You cannot deny it. There is something special about walking into a store and being greeted by absolute professionals in their business. So it is with Union Music. And it starts at the top, with the president and owner of this 116-year-old family enterprise.
Caring is the operative word in this world – caring about the instrument and your connection to it, the audience (even if it is one), and of helping others find their rhythm, which may be accompanied by a rash of blues, for those who make a living in music.
Carl Kamp, owner and president of this three-generation family business, recounted the history of Union Music, beginning with his grandfather.
“Originally my grandfather, Samuel Cashner, who emigrated from Russia, started a pawnshop and music business on lower Front Street in 1900 (where the Peoples Bank is today, before the construction of the taller buildings).
“My father, Leon Kamp, started working for him and married my grandfather’s daughter … and a few years later, I came along in 1946.
“I started working there when I was 9 years old (1955), which was about the same time that my grandfather gave me a guitar … And I still play classical guitar,” he said.
The business remained there until 1964.
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The Front Street location was more of a pawnshop than a music center. Instruments were always around the store, but Kamp said he encouraged his father, who was then owner, to move in the other direction, toward music rather than the unpredictable pawn business.
“I liked the music business much better than the pawnshop business,” he admitted.
In 1964, the elder Kamp moved the business to the west side of Main Street, across from the present-day Hanover Theatre near the Federal Building.
“The building itself dates to about 1900,” Kamp said. “We moved here around 1981-82. Previously, it was a furniture store, and years ago in the 1920s through the 1940s, the second floor featured a speakeasy, restaurant and rooming house with about 12 rooms.”
George’s Coney Island, which is next door, at one time shared the second story of Union Music with a connecting hallway, Mr. Kamp said. That shared space – 70 feet by 80 feet on the roof of Union Music – was demolished years ago but one can imagine the integration of the businesses and patrons who frequented both.
Just steps from the main entrance of 142 Southbridge St. is a musty, steep stairwell that leads to an old restaurant with tables that looked down upon the then-bustling downtown location in the 1900s through the 1940s. Only the dust mites dine here now.
In another part of the building is an old recording studio. Kamp said it would be too expensive to renovate the second floor because he would have to comply with present-day building codes.
So it is most likely that the skeletal remains of wrought-iron beds and the discarded dreams of those who worked here will likely slowly dissolve, their secrets safe within the creaky floorboards.
Back downstairs, Union Music features a main showroom with the usual array of instruments, and accessories for musicians and recording professionals – electric guitars, amplifiers, bass amps, drums kits, cymbals, music books, and keyboards.
At the moment acoustic guitars seem to be big the last few years, Kamp said. “It goes with the times. … There many more singer-songwriters on the radio.”
Yet there is an endless maze of rooms that have specific purposes. One such room is the aptly named “Guitar Room,” where dozens of acoustic guitars, ukuleles and mandolins are kept in climate-controlled storage at 72 degrees Fahrenheit and between 45 and 55 percent relative humidity levels. This is really critical for the woods of the acoustic guitars to keep them from warping if the humidity rises above. But the humidity and temperature is not as critical for electric guitars, Kamp explained.
Speaking of ukuleles, Kamp said, “The past 10 years have seen a real resurgence. More and more people are playing them. And it’s easy for a guitar player because the chord formations are the same.”
The octave string, which gives the ukulele that signature Hawaiian sound, is set one octave higher than the fourth string on a guitar, Kamp said. “You can turn it down and not have it but most people play with it on. But you can play it both ways.”
Then there are the various repair shops where all types of instruments – guitars, banjos, pianos, saxes – wait patiently to be resuscitated with new bodies, necks, strings and hinges.
Kamp said, “Today, especially with keyboards, the electronics within are controlled by computers, like many cars. It can get really complicated … and sometimes the manufacturers are very restrictive in what they want you to do to fix their products. But for most we can work around that.
“The companies that we deal with give us very good support and they give us schematics of the inner workings of the electronics of a piano or organ, for instance.”
Kamp said he has outside specialists who do repairs, and six in-house staff personnel who take care of various instruments. One banjo, which likely dates to the 1920s, has several tears to its skin but the owner’s initials are clearly visible on the instrument.
Basically, “If you break it, we can fix it,” he added.
For bands or individuals, Union Music also carries different sound and PA systems, and mixers for live performances.
If one is interested in learning to play an instrument, 20 teachers are available for lessons in the basement studios, which were added in the late 1980s. One can select a new instrument or polish their chops on ukulele, guitar, keyboards, drums, woodwinds, and many more.
For those who want to play live, Union Music has an “Open Mike” in its Performance Room, which can accommodate about 50 musicians. Open Mike runs from 1 to 3 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month for budding and professional musicians.
This is in addition to the Ukulele Club, which meets from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month.