After seven decades, Don Warner Music closes as Richmond says hello to a new kid in town.
You Say Goodbye
Don Warner Jr. wasn't at last week's grand opening of the big new music store a couple of miles down Broad Street from his own shop, but he plans to check it out soon. "I hear it's awesome," he says with a boyish grin.
It's not what you'd expect a 67-year-old man to say about a warehouse-size showroom full of guitars, amps and other band gear. And certainly it's not how you'd expect the proprietor of a venerable family business to feel about the proximate cause of its demise. But as MARS: The Musician's Planet opened last week, and Warner was in the final stages of closing the music business his father started in 1932, he seemed more relieved than resigned.
"I wasn't going to hang out and fight this company," he says. "We thought we ought to just go ahead and liquidate." The last members of Warner's esteemed sales and instruction staff departed earlier in the month; on Saturday the store closed its doors to the public for good; and Don Warner Music Inc. will vacate its West Broad Street location by the end of the month.
Warner says he has been trying to sell the business for more than three years. While many people were interested and several made offers, nothing ever really panned out. "I was hoping I could get some younger blood, some fresher minds," he says. "I just wanted to cut loose and not have to worry about it."
MARS didn't make the decision for him, but certainly accelerated it. "We had to kind of face up to the fact that it was over, really over, for us," Warner says.
He and his wife, Barbara, are far from bitter, however. The easygoing couple seem incapable of spite and appear to be taking the closing in stride. "I'm excited. I'm not sad. I'm really pumped," he says, adding he's looking forward to more free time for reading and visiting the beach.
But he acknowledges this isn't how he hoped to retire. "I didn't want it to happen like this. The sad part is the name won't be around."
Don Warner Sr. was a piano man. He played in dance orchestra outfits, traveling across the country throughout the roaring '20s. But when the Great Depression hit and the touring circuit collapsed, he and his wife settled in Virginia. Here, Warner found a new living by giving lessons in the novel, left-handed piano-chord technique of swing music.
The great dance halls of New York, Chicago and St. Louis had been followed by a quiet life of private parlors in the railroad town of Roanoke, whose most privileged citizens could still afford a child's refinement, but Warner's restless spirit remained: If business is good in Roanoke, he soon told his wife, it ought to be great in Richmond.
They arrived in 1932 with one son and another on the way. By the time Don Jr. was born, his father's one-man shop on Grace Street was the talk of the town's jazz and swing circles. It soon grew into a studio of instructors, and during World War II, women with more time on their hands than they cared for took up playing piano in great numbers. Returning soldiers made the accordion another popular pastime, and in the late '50s the guitar began its long ascendance. Even country legend Chet Atkins brought his trademark Gretsch down to Warner's for an appearance after performing on WRVA.
By 1960, Don Warner Music was well-enough established in the community to relocate to the West End, where many of its customer-families had been migrating, and set up on Libbie Avenue. Here Warner began selling instruments as well as teaching how to play them. When the world including, even, the West End of Richmond discovered the Beatles, he was ready with the electric guitars, amps and other equipment for would-be Johns, Pauls, Georges and Ringos. In the '70s, organs and synthesizers came into their own, and the inventor of the classic Moog organ held a seminar at Warner's.
By then, Don Warner Jr. had taken over the business from his father, who died in 1974. A piano player as well, Don Jr. never really gave much thought to playing professionally, or touring, or doing much else besides running the family firm. "The best part for me," he says, "has been being around people who love music as much as I do."
"The neat thing was I left for 20 years and came back, and he remembered me."
Jeff Wingo, information systems manager for the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, is typical of many lifelong Warner customers. In 1966, at age 8, he bought the first of a handful of guitars from Don Warner Music and began taking lessons there. And while garage bands were as far as his talents would take him, he loved just hanging out at the Libbie Avenue location.
Wingo grew up, found his calling in computers, and a few years ago returned to Richmond. His first round of visits to old haunts included Don Warner Music, which moved to West Broad Street in 1995.
Warner remembered him. Then, earlier this month, Wingo learned of the closing: "My eyes teared up a little as I shook Don's hand and told him how sorry I was to see the store go."
Wingo's own notions of opening a music store someday seemed to be going with it. "It's something I always wanted to do myself," he says. "But ... you can just see the writing on the wall."
For music, that writing today spells MARS, and the names of other big-box music stores transforming the industry.
Warner doesn't mind. "[MARS] will have, really, what I think will be a music store manager's dream," he says of the 200,000-item selection the larger store offers. He's also happy for former Don Warner Music employees who have found new jobs at MARS. Above all, Warner seems glad people still love playing music enough to support such a large establishment. He's pleased that in an age of video games and cable TV, kids still dream of making it in music.
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