s downtown makes it difficult to create the synergies on which small retailers thrive.
“We have good retail, but it’s spread out,” she said.
Why should Santa Rosa retain a vibrant commercial core while Berkeley’s has fallen to decline? Anderson thinks city parking policies have played a major role in both cases.
“The most difficult thing in Berkeley over the last decade has been the rise in parking rates and the decline in places to park. When the old Hink’s parking lot closed on Kittredge Street last year, our volume dropped by 25 percent,” Anderson said. “That was the final straw.”
“Charging more for parking and raising fines is a quick fix to a city’s financial problems,” Anderson said, “but it risks killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
While parking spaces became fewer and costlier in downtown Berkeley, they became more numerous and mostly free in Santa Rosa.
“They decided in Santa Rosa that they would rely on sales and business taxes instead of parking fees,” building a large free parking structure downtown to encourage patrons of local merchants, Anderson said.
But the unrelenting economic pressures on California cities, created in part by Proposition 13 limits on property taxes and in part by dwindling contributions from state and federal coffers, have started a reevaluation of Santa Rosa’s policies.
“There’s talk of raising parking rates,” Anderson acknowledges. “So Berkeley is just a few years ahead of the curve than Santa Rosa.”
Badhia, of the downtown association, said she had no reason to doubt Anderson’s conclusions about the effect of parking on his business, and was particularly struck by the downturn in his clientele after the Kittredge Street parking structure was closed.
A possible future on-line
Anderson is contemplating one more major change in his business practices. As with so many other businesses, the rise of the Internet also played its role in the music business, and Anderson is the first to admit he should’ve jumped onto the e-tailing bandwagon.
“I stayed out mostly because I don’t like the experience of buying online,” he said, “but I recognize that others don’t feel the same way.”
While he presides over the closing of his Berkeley business, he’s also planning an increased web presence for Stanroy, complete with online ordering. His initial focus will be on sheet music orders.
He also hopes to revive the Tupper & Reed name in the East Bay at some future date, though it won’t be in downtown Berkeley. Anderson said he will finally shutter the Shattuck Avenue store after most of the major items have moved. Then he’ll ship the remaining inventory to Santa Rosa. He estimates the process should take about two months.
“I hate to close, but it was either that or to throw my house and my other store into the business,” he said.