small-business stories

The South Bronx Music Shop That’s Surviving on Guitar Sales

Illustration: Jeanne Verdoux

On a recent July afternoon, a customer walked into Casa Amadeo, a record store in the Longwood section of the Bronx belonging to the 86-year-old musician Miguel Angel “Mike” Amadeo. It had been a month since he’d reopened after a three-month closure. “I’m looking for that song that goes ‘Y no hago más na’,’ ” the guy told Amadeo, who immediately knew what he was referring to. The song is from the salsa orchestra El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Amadeo said, and while he hummed another of the group’s hits (“Yo no soy médico, ni abogado, ni tampoco ingeniero / Ay pero tengo swing”), he began browsing through his stacks of hundreds of CDs to find the one with that track.

A store selling CDs in 2020 is hard to imagine. And a store selling Latin CDs in 2020, in the middle of a pandemic in the Bronx, even harder. The business, which opened in 1969, has, in fact, suffered for years — long before the pandemic forced it to temporarily close. Two decades ago, Amadeo managed to take in $5,000 to $6,000 per week. In the last year, his weekly net was closer to $900. And despite the store’s fame (and his personal success: He has written over 200 compositions for everyone from Héctor Lavoe to Celia Cruz), for the past five years, Amadeo has not been able to afford an employee. “The fact that I closed for three months didn’t really do anything,” he says. “Because the harm was already done.”

Since Casa Amadeo has reopened, though, he’s noticed a change: He’s now selling over ten guitars a month, when he usually sells only around three. And since the instruments cost anywhere from $60 to $895, it’s adding up to a substantial increase in his monthly sales. “If you’re in your house and have nothing to do, if you have a guitar, you can entertain yourself,” he says. Parents are coming to buy them for their children, who are not in school, and the children, he says, are uniformly stokeado (“stoked”). It’s gotten to the point where the guitar sales are — almost singularly — keeping the store afloat. It helps, too, that his rent has remained low, thanks to the fact that his building is managed by a community-based organization called Banana Kelly, which was created to rebuild and maintain buildings after the Bronx fires in the ’70s. (Back in 2008, then–Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. and Congressman José Serrano asked Banana Kelly to lower Amadeo’s rent from $2,000 to about $1,000 a month, according to the Hunts Point Express). And his longtime customers seem eager to find reasons to spend: Amadeo says that one came in, told him he was bored of listening to the same music at home, and purchased $400 worth of CDs. (Though not everyone is willing to lay down that kind of money. So many people ask for discounts that Amadeo, who finds haggling irritating, has been forced to hang a sign near checkout that says, in Spanish, “If you’d like to put a price on the merchandise, start your own business.”)

Since reopening, he says, the landline has rung continuously. “They probably imagine I died,” Amadeo jokes. But since he didn’t, he plans to keep doing things exactly as he did before. He does not, for instance, intend to start accepting credit cards. Nor does he intend to take his strictly brick-and-mortar business online. (“I want customers to come here. I want to see their faces,” he says.) His friends are slowly starting to creep back in on Friday afternoons, like they did before the pandemic, to have a drink and chat (not too long ago, it wasn’t unusual for salsa-music stars like Cruz, Eddie Palmieri, or Willie Colón to stop in to ask Amadeo for advice, inspiration, or the lyrics for a track). And though business isn’t great, he says he’ll keep working 12 hours a day, six days a week, until he can’t any longer: “I don’t wanna sit and wait till death comes around. I’m facing life here until God decides.”

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*This article appears in the August 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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The South Bronx Music Shop That’s Surviving on Guitar Sales