By Stephanie Powell
“What’s on your mind?” asks Heidi Rogers, owner of Frank Music Company, “What do you want to ask me?”
It’s been a long week. March 6 marked the last day Rogers would handwrite a receipt, tie it up in a blue envelope, and send a customer on his or her way, sheet music in hand. Frank Music Co.—referred to colloquially as Frank’s by regulars—the last sheet-music store in New York shuttered its doors and closed for business.
Rogers, whose warm tone does a fine job hiding any indication of the recent loss of her “life’s purpose,” says that the decision to close first surfaced nearly two years ago.
“What happens is you buy and sell, buy and sell, buy and sell,” Rogers says, “and if I was going to stay in business, I had to keep buying inventory. It was kind of a vicious cycle.”
Describing herself as a perfectionist, Rogers couldn’t image having musicians like Joshua Bell or Christian Tetzlaff walking in and asking for a specific concerto and not having the inventory on hand. Buying inventory was one of her beloved pastimes.
“I could have been a little less enthusiastic but I always loved buying inventory,” Rogers says with a laugh, noting that she once spent $25,000 in one day on sheet music at a festival in Germany in the mid-’90s. “I’d rather do that than go to Bloomingdales and buy clothing.”
Ultimately, she says, it may have been one of her principal downfalls.
That and the arrival of the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP )—which allows users to download sheet music for free.
“IMSLP really changed everything, you know, the Internet I could kind of deal with,” Rogers says, “but there’s no way to deal with file-sharing—that’s just death for any business.
“By the time I got to be 60 I saw the handwriting on the wall. This wasn’t going to be any good anymore. So I started being a little more judicious, but I didn’t stop replacing important stuff and, of course, I bought new things, but I stopped gambling quite so much because I just couldn’t afford to.”
Rogers bought the store at age 26 from its original owner Frank Marx. She says that she didn’t grow up dreaming of owning her of business.
“Look,” she says, “when I was in third grade I didn’t say, ‘Oh boy! When I grow up I want to own a music store!’”
But Rogers found herself at the helm of the adored institution after a lengthy campaign—mostly rooted in perseverance coupled with one bout of crying. After months of what Rogers loosely describes as an apprenticeship, Marx finally asked her about plans for his store. After her first offer—“I offered him less than he was asking for because I needed working capital”—Marx didn’t bite.
“I think I said something like, ‘Your life is over—you’re old! What do you care? This is my big chance!’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but if I sell it to you, you’ll always be bothering me.’”
Rogers hurriedly vowed to never reach out to Marx ever again. And, with that, she was met with a paltry, ‘OK.’ [Ed note: Marx continued to visit the store despite his initial request.]
The commercial space that once housed more than 100,000 pieces of music is being repurposed into a series of piano rehearsal studios.
So, what’s next for New York’s last-standing sheet music maven? “Last week, I would have said I will be crying a lot, but I don’t know—I’m feeling so good,” Rogers says. “I don’t know if I will be crying anymore.”
Rogers credits a surprise visit from an unsuspecting customer in May of 2014 as one of her reasons for being able to spin the experience positively.
The customer came in and asked about how business was going. Rogers was quick to explain, not well, and that, realistically, her only way out was if an institution agreed to buy her life’s collection of music. The man, who came in to buy viola music for his kid, informed Rogers that his last name was Colburn, as in the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He asked her to draft up a proposal and said he would pass it along to the people involved in running the school.
Rogers held onto Colburn’s contact information all summer, and did nothing with it. In October, he returned to New York, this time with several members from the school.
“My heart started going a mile a minute,” says Rogers, recounting the day her sales associate informed her that the Colburn School wanted to meet with her. “This guy changed my life and saved the inventory. I’m taking him out to lunch on Thursday, as it happens—he’s a wonderful person and he’s the one that everyone ought to be thanking because I really didn’t know what to do.”
Rogers will spend remainder of March cleaning shop and facilitating the transfer of her collection.
“I have to oversee the purchase; it’s bought—the contract is signed and the Colburn School is taking everything. And that is a total fairytale for me. I’m very lucky.”