Business boomed when McNeil Music moved to Downtown Ithaca, but it wasn’t enough

“I really thought we were doomed to closing back dy 2011,” says Eric Laine, owner of the 65-year-old McNeil Music, which is closing its doors next month. “Moving downtown helped in many ways.”

McNeil Music will close its retail storefront on January 31st. 14850 Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.

McNeil Music will close its retail storefront on January 31st. 14850 Photo by Mark H. Anbinder.

“We certainly would have closed years ago if we had not moved downtown,” dramatically cutting rent expenses, in March of 2012, Eric tells 14850 Magazine. The store, opened in 1951 by the McNeil family in Cortland before it spent a stretch downtown on Tioga Street, had moved up the hill to the Triphammer Mall (now the Triphammer Marketplace) decades ago, when malls on the outskirts of town seemed to be where retail belonged.

Eric, himself a Downtown Ithaca resident, divined correctly that the store would do better downtown. “It made us more visible to the community, and foot traffic increased dramatically,” he tells us. “We took in more and more used gear, and the rental and repair business boomed. But sales continued to fall every year.”

Though the retail storefront at 110 West Green Street will close at the end of January 2017, when their current lease ends, Eric says “our sound system and backline rental business will continue as McNeil Music Rentals.” The new store-less McNeil will have “a new online and mobile reservation and payment system,” and “a gear storage facility in Press Bay Alley,” just a few yards to the west.

For nearly five years, McNeil’s downtown location has offered lesson space in addition to sound equipment rental and instrument repair in the heart of the community, right where Ithaca’s music scene needed it. The downtown venue also gave McNeil the opportunity to host an Ithaca Festival stage for a few years, featuring indie acts that might not have gotten a slot on the annual music festival’s larger stages.

The business’s growth was interrupted by the sharp decline in foot traffic precipitated by the City of Ithaca’s project to rebuild the Ithaca Commons, which affected dozens of retailers on and around the Commons. Quite a few closed during or soon after the construction.

“The Commons reconstruction definitely impacted our business negatively, and we never did recover those losses,” Eric tells us. “I suspect that has more to do with shifting retail dynamics generally,” he allows. “People just don’t shop here as much as they used to; they shop online.”

Guitarist and singer Mike Brindisi, the front man for The New York Rock, tells us he’s been a McNeil Music customer since he moved to the Ithaca area in 2005. “I bought strings, picks, cords, tuners, etc.,” from McNeil, and “every month would have their guitar tech set up and string up my guitars for shows and tours,” he says. “Since I want to support local, I will most likely take all of my business to Ithaca Guitar Works,” Mike adds.

In an announcement on the store’s Facebook page, McNeil music told customers there was no way to maintain the business without “substantially lower” rent, which wasn’t an option in the current location. “With sales revenues declining between 7 and 20% each year for the last 7 years, there really is no hope for long-term stability.”

Musician Alan Rose was hit hard by the news, too. “It’s more than just the loss of a retail outlet,” he tells us. “It’s the loss of a place that, at its core, was a crossroads for large segments of the music community and an organization that supported that community in so many ways.” Alan, who has written about the local music scene for 14850 Magazine, says McNeil Music was especially supportive of young musicians, and sponsored Ithaca Underground shows.

“This experience has been as rewarding as it has been heartbreaking, and I am grateful to have served our amazing Ithaca music community for these eight years,” Laine says.

He encourages customers to “stop in and buy something so we can pay our creditors and exit with a softer landing.” The clearance sale includes a Trash or Treasure table that features a number of items marked down to $1. He also hopes fans will spread the word of the sound system rental business, which will continue to operate at mcneilmusicofithaca.com.

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