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The tall shelves teeming with musical scores still stand against the wall, a resilient vestige of the store’s origins that remain as occupants of a section of Hickey’s Music Center even after at least 60 years of use.

The scores that the shelves hold are one of the main reasons Hickey’s rose to prominence in the mid 20th century, boasting a vast and expansive library of selections that had been built over the previous decades. Hickey) began to seep up and down the East Coast. Celebrating its 125th anniversary this month, the store’s name is now known worldwide.

Legend has it, according to long time employee Chuck DePaolo, in the ’50s and ’60s, there would at times still be a line of musicians and teachers waiting to be helped in their quest for music at closing time. To solve the problem, then owner Fred Wilcox would simply hand over the store’s keys to those who remained, leaving them to lock up when they were finished. They trusted him to always have the music they wanted (or know how to get it) while he trusted them to lock up when they left in the wee hours of the morning, having finally finished their search.

Dick Ford, a student at Ithaca College in the 1950s, first ventured into Hickey’s in the days when the shop was located up near Aurora Street. In those days, Ithaca College’s music program building was near DeWitt Park and having a music store so close was of “critical” importance to music students at the time.

“It was easy to go over there and you’d always run into some other musicians,” Ford said. “Music teachers from all over the state would buy music from Hickey’s and they still do [.] It’s more than a local music store.”

That simple level interaction seems to embody the spirit that customers and employees alike seem to think kept Hickey’s around for as long as it has been. Though it’s unclear exactly the date the store was officially opened, DePaolo said the staff’s research shows a Hickey’s advertisement in the November 28, 1892 copy of the Cornell Daily Sun, the earliest recorded evidence they can find.

All 125 years haven’t exactly offered a smooth ride. Some lean times in the 1970s and 1980s cast doubt upon Hickey’s chances for survival. A couple from Poughkeepsie purchased the music center and, though well funded and well intentioned, the store was enduring a prolonged tailspin.

“They realized it was going down really hard,” said DePaolo, who’s been with the store since 1987 and became co owner just over a decade ago. “It was the Titanic, and they were trying to pump it out with baby straws.”

In 1990, David Zimet bought the store, combined it with his instrument repair business and moved it to its current location in the Ithaca Calendar Clock Factory on Adams Street But why, knowing the circumstances that had befallen it, would he invest in a store that had fallen on such dire times?

“Well, I figured if I could fix an oboe.,” Zimet said with a laugh.

Soon after, Hickey’s fortunes began to change. Among its most significant changes, its rebirth was highlighted by a revitalized outreach campaign to the music programs at local schools and colleges, along with a 1994 consultation with a group of students at Cornell that resulted in a Hickey’s website,
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complete with an ordering platform. DePaolo estimates the store may have been the first in the music community with a legitimate online presence, and having a reliable site attached to their known brand has only become more valuable in the time since. DePaolo said the website “keeps us in the hunt, across the board.”

Now Hickey’s exists in the middle, a spot they acknowledge but aren’t necessarily comfortable with. The business is big enough to survive, but still must fight every day to remain that way. DePaolo and Zimet aim to draw from the trust the store has built and the staff’s blend of musical experience and comprehension to separate Hickey’s from the entities threatening any small business in existence now, like big box retailers or Amazon.

“If you need us to go through the product and tell you what note is on page 9 in the second clarinet, we can do that,” DePaolo said. “People on Amazon have zero idea about what they’re selling. All they know is there’s a number on a sheet of paper, they grab it off a shelf and they put it in a box, and they get paid peanuts to do it.”

“We get paid peanuts to do that here, but at least we know what we’re talking about,” Zimet said with a laugh, but later turned serious. “I’d say we’re happy with what we’re doing, but we’re not comfortable. We’re all working really, really hard, and we should all be making more money. I’ve got great, great people here and we’re all suffering through this thing. But we see some light at the end of the tunnel. And I don’t think it’s another train.”

Perhaps poetically, Zimet excused himself from the interview for about 20 minutes to assist a customer and her mother who were testing three different mouthpieces to see which would allow her the best performance.

Unfortunately that same predicament has hamstrung any celebrations of their 125th year. With the employees, Zimet and DePaolo included, working themselves to the bone just to make sure the store can maintain itself, there’s not spare time left over to mount much of a marketing campaign. That’s another balancing act that Hickey’s pulls off effectively: the store that sends music and instruments all over the world on a daily basis while retaining the feel of a neighborhood enclave of music expertise.

“I see all the musicians I know there, it’s really a community music store,” said Nate Marshall, a local musician and performer who rents space at Hickey’s to teach music lessons. “Each music store has its own little scene [.] Ithaca is small enough and there’s not that many music stores and so you’ll see folk musicians, guys who play in rock bands, and some people who work there are classical musicians. It’s really an eclectic mix.”

To this day, the name Hickey’s is known worldwide in the music industry; Zimet tells a story of an instance on a Tokyo subway when, seeing a man carrying a cello in the same car, Zimet showed him a Hickey’s business card much to the stranger’s delight. Though it’s almost implausible to imagine, DePaolo said the store may have just as prestigious a reputation internationally as it does in its own backyard,
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if not more so.