Music In The Air: Interview With Paul Ash, President Of Sam Ash Music Stores
The soft spoken, 77 year old who never learned to play an instrument but who heads, arguably, the best known chain music store in the country, named for his father Sam Ash, is eager to make sure that his mother, Rose, gets full credit for having suggested, 82 years ago that she and Sam buy a store. Before that, Sam had been a fabric cutter and a bandleader, Rose a bookkeeper. And so, for $400 “Sam Ash” was born—a mom and pop operation in Brooklyn selling sheet music. Paul Ash was, so to speak, born and raised in the Brownsville store, since his family lived in a small adjoining apartment. No living room meant playing in the store. Then, at the age of nine, Paul began to help out, unpacking merchandise and accompanying his father on rounds all over the borough, delivering (without charge) music scores. Though Sam Ash had taught violin, Paul Ash was never tempted to learn an instrument. Older brother Jerry, however, played the piano—in the store, of course—and Paul recalls that every time a music teacher walked in, Jerry would get different criticism. It was Paul’s delight, when Jerry got married, to give him his brother a Steinway grand.
A product of the public schools, Paul Ash went from P.S. 114 to CCNY downtown (now Baruch College), where he majored in business. Listening to him go down memory lane, with great nostalgic affection, is to hear what many college students who study the music business today rarely appreciate—how ethics and dedication make for success and longevity. If Sam Ash has kept its soul, so to speak, even as it has grown from one store to 45 in 16 states (with about a dozen in the Metropolitan area), it owes its reputation to a mission that prides itself, Paul Ash says, on being honest and serving the community, particularly in regard to schools. He notes that various music studies show how learning and playing music can affect student achievement, especially in regard to learning math, languages and socializing.
Ironically, it is often the case that those who learn on the job rather than exclusively in the classroom become education’s most generous and constant supporters. Bill Gates comes to mind, of course, but so should Paul Ash, who for years has enriched the lives of school children by way of sponsoring scholarships and school contests, keeping prices low, and creating a welcoming atmosphere in all of its stores, including its largest, on W. 48th Street, Music Row. In this sense Paul Ash can be said to be continuing his father and mother’s tradition of offering quality and personal attention. Did someone want a sax in the old days when his father’s one store carried only small string instruments? No problem. Sam Ash would personally shepherd the potential buyer around to where the appropriate saxophone could be bought. Sam Ash was also ahead of the curve, the first music store, for example, to carry a synthesizer.
Paul Ash talks lovingly of long days spent in his office, and admiringly of his nephew Richard who handles the more complicated and sophisticated aspects of the business. But make no mistake: Paul Ash is minding the store. And minding it in the spirit of his beloved father and mother. Though today Sam Ash sells many instruments (“violins are hot again”), acoustic and electronic, recording equipment, disc jockey sound systems, the stores take special pride in engaging young people, letting them try out instruments, educating them. Not for nothing did New York City a couple of years ago declare a Sam Ash Day and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame include “Sam Ash” among its honorees.#