Sam Ash Music was a South Florida staple. It’s ‘extremely painful’ to close stores, family CEO says.

Joe Schnessel sits at a drum kit in a back room of the Sam Ash store in Margate, keeping time with a familiar classic rock song before he’s paged to take a phone call from a customer inquiring about the company’s ongoing liquidation sale.

He explains to the caller that the 5% discount on drum and accessories — the opening offer in what figures to be a three-month-long wind down — was just increased to a 10% discount the day before.

He says he knows it’s not a big discount but tells the customer that he might want to come into the store and check out the selection.

Drum salesman Joe Schnessel plays the drums in between customers at the Sam Ash Margate store on Friday, May 17, 2024. South Florida's Sam Ash Music stores are closing. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Drum salesman Joe Schnessel plays the drums in between customers at the Sam Ash Margate store on Friday, May 17, 2024. South Florida’s Sam Ash Music stores are closing. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Because before long, all the drums — and the guitars and picks, keyboards, microphones, mixing boards, P.A. systems, music books, patch cables, and everything else this store has provided to experienced and novice musicians for nearly three decades — will be gone.

The Ash family, owners of the chain since it was first opened by Sam and Rose Ash in Brooklyn a century ago in 1924, announced on May 2 that it planned to close all 42 of its stores in 16 states.

Nine of the stores are in Florida, and three, including the Margate store, are in South Florida.

Schnessel says he’s been patronizing the Margate store since it opened in 1996 in the Peppertree Plaza at the corner of West Sample Road and State Road 7.

Over the past year and a half, he’s been working there as a drum salesman when he’s not performing local gigs with the band ReVibe.

He says he and fellow musicians will miss the ability to come in and test the gear. He’s not sure what other store will invite musicians to, as the store’s slogan goes, “come in and play” any instrument they like before they decide what to buy.

Other music shops will survive, he said, but not as a “wide-open, hang-out kind of place.”

Since the announcement, he said, the store’s staff have been “acting more as therapists than salespeople.”

“People have been coming out of the woodwork: ‘I bought my first Gibson guitar here.’ Now these kids won’t have music stores to get inspired and love music.”

The Margate store was one of the first two built outside of the 10 that originally opened in the greater New York area, said CEO David Ash, Sam’s and Rose Ash’s grandson, in an interview.

Customer Josh Michael tries out a guitar at Sam Ash Margate store on Friday, May 17, 2024. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Customer Josh Michael tries out a guitar at Sam Ash Margate store on Friday, May 17, 2024. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

The idea to expand into Margate and Miami Lakes in the 1990s stemmed from his parents Jerry and Bernice Ash’s purchase of a vacation home in Boca Raton, David Ash said.

Another store in the Dolphin Mall in Miami followed. It and the Margate stores were two of the company’s best performers, David Ash said.

With 42 stores, four distribution centers and a Manhattan store that stretched over seven storefronts in the heart of the music district on West 48th Street, Sam Ash had by the 1990s emerged as a “category killer,” David Ash said.

But the COVID-19 epidemic hit hard, he said, as many of the stores were forced to close. Customers found online sources to buy their musical instruments and other gear.

“The business moved to the internet,” he said, “and our stores that were once extremely busy became less so.”

Operation costs, meanwhile, kept increasing. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on May 8, a week after announcing the decision to close all of the brick and mortar locations.

Store manager Chris Cottone goes over paperwork at the Margate store on Friday, May 17, 2024. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Store manager Chris Cottone goes over paperwork at Sam Ash’s Margate store on Friday. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

David Ash says it’s been “an extremely painful process for us,” coming a year after the deaths of his father, “one of our main engines of growth,” and brother Sam, who was the company’s guitar mastermind.

A bankruptcy specialist is running the liquidation process, David Ash said. How deep the discounts will get before the doors are closed for good is out of the family’s control, he said.

He warns consumers not to be duped by a number of scammy websites that have recently popped up impersonating the Sam Ash name touting 90% discounts.  Before buying, they should make sure they are on the chain’s official website, www.SamAsh.com, that’s also liquidating the company’s products.

Currently, guitars, keyboards, amplifiers and other high-priced products were discounted by 5% at the Margate store last week but that percentage could be increased at any time. Pro electronic gear was 10% off.

Even after the maximum discounts are applied, “You’re never going to buy a Gibson guitar for $80,” he said.

Bids are being accepted, he said, for purchase of the company’s three main segments — the retail stores, the website and a manufacturing side, called Samson Technologies, which makes Hartke bass amps, Samson signal processors, and Michael Kelly guitars.

“Time will tell” whether the Sam Ash business name will be part of what emerges from the process, and whether the family will play a role in it, David Ash said.

Everything is on sale at the Margate store on Friday, May 17, 2024. South Florida's Sam Ash Music stores are closing as the company goes bankrupt. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)
Everything is on sale at the Margate store on Friday. South Florida’s Sam Ash Music stores are closing as the company goes bankrupt. (Mike Stocker/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Whatever shakes out will leave local musicians lamenting the end of an era.

Russell Mofsky, a music teacher at Miami Country Day School and member of the band Gold Dust Lounge, said he first visited the Manhattan Sam Ash store when he was 19, when it was nestled among “legendary and storied family-owned shops” that comprised West 48th Street’s “Music Row.”

“All that’s gone now,” Mofsky said in an interview.

As a music teacher in South Florida, Mofsky said he felt comfortable telling his students to go to Sam Ash, as opposed to other stores that sold musical instruments, because he knew they’d be in good hands.

David Ash said the company considered customer service as one of its highest priorities. It tried to always hire knowledgeable staff members and never part-timers, he said.

Mofsky said, “There are few places that are reliable to which I’d want to send a middle school student,” he said.

Yet, he admits he hasn’t visited his Sam Ash store in Miami Lakes for about five years.

One reason is he has evolved as a musician and now seeks specialized instruments from stores that are “more boutique,” he said.

Another is that it’s much easier to purchase everyday needs like guitar strings and picks online and have them delivered to his home.

He’ll buy those from Amazon, he said. “It’s so easy.”

Ron Hurtibise covers business and consumer issues for the South Florida Sun Sentinel. He can be reached by phone at 954-356-4071, on Twitter @ronhurtibise or by email at rhurtibise@sunsentinel.com.

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