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In the fall of 2008, a month after Hurricane Ike made landfall in Texas, I attended a classical concert at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and heard, for the first time, the Sinfonietta by Leoš Janáček. It’s a wild, joyous, twenty-minute adrenaline rush of a piece, which calls for fourteen trumpeters in two groups, one standing, and asks them to blast exuberant fanfares down the audience’s ears. A few days later, I walked to a store that specialized in selling classical music CDs and bought a copy of the Sinfonietta to hear it again.
This was a time when if you wanted to hear a piece of music, you decided to buy a CD of it, and the way to buy the CD was to go to a real-life store, flip through the shelves, make a purchase at a manned cash register, and tear open the plastic shrink-wrap. It sounds like a fable from a deep past. But against all odds, the store I visited still exists.
Classical Music of Spring, as it’s now called, is a time warp and a survival tale. It’s a physical shop in historic downtown Spring, a block from CorkScrew BBQ, that stocks a selection of mostly new classical CDs, with a few used albums, Broadway and movie soundtracks, and DVDs and Blu-rays of opera and ballet productions. It doesn’t sell instruments, sheet music, or guitar strings. Just recordings.
This is a business model so rare that it’s hard to gauge just how many competitors are left. When I asked owner Michael Sumbera if he knew of any other independently owned classical CD stores, his eyes narrowed in concentration and he stared off into the distance.
“I’ve heard rumors about one,” he finally said, in the tone you might use while driving through downtown Houston looking for a parking space. “In Berkeley [California]. According to the distributors I work with, it’s basically just us.” (The rumor is true, though that shop, unlike Classical Music of Spring, has an attached cafe and an online Amazon storefront.)
The fact that Classical Music of Spring is still here is a miracle, and not just because of its niche. Original owner Joel Greenspan opened the store as Joel’s Classical Shop in Houston in 2002. Greenspan had started out as the classical guy at a big-box chain called Sound Warehouse, which—cue the alarm bells—was bought out by Blockbuster. As larger retailers consolidated and diversified, Greenspan opened his own store to stay specialized on the music he knew and loved.
Sumbera, a trained musicologist, became a Joel’s regular. One day he walked in and Greenspan complained that the assistant shopkeeper had just quit. Sumbera was looking for part-time work, and that was that.
Greenspan sold Joel’s to Sumbera in 2011, and died of colon cancer two years later. Then Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, wiping out $60,000 of inventory and an invaluable collection of rare marketing promo albums. Five weeks after landfall, the lease ran out.
“The previous landlord had been charging below market rate to keep the place filled,” Sumbera explained. “The new landlord wanted market rate, and we were not doing business to afford that.” As the floodwaters receded, he packed up everything that wasn’t damaged and took it north to Spring, moving the business into a tiny old house which, because it sits on land owned by Sumbera’s family, comes rent-free.
Many of the store’s customers followed him, but Sumbera still regrets the loss of some who did not have cars and visited via public transit. The store was never really about shopping; it was more of a community center or musical salon, where classical buffs gathered to argue about their favorite artists, discuss new releases, and listen to albums on the store’s speakers.
“It’s a hangout,” Sumbera mused. “People don’t just come in and flip through the stacks, pick up a couple of recordings, buy them, and leave. People stick around and chat.”
I stuck around and chatted for a half hour on a recent visit, delighted that, apart from the move north, Classical Music of Spring has basically not changed. Sumbera put on an album—Rodion Shchedrin’s nutty, slapstick rewrite of the opera Carmen—as I flicked through the shelves. The wall of new releases and the carefully organized shelves tempted me into walking away with a bag of goodies. Some of the inventory, however, has been around for a long time. Between two new CD cases, I found a perfectly flattened, practically fossilized dead bug.
Traffic is slow these days. Nobody else visited while I was in the shop, or when I called Sumbera back the next week. He described a typical day in this way: “A couple people come in; I get a few phone calls.” Things pick up after Houston Symphony concerts, when attendees come in asking about the music they just heard. Unsurprisingly, many of his visitors are older and unwilling to navigate the worlds of downloads and streaming services.
“But there’s also another side of it,” he said. “The classical audience, I’m not saying they’re all audiophiles, but they want fidelity. They’re not generally so concerned with portability.”
It would, of course, be better for business if Classical Music of Spring had a website that enabled it to ship CDs around the country; this is the model adopted by most other independent niche record outlets, like jazz shop Louisiana Music Factory and British classical store Presto Music. But the logistics of setting up an online storefront for classical music are darn near terrifying.
Think about searching Amazon for a pop album you want to download. You can probably type in “Adele 30” and be done. But the classical world, with composers, soloists, conductors, ensembles, and hundreds of compositions with identical names like “Piano Sonata,” is a database programmer’s nightmare. And then there’s the sheer volume of classical recordings being released. Presto Music, for example, stocks 614 recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
“I don’t think people realize how many classical titles are out there in print right now,” Sumbera pointed out, before offering a ballpark guess: 150,000. Naxos, America’s biggest classical distributor, lists 297 brand-new albums arriving in the month of March alone. Sumbera can’t load all of those into an online store by himself, or even fit the inventory into his building.
Like so many things in danger of going extinct in our internet age, Classical Music of Spring’s core strength is its human presence. Sumbera recently helped a customer who heard a piece on the radio and only remembered that it had a violin and the composer’s name started with M. (It turned out to be Max Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy.) And if you want to hear Beethoven’s Fifth, would you rather navigate 614 options online or go to a store and ask an expert which one to get?
That human element has already helped revive other record stores around the country. For now—with, luckily, no rent to pay—Sumbera is turning just enough profit to keep going. The question of whether classical recordings can enjoy similar niche success isn’t settled yet, but Classical Music of Spring has survived too many challenges not to find out the answer.