Rent Hikes Force Business To Forsake Home Of Longstanding
By JANICE PODSADA, Courant Staff Writer
September 26, 2007
New England Music at 470 Prospect Ave. is one of thousands of small businesses that call Hartford home.
But in October, New England Music plans to move to West Hartford.
The three-story, yellow brick building on Prospect Avenue has housed an independent music store for more than 20 years, although its owners and name have changed.
One reason for the move: A new landlord has raised the store's rent twice in 18 months, said David Henry, the owner of New England Music.
Henry signed a 12-month lease when a company called Yong Cun purchased the building 1½ years ago and raised the store's rent by several hundred dollars a month. When the lease expired this June, the landlord raised the rent another 10 percent.
The rent increase, coupled with a desire to launch a music lesson program, prompted Henry, 40, to begin looking for a new location, even though he sympathized with the building's owner, who is expecting a property revaluation by the city.
"A lot of property owners are suffering," Henry said. "The reassessment is going to clobber him. They haven't gotten this far, but it's coming."
Hartford has capped residential property taxes, which could have the effect of raising commercial property taxes, Henry said.
"The landlords can't absorb this. They're going to pass it on. If we stayed here, it would be just a matter of time before it hit us," Henry said.
Cindy Zhao, a spokeswoman for Hartford-based Yong Cun, said the building, which was constructed in the mid-1920s, also needed work.
"We had to make a lot of repairs," Zhao said. "The heating oil was very expensive last year, so that necessitated raising the rent."
New England Music's departure from Hartford will be a small event compared to the one announced this spring by MetLife, one of Connecticut's largest employers.
Next year, the New York-based insurer plans to move its offices and 1,300 employees from downtown Hartford to Bloomfield.
But for New England Music and some other small businesses in the city, the prospect of higher rent is pushing them to consider relocating.
"For a business to grow, you have to move forward. If you don't move forward you die," Henry said.
As an independent music store, New England Music must compete with big music store chains such as Guitar Center and Daddy's Junky Music. Henry's strategy has been to offer more services than the big box stores. He's installed audio systems for Bloomfield public schools and for the psychology department at the University of Hartford, and he also allows customers the opportunity to dicker.
"This is one of the few businesses in which people come in and look at the sticker price and ask for a better deal - and often get it," Henry said. "That's some of our freedom, how we handle our customers."
After a months-long search, Henry settled on a storefront at 589 New Park Ave. The building's owners, said Henry, are remodeling to his specifications.
Three practice rooms that will accommodate the store's new music lesson program are being constructed along with a climate-controlled room to house the acoustic instruments - the banjos and the six- and 12-string guitars.
Henry plans to move to the new location by the first week of October.
The store's current building, with its Jacobean Revival façade, is the epitome of the old-fashioned mixed-use structure.
The first floor was designed for retail space - the remains of a tin ceiling are still visible inside the store - while the second and third floors have apartments. But there are few off-street parking spots.
It's not easy to move, Henry said. "I've always done business in this town. We're sad to leave this spot. It has landmark status."
Henry, a professional drummer, opened an audio store at 470 Prospect Ave. in the city's West End in 1998 with $25,000 in savings.
His next-door neighbor in the same building was Melody Music. When Melody closed in 2002, Henry leased the space.
He bought new stock and began selling instruments, from drum kits to clarinets to violins to electric keyboards. A few remnants of the old music store can still be seen: alongside sheet music selections from songwriters Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson are a 1987/1988 TV songbook and "Vocal selections from `How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.'"
With the acquisition of Melody's storefront, New England Music's retail space doubled from 1,000 square feet to 2,000 square feet.
However, the interior wall that once separated the two storefronts remained, connected by a corridor at the back. That configuration meant that Henry had to staff the store with two employees at all times, one to mind the counter and the other to keep watch on the other side of the partition.
With expansion Henry began cultivating a host of new clients: school music programs and musicians whom Henry had known when he was a drummer for the band "Cool Runnings." Within a few years, New England Music was generating more than $1 million dollars a year in revenue, he said.
The rent at the new location is about the same as if he had remained in his current store and paid the 10 percent increase, but the new location offers some new benefits, Henry said.
There are 20 off-street parking spots. And although the new store, at 2,200 square feet, is only 200 square feet larger than the old, the space isn't divided up.
"We'll be able to watch the store with less manpower," Henry said.
Henry and his three employees, one full-time and one part-time, are all professional musicians accustomed to loading and unloading hundreds of pounds of gear. So, to save money, Henry plans to move the store himself.
He estimates it will take him and his staff three to four days to truck the store's inventory the short distance to the new West Hartford store.
"We're cowboys," Henry joked. "Loading your gear into a van at 2 a.m. teaches you how to move."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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