Please introduce yourself.
I’m Nick Cervone, the General Manager of Middle C Music in Washington, D.C.
Where are you originally from?
I hail from the suburbs of Chicago, about 35-40 minutes outside the city. I grew up in Palatine, Illinois. I came here for school in 2015 and have been here ever since.
What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
During my time here, there have been two different owners. When I joined in the fall of 2019, the owner was Myrna Sislin, who had owned Middle C since 2002. She had built it up from what it used to be. Prior to her ownership, the shop mostly sold gift and novelty instruments and likely wouldn’t have lasted long. Myrna transformed the business by expanding into the adjacent space, adding teaching studios, and incorporating a wide range of instruments and sheet music. When I arrived in 2019, I had the opportunity to learn a lot from her. She sold the business in June of 2021 to Ensemble Schools, a company that operates music schools across the country. They take a fairly hands-off approach.
How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Originally, a woman named Pamela Johnson was the store’s owner and operated it for 5-6 years as a smaller enterprise. It then changed hands to Myrna Sislin and later to Ensemble Schools.
When did you start your company? How long have you been in business?
The company was founded in the late nineties.
What is your company’s mission?
Our mission is to support musicians in D.C. and the DMV. Anyone that comes in here, whether they’ve been playing music their whole life, or never picked up an instrument before, or is buying a gift for someone, can come here and be supported. We aim to be a resource for music lovers and musicians and be part of the community. A store like this is becoming increasingly rare, whether it’s in a small town or a big city like ours, it’s hard to have an independently owned brick and mortar store thrive. I think the fact that we try to carry everything, do repairs and rentals to school bands and students, is all part of the mission – to be a good part of the community and be a local source for musicians. For instance, we have teenagers come in after school and have impromptu band practice, which sometimes gets too loud but ultimately contributes to the bigger mission and be the kind of store and resource we want to be for people in D.C.
What makes the products you sell unique?
What sets our products and store apart is our commitment to offering a wide variety of music-related items. In addition to traditional instruments like guitars and pianos, we stock unusual and unique instruments, such as banjoleles (a banjo-ukulele hybrid) that lights up when played. We have all kinds of weird products, for instance we have a harmonica tester that looks like an accordion and has probably been here since the nineties. We carry a range of school band instruments, including trumpets, trombones, flutes, violins, and more. But what truly distinguishes us is the multifaceted nature of Middle C. We boast thousands of books and sheet music, spanning classical and pop genres, in addition to providing music lessons, a significant part of our offerings. The synergy between our retail products and lessons makes us special. People taking lessons can receive guidance on instrument purchases, accessories, sheet music, and books directly from their teachers. On the flip side, someone looking for an instrument might discover their desire to take lessons. This diversity makes our store unique. We also continually strive to introduce new gifts and novelty items, like a recent item we brought in; soap with Freddy Mercury on it, bearing the playful slogan “We Will Wash You.” All the different facets of Middle C lend to the quirky, musician-driven personality of our store.
Were there any pivotal moments in your company’s success?
A standout moment for us was when the pandemic began, a particularly challenging period for us, as it was for everyone. I realized that schools and businesses were closing, and we had to make a critical decision. Myrna, who was the owner at that time, chose to close the physical store and transition our lessons online. With hundreds of students, we successfully converted at least three-quarters of our students to online lessons. In 2021, teachers and students began returning to the store for in-person lessons. It demonstrated the “the show must go on” mentality in real life. It was a turning point for me. We recognized the need to adapt and realized it was possible. We just had to make the decision and figure out how to adapt, trusting that our students and teachers would evolve with us. Since then, whenever challenges arise in the store, I reflect on that time and remember that it’s been worse, but we managed to overcome it and keep the store open.
Why this location?
We are located in the Tenleytown neighborhood of D.C., offering the convenience of city life with a suburban feel. Situated on Wisconsin Ave, the main street, we’re surrounded by other businesses and restaurants in the neighborhood, yet only a 20-minute drive from downtown. We’re just a few metro stops away from the monuments. Our store thrives when there’s a supportive community around us, which includes families, college students, and adults. Many of our customers reminisce about taking lessons here as kids. We’re also close to American University, attracting both college students and teachers. Being less than a block from the metro station, we’re centrally located in a family-oriented neighborhood with a diverse mix of customers, which works to our advantage. Few music stores like ours exist in D.C., so people from other neighborhoods often visit us to find the specialty items, music, and instruments we offer.
What does your business do to help your neighborhood and community?
We have several initiatives to support our community. We offer a 10% discount on sheet music for music teachers, and on Tuesdays, we provide a 20% discount for music teachers. We actively participate in Tenleytown block parties and other community events. Additionally, we collaborate with local schools, providing space for students to come and practice. Witnessing their gratitude is truly heartwarming.
What’s a fun fact or a unique thing about your business?
One fun and unique aspect of our store is our location in D.C., which attracts interesting individuals. For instance, we had a customer purchase a guitar for a Secretary of State who needed a blues guitar for a dinner and jam session on The Hill. Dave Grohl was reportedly in attendance. We’ve also had people rent instruments for Tiny Desk concerts.
How would you define your business in three words?
Community-focused. Unique (even within Music Stores). Musical (everyone here is passionate about music).
What is your favorite holiday?
I’d say Thanksgiving. I love football, mashed potatoes, and spending time with my family.
What would you recommend that people buy from the Market?
I would recommend sheet music, unique instruments, musical gifts, and our popular $2 Kazoos, which often come with a quick Kazoo lesson!
What’s the best thing a customer has ever said to you?
The most rewarding moments are when parents come in with their children who either bought an instrument here or take lessons with us. They express how much their child looks forward to it. We receive feedback from parents who tell us their child loves the lessons and their teacher, and it excites them every week. It’s truly gratifying to hear. It reminds me of my own childhood when I took lessons.