UR Here: There’s something a little bit extra about Eble Music

In-store photos by James Davies

Last week at Eble Music, I picked up the next piece my daughter, Sylvia, will be working on for her saxophone lessons, Alfred Desenclos’s “Prélude, cadence, et finale.” As I walked down Linn Street after my purchase, I said to myself, “You know, I think Eble Music may just be the best local business in town.” I don’t mean to diminish any of our other marvelous local retailers in any way, but, in my experience, there’s something a little bit extra about Eble Music.

I advocate supporting our independent, locally-owned businesses for all the reasons you would expect. Our local business owners are our neighbors, and people in community support their neighbors. In purely economic terms, one of the most important reasons to shop at independent local businesses is the recirculation or multiplier effect. Money that we spend at our neighbors’ businesses tends to stay in the community much more than money spent at a national chain.

According to a study underwritten by the American Booksellers Association and analyzed by Civic Economics, a Chicago consulting firm, spending at independent retailers generates 3.7 times more direct local economic benefit than spending at chains. Our local business owners both live and work here, so spending for the business itself tends to remain more local, and the owners in turn spend their private money–which they earn from us–in our local community.

On top of that, a local business is more invested in the community. If the bottom line starts looking iffy at the Iowa City Walmart, the bean counters in Bentonville won’t hesitate to shut the place down. If a local business hits a rough patch, it will work much harder to stay open in order to continue serving its home community.

One of the things that disappoints me, though, is when the local business experience isn’t very good. Admittedly, customer service in most chains is abysmal, so when independent local businesses can’t compete on price, they tend to do so on service. When a local business does come up short on treating its customer well or doing that little bit extra, it’s disappointing.

One of my ideal retail experiences has been at Scheels Ace Hardware in Fargo, North Dakota, when we lived across the Red River of the North in Moorhead, Minnesota. Ace, by the way, is not a chain. It’s a cooperative–independent store owners are dealer-owners and shareholders in the Ace company. When I would walk into Scheels Hardware in Fargo, someone appeared immediately to greet me and ask if I needed help. If the salesperson could not answer my question or find what I was looking for, he or she would promptly go find someone who could. Scheels Hardware was also very well-stocked.

Once while my wife’s parents were visiting us after we bought our house in Moorhead, my father-in-law was helping me with some repairs of some sort. As we were standing at the checkout at Scheels discussing whatever project we were puzzling over, the young woman at the cash register said, “Oh, did you buy a new house?” On my saying yes, she reached under the counter, pulled out a plastic bag, plopped it on the counter, and said, “Happy housewarming!” It was full of goodies such as small tools, sponges, glue, and other everyday needs. Nothing extravagant–but that was customer service!

Scheels helped me thoroughly and immediately (and in a very polite and friendly way) and had what I needed when I needed it. That is exactly what happens when I walk into Eble Music. When I open that basement door at 115 S. Linn St. and walk up to the service desk, one of the friendly music meisters is there immediately to greet me–and does so as if happy to see me.

My favorite aspect of the Eble experience is asking for the piece I’m looking for. The Eble folks, frankly, are unearthly. With the Desenclos “Prélude, cadence, et finale” request (not exactly your obvious Bach or Beethoven), my trusty attendant had already smiled, nodded and was heading for the back room practically before I could finish saying “finale.” Within 30 seconds, he was back with a pristine copy. This happens every time. I don’t know how anyone can know every musical piece and every edition ever published, but it seems the Eble geniuses do. And they have what I’m looking for without fail.

Well, almost always without fail. The only time I stumped Eble was when my son, Nathaniel, ran across a saxophone piece on YouTube and really liked it. Turns out it is rather obscure (Pedro Iturralde’s “Pequeña Czarda”–and in all fairness to my friends at Eble, the University of Iowa’s renowned saxophone teacher, Kenneth Tse, was not familiar with it, either).

Even though they didn’t have the piece, the customer service didn’t waver, and they promised to try to find it. They called a few days later, and even though they had tracked down the piece, they were disappointed with themselves that, as an American retailer, they would not be able to procure it for me. Still, they shared a couple of European websites from which I might order it myself (And we were successful!).

Eble Music has deep roots in our community as well, giving it a pedigree that is part of our living history. According to the UI Alumni Association, Charles Eble, 1940 University of Iowa piano graduate, “became interested in collecting new literature and music on an international scale. As personal secretary to School of Music Director Philip Greeley Clapp, Eble made contacts with European publishers and book and music dealers who could provide new editions of works for the American market.” After military service, graduate school and a brief teaching stint at Northwestern University, “he returned to Iowa City in 1950 to purchase the community’s only music store. As he built a thriving music business, Eble [accompanied] Professor Himie Voxman to Europe in 1954 to procure the first of the Music Library’s now extraordinary collection of rare books.” Eble, Clapp, Voxman–you can’t get much more significant than that in Iowa City music history, and the current staff members continue Eble’s tradition of a music store grounded in true musicology.

I have had many wonderful experiences with many local Iowa City businesses. I am happy to pay full retail price when I know those dollars will help my neighbors and my community, and when I know I can count on those businesses to help me out (and be happy to do it) when I need it. It’s even better when their courtesy and their desire to help are 100 percent consistent. For me, that’s Eble Music. So, thanks so much to those musical geniuses downstairs at 115 S. Linn. You make musical magic happen in our community.

Thomas Dean has a degree in music history and literature, so he knows the real deal when he sees it.