Back before MP3s, CDs, cassettes, LPs, 78-rpm records, and Edison cylinders, the primary medium for the sale of songs was sheet music, and sheet music stores were as common as florists or dry cleaners are today. With every technological advance in the sale of music, the sheet music trade has dwindled a little further, and some anticipate that the latest threat–the Internet–will be the death of brick-and-mortar sheet music retailers.

But for me and a lot of other musicians (I’m a pianist) nothing will ever take the place of browsing sheet music. It’s like shopping for books, but more tactile and visual. The feel of the paper counts for a lot, as does the layout of notes upon the page. And there’s the matter of the psychic temperature of the store: one must feel comfortable humming aloud, and it helps if there are other music lovers on hand and willing to offer informed opinions on a given score.

The display window of Coulson’s Music Matters (located on Van Buren between Wabash and Michigan avenues) suggests a musical yard sale: there’s a rainbow-colored pinata in the shape of a note, a tree of postcards and CDs, and an unfurled umbrella dotted with treble clefs. Inside, the store is nondescript–a tiny fluorescent-lit box–but it’s jammed to the rafters with sheet music.

Ray Coulson, who co-owns the shop with his wife, Bette, understands the personal aspect of shopping for musical scores. “There’s a lot of people out there who love music,” he says. “They’re looking for things that they want to play for pleasure. It’s great therapy.” Coulson is a bit unusual among sheet music retailers in that he doesn’t play an instrument. “Most people would think you’d have to be a musician to do this,” he says, “and really that’s not true at all. It’s really closer to library work, if anything. The pace in here is equivalent to a library–it’s very calm. A knowledge of music helps, there’s no question about that, but it’s more about the history of music rather than its details. It’s not important to me what the music sounds like that I’m selling. What’s important is being able to find it when it’s asked for.”

Coulson got started in the business in 1948, after a stint with the army in New Orleans, working for Carl Fischer, Inc., a major corporate franchise at the time. “We used to call this ‘Music Row,'” he says, gesturing toward Van Buren. “Almost every publisher–and there were many–used to have an office down here. They used to have song pluggers all over the place. A common arrangement in those days was to have a horseshoe-like counter in the middle of the store. There’d be a piano player right in the middle of it, and they’d all have their hot sheets around it, and they’d play what people wanted to hear. Publishers used to send the stuff for free to get it stocked in the stores, get it put in the counters. That certainly doesn’t happen anymore.”

By the late 50s, live song plugging of this kind had all but disappeared, and though it took a little longer, the other stores that gave Music Row its name were on their way out as well. “Rents kept going higher and higher,” Coulson says. “This is not a high-profit, fast-turnover business. Changes in the economy and cultural patterns changed it dramatically. Kids wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll, not classical. The recording industry was part of it too: people don’t want to sit and try to play anymore. They put a phonograph on and listen to whatever they want. There’s an instant gratification factor now.”

Even though the sheet music market was contracting, Coulson and his wife Bette didn’t hesitate to strike out on their own when opportunity knocked in 1981. “This space was available,” he says, “and so for various reasons we decided to take a chance.”

Coulson’s has a sales staff of three. The latest addition is Fred Bodem, a large, white-haired man in his 60s who affects a droll, acerbic tone with customers. “How dare you come in here with that bag?” he asks a woman carrying a Carl Fischer tote–like Coulson, Bodem got his start in the sheet trade working for Fischer.

“I didn’t even know this store was here,” says the woman, handing Bodem a shopping list of piano scores.

“Oh yes, only for 21 years,” replies Bodem, already kneeling down and opening filing cabinets in search of her requests, beginning with Adventures in Piano. Before long the tote bag is full. “Do drop by again now that you’ve found us at last,” he tells her as she makes for the door.

In the few minutes it took him to fill her order, Bodem somehow managed to obtain a good part of the woman’s life story. “She teaches at home,” he says. “She’s a new mother and it gives her something else to do. Gives her an extra meaning and a sense to life, as it does us all. We have a lot of these teachers: people who teach in their living rooms or go door-to-door. They park a car in the middle of the block and they have two kids over here and two kids over there and so on. Then they get in the car and go home.

