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Blues for Legendary Music Store

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk to anyone in the San Gabriel Valley who has played in the high school band, plugged in a guitar amp or spent hours fingering a difficult chord progression. It’s a good bet that, if they know music, they know Pedrini’s Music.

It’s the Alhambra store where Jim Croce meets Ricky Martin and Mozart in a bin of sheet music. It’s where the first generation bought accordions and early Sinatra; where the second generation purchased their prized television-stereo console, Cole Porter 45s and finally, the Beatles. It’s where the third generation seeks out electronic keyboards, synthesizers and prefers CD-ROMs over method books.

But the musical march of time has come to an end. This 63-year-old store, a Main Street institution for three generations, has been struggling for several years and will shut down after the final sale on July 14.

Cause of its impending demise: complications of the 21st century.

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“From my point of view, growing up around here, there were three things in life you could depend on. Death. Taxes. And Pedrini’s Music always being here,” said Dion Garcia, 33, a City Terrace guitarist and former band teacher.

“This is so sad, I can’t believe this is going away. I mean, I took lessons here when I was a kid,” he said. “The only reason I don’t have jail tattoos is that I spent every Saturday in here checking out music.”

Smaller, independent stores opened by other branches of the Pedrini family will remain open. Those stores-- are in La Crescenta, Loma Linda, Orange, Santa Ana and Laughlin, Nev.

On a recent day the aisles of the Alhambra Pedrini’s were crowded with hugging, teary-eyed musicians who had heard of the closing and came to pay their last respects to the Pedrini clan.

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They stood amid the pianos, cellos and saxophones swapping old music stories--their first time in high school with a rented French horn, the free jazz concerts, the joy of finding the collected works of Ernesto Nazareth.

Family matriarch Gerrie Pedrini, 76, arrived this day for a last bow. “I’m so sorry,” customers told her again and again, some embracing her.

Decades earlier, she sang jazz in L.A. nightclubs by night. By day she worked alongside her husband, Tom Pedrini Jr., for 30 years, until he died in 1997.

Daughter Vicki Pedrini, 51, was in her cluttered little office, walls plastered with fliers of past store concerts by the likes of Michael Feinstein, Neal Hefti and Michael Wolff. Vicki had dreams of owning a jazz club. Instead, she built a small “Showcase Theater” inside the store, where she staged free concerts for seven years.

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Tom Pedrini III, a bass player and a founding member of the Pasadena Pops who has played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was wearing a tie and working behind the counter. His sister Leslie, 50, who orders all the sheet music, was in her aisle post, reorganizing the reams of music. Michele, 42, who manages the books, would be in later.

The family’s musical roots began with Tom Pedrini Sr. in the 1930s. An Italian immigrant, he played accordion and clarinet, worked Vaudeville’s Orpheum circuit and played accompaniment for silent films. He married Elizabeth Jayne, and they eventually settled in an Italian enclave of the time: Lincoln Heights.

The two taught music and began supplying instruments to students, leading them to open their Alhambra store in 1938.

“Our motto is: A Pedrini is always on the floor,” Vicki said. “A Pedrini opens, a Pedrini closes.”

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The close-out sale started two weeks ago and was finally doing brisk business as cash registers rang to the tune of 30% off all merchandise.

And therein lies the heart of the Pedrini problem.

The store, credited by many a music teacher in surrounding school districts as the community’s prime supporter of music education, can’t compete in today’s retail world of the Internet and the big chains, like Guitar Center and Costco’s warehouse piano sales.

“It’s a shame that the west San Gabriel Valley is losing such a vital music resource,” said Jean Leeland-Siegal, the music and arts director for the Alhambra Unified School District. “They have been such a staple in the Alhambra economy for decades.”

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It was Tom the bass player who helped lead the successful crusade to save music education in the Alhambra district in the 1980s. His father rented band instruments to children whose parents had no credit. Vicki would be first on the scene with a spare saxophone at Alhambra High concerts. After school and Saturdays, the closet-like lesson rooms were filled with the sounds of young guitarists and pianists.

The family stuck it out on Main Street during the strip’s decline in the ‘70s. They retrofitted after earthquakes and took advantage of a redevelopment facade face-lift in the late ‘90s. Now the store is positioned in the center of a resurgent Alhambra downtown district.

But the customers of 2001 seeking the profitable big-ticket items--pianos, electronic keyboards, amplifiers and instruments--"all they care about is price, price, price,” Vicki said. “Our specialty was the personal service that people have learned not to expect or care about anymore.”

Perhaps the Pedrini family wasn’t hip enough. They refused to reduce the size of their sheet music collection to make way for more popular instant-music keyboards and digital audio mixers. Perhaps they weren’t computer savvy. They snubbed all online instrument sales.

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“We wanted people to come in and see what an upright bass is, what a saxophone is, how the piano keyboard feels,” Vicki said.

In the end, perhaps they made bad business decisions in the $6-billion-a-year music instrument industry of 2001.

They couldn’t bring themselves to downsize, merge with a sophisticated partner or become a specialty niche store: just drums, just violins. That is what other mom-and-pop music stores across the country tend to do to survive.

Instead, the Pedrinis mortgaged their homes to pay the bills. They held onto their longtime employees and continued to rent clarinets and trumpets to children whose parents couldn’t always pay the bills.

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