After 60 years, Ninow’s Music Store is closing its doors

Ninow's owner Ralph Vail sits amongst boxed up music books in his Riverhead store in downtown Tuesday. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)
Ninow’s owner Ralph Vail sits amongst boxed up music books in his downtown Riverhead store Tuesday. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

Ninow’s Music Store in Riverhead was mostly empty Tuesday.

Sheaves of sheet music once displayed throughout the West Main Street shop now lie in boxes. A few cables and other accessories still hang on the wall, but all of them will be hauled away before the end of the month.

There are not many customers or, most notably, many instruments. Over the years, owner Ralph Vail said, fewer and fewer people have walked through Ninow’s doors. 

Now, after 60 years, Mr. Vail said he can simply no longer afford to keep the iconic business afloat.

“This is one of the five worst days of my life,” he said before quickly changing the subject to memories of better times.

Mr. Vail spent his formative years at the shop. His mother, Edna, a piano, accordion and guitar player, began giving music lessons at Ninow’s shortly after Otto Ninow, a German who survived the Holocaust, opened the store on Railroad Avenue in 1957. Mr. Vail began working there as a teenager. He’s now 68, and Ninow’s is the only place he has ever worked.

In June 1967, the Vails took ownership of the store.

Mr. Ninow and his wife, Lisa, had become close to the Vail family. When it was time for Mr. Ninow to retire, Mr. Vail said he got a “sweetheart deal” on the shop.

“I’m sure they felt sorry for us because my mom was a single mother raising me up,” he said. “They were very kind to us and Mr. Ninow was happy to see his name continued.”

In its heyday, Mr. Vail said, the shop rented instruments to music students in all the East End school districts.

He and his mother would travel to trade shows, where musicians and manufacturers showcased their products, to stock the busy store. At the time, Ninow’s had employees besides the Vails and was profitable enough that the family could take frequent vacations and purchase their Riverhead home.

“I remember a time when, at 3 o’clock, music teachers from the area schools would come in and pick up music supplies,” Mr. Vail said. Naturally, musicians themselves also visited the shop.

Lindsay Reeve, a member of the of popular local band Who Are Those Guys? recalled buying harmonicas at Ninow’s in his youth.

“They always had what I needed,” he said. “If they didn’t have what I needed, they ordered it and had it in three or four days. It was one of those places that I could always count on. Now it is going to be harder for the types of people that need to go grab guitar strings off the rack or a harmonica.”

Over the years, activity at Ninow’s began to drop off, Mr. Vail said. Business from school districts slowed, the advent of the Internet encouraged people to shop online and big-box stores began selling instruments at lower prices.

And Ninow’s isn’t the only downtown Riverhead business to fall victim to these trends.

Earlier this month, Jerry Steiner, who owns Allied Optical Plan at the neighboring 20 West Main St., announced plans to close his store.

“We are old farts in the world of Apple users,” said Mr. Steiner, who took guitar lessons at Ninow’s before the Vails purchased the store. “Everything is on the Internet now. Places like Ninow’s are done now because of the Internet. There is no foot traffic to support local merchants anymore.”

Long before Ninow’s moved downtown in 2013, its situation was made worse by the deteriorating Railroad Avenue neighborhood, Mr. Vail said.

“Railroad Avenue just was getting progressively worse,” he said. “People wouldn’t come into the store.”

The Vails decided to move the shop to a more family-friendly location and opened at 30 West Main St., across from Chase Bank, in June 2013.

But the statement Mr. Vail gave the newspaper when the new location opened was in stark contrast to his feelings Tuesday.

“In hindsight, maybe if we hadn’t moved from Railroad Avenue, maybe I wouldn’t be getting evicted, because I owned the building … I got bad legal advice,” he said.

Soon after changing locations, Mr. Vail said, things took a turn for the worse when his mother’s health began to fail. A stroke left her paralyzed and she suffered from dementia, he said. He shifted his focus away from the business, splitting time between their home and the store. Edna Vail died in December at the age of 98.

Now, he must vacate the store by April 22. Faced with that prospect, Mr. Vail sighed heavily.

“In some ways I am ready, but in some ways, I am not,” he said. “People keep telling me this is the next chapter. I don’t know. I guess I am afraid of the future.”

Mr. Vail said he would love to reopen Ninow’s in another location if the rent were nearly free or he had some financial aid. But he admits this is unlikely to happen.

For now, he said his biggest concern is fulfilling the remaining instrument rental contracts he has pending with local students. Ninow’s rents musical instruments through the National Educational Music Company. The contracts expire this summer, but Mr. Vail said he worries about how customers can return their rentals once the store becomes just a memory. He said those who want to return their instruments can email him at [email protected].

Building owner Georgia Malone said she has offered Mr. Vail free newly renovated office space upstairs at 30 West Main St. through mid-July to give him time to collect those instruments.

[email protected]