“And what brings you to our little corner of the world?” Bodem asks a man stepping up to the counter.

“I’m looking for Bach’s Three-Part Inventions,” says the customer.

“Here’s a decent edition, but it’s not the cheapest,” Bodem replies, plucking a folio from a filing cabinet. “We have it on white, cream-colored paper, and ecru,” he says. “Now see the edit markings here? They’re done in gray rather than in black–that shows what the editor thought it should be. That’s a big problem in music: everybody knows the right way to do it. Every editor has different interpretations. The gray markings would make for better teaching materials, especially to the beginning student.” Bodem pulls out an off-white edition. “This is the one I would choose for myself. I personally like an off-white paper so it doesn’t glare.”

“That’s the one I want,” says the customer.

“That’s the essence of what we do,” says Bodem as the man heads toward the register. “You want to come into a sheet music store and touch. You want to look and explore.”

Bodem and Coulson both turn their attention to a man talking on a cell phone; he needs help figuring out the name of a Dean Martin song. He hums a few bars; Coulson recognizes it before the party on the other end of the line does. “Oh, that’s ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,'” he says, moving off to track it down.

Coulson’s serves music students and teachers from Roosevelt University, Columbia, DePaul, and the Moody Bible Institute. Theater and cabaret fans are an important part of its clientele, as are semiprofessional performers in search of scores for current popular songs. “They listen to the radio or go to a club and say, ‘I’ve gotta have that,'” explains Bodem. “Thursday, Friday, Saturday morning, we get all these requests: ‘I’m going to sing for a wedding this afternoon and I gotta have the music.’ We have a mental list of what current wedding songs are. One year it was ‘My Heart Will Go On’ from Titanic. I’ll say, ‘All right, I have only one copy left and you have one half hour to get here.’ They always make it.” But wedding scores aren’t Bodem’s home turf. “I don’t normally deal with pop,” he says. “My expertise is keyboard classical things. I’m not the pop person. That’s Ed’s thing.”

“Ed” is Ed Sasin, a rotund fellow with brown bangs and a soft-spoken manner. “‘The Rose’ has finally slowed down, and so has Andrew Lloyd Webber,” he pipes up on cue. “‘One Hand, One Heart’ from West Side Story is still big. Unfortunately, the single sheet is out of print right now, so we’re selling the vocal scores.” Sasin, who fell into the business fresh out of high school in the late 70s, plays clarinet and bassoon in several community bands, but he says selling sheet music is his first love.

Current pop hits, explains Coulson, draw customers into the store but have a very short shelf life. He cites Britney Spears: “Not long ago she had a song called ‘Oops!…I Did It Again’ that sold pretty well. Then, all of a sudden, just dead. You can’t get most of this stuff anymore. Most of the songs only get published once in a single form. But eventually, someone will ask for it, although it could be years.”

When that day comes, Coulson’s will be ready. “You said you might want to go through the vaults?” says Coulson, leading me to the back of the store, where old pop scores are stored. A random sampling of the archive yields mint-condition copies of “Anything Is Possible” by Debbie Gibson, “Benny and the Jets” by Elton John, and “Karma Chameleon” by Culture Club.

“What you do in this business, there’s really no school that teaches it,” says Coulson. “I have people in here picking our brains constantly. They’ve heard something or remembered something or seen something and they come in to get it on a whim. It’s very hard to package a whim, market a whim, figure out why one song sells better than another.”

It’s close to five o’clock and foot traffic on Van Buren is picking up with rush hour. The store is beginning to fill up with last-minute shoppers. The narrow aisles between the racks and filing cabinets make for close browsing, and a lot of “excuse me”s are exchanged.

“The modern economy is geared to big and fast,” says Coulson. “We’re geared to a small group. I think people like us when they find us because nobody expects us to still be here.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Joeff Davis.