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Milano Music Has Anchored Downtown Mesa for 70 Years

Inside Milano Music Center in Mesa, guitars line the wall, the musk of sheet music manuscripts competes with the smell of wood wafting through the room, and the din of conversation streams over the chord progressions and fragmented riffs coming from amplifiers on the ground floor. A glass case displays a number of old accordions, a small hint of one of the many changing trends of music history the store has witnessed in its lifetime.

Now an anchor of Mesa’s Main Street, Milano Music Center is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.

The idea of Milano Music Center started in a California accordion studio. Prior to WWII, Elma Allen worked there as an instructor. She ended up marrying Henri Milano, the studio’s manager. The two moved to Mesa in 1946 and opened a music store, now the oldest music store in the state, which largely revolved around accordion sales and instruction. As time went on, though, the store adapted to the Buddy Holly era and added a guitar department. The store would later expand to include drums, keys, and anything needed to play in a school band. As the business grew, the Milano family needed a larger storefront to keep up with the influx of business. So in 1974, the family bought what used to be a J.C. Penney at 38 West Main Street, now the store’s main retail operation.

The main store resides across the street from Linton-Milano Music, which is dedicated to piano sales and repairs. The store’s name hails back to 1993, when Elma Allen Milano sold her portion of the business to her daughter Mila and son-in-law John Linton.

Working at the store wasn’t necessarily an obvious career path for Mike Milano and Chuck Linton, who now run the store. The two spent their high school years working for their family, Milano emptying ashtrays in the store — back in the days when smoking in a music store was permissible — and Linton cleaning instruments in the store’s basement. They’d balance school, music lessons, and work at the family business like anyone else whose family happens to own or operate a storefront, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they’d end up running the place.

But that’s exactly what happened. As they continued to work with music out of downtown Mesa, their roles in the company progressed from ashtray-emptiers to managers. Now, they’re the third generation of management at Milano Music.

“I’m very passionate about live music and learning instruments, and I think it helps in other areas of life, too,” Milano, who is now the main store’s general manager, says. “I love this business. I watched my dad. He’s very good at talking to customers and just meeting a lot of different folks. You learn a lot about people. I just thought, watching my dad, ‘This is something I’d like to do.’”

Although the Linton and Milano families have been able to run their own businesses for 70 years, he said the store struggled to keep up with big-box chains during the Great Recession. They had to cut hours as big-box chains moved in and customers subsequently migrated in favor of lower prices. As the recession faded, though, Milano’s business began to pick back up, Milano says.

“It’s hard to look into the future,” Milano says. “Back then, we had four different stores around the Valley. … When we heard the big corporations were coming in and staking their claim, we decided to let the leases lapse and just focus on downtown here. We’ve got the building next door, too, so we’re representing about 40,000 square feet.”

Linton, 30, manages Milano Music’s second-story sheet music store and instruction center, and oversees the Linton-Milano piano department on the south side of Main Street. The store houses about 25,000 unique books of sheet music, between 50,000 and 75,000 once duplicates are counted, he says.
Lessons and instruction have always made up a large part of their business. When the store opened in ’46, it was primarily an accordion store. Now, however, the store offers lessons for every instrument except the harp and pedal steel.

“As far as the numbers, there were like two guitar students and [what seemed] like 800 accordion students,” Linton says. “The proportion was just so different.”

Post-WWII, pianos were particularly unaffordable. People were more inclined to spend the money they did have on an accordion, which boasted portability and a lower price.

Milano Music is partnered with Local First Arizona, a group which promotes local businesses in the state. Kimber Lanning, the organization’s founder and executive director, says it’s important to recognize the contributions businesses such as Milano Music make to the Valley.

“They are rooted in the community, they do so much more for our local charitable organizations and our schools than any of the big national chains do,” Lanning says. “Their customer service is like 10 times better. If you’re looking for something they don’t have, they’ll order it for you. ... Their repair department is just brilliant.”

Lanning said giving business to a company such as Milano Music generates three times as much revenue for the local economy than money spent at a chain.

Valley musicians have drawn on Milano’s resources, whether they’re elementary school band students or touring musicians. The store has helped outfit successful musicians and bands such as Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World — a band which also boasts Chuck Linton’s brother Tom.
“I remember Jim ... coming in,” Milano says. “They’re always looking for used gear, looking for their tone. I tried to show them new stuff ... and they’re trying to go back in time and reinvent their sound. And they did a hell of a job as far as their style of music. Totally revolutionized the emo-punk genre.”
Milano says the store affords him the ability to help musicians mold their individual styles and sounds, and is even more rewarding when those musicians achieve success.

“It’s cool watching those guys grow up and be successful,” he says. “When they got that first band ... they started doing all these mini-tours and it really helped them set up for when they were successful; they had an audience. Next thing you know, he’s on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”

Like Adkins and his band, other musicians in the Valley have used Milano to stock their musical inventory. A Mesa native surrounded by a family of musicians, Jason DeVore formed the punk band Authority Zero with a group of friends in 1994. When it came time for the band to pick the instruments that would give them their own sound, DeVore and his friends turned to Milano.

“Back when we were first starting out, we would frequent Milano’s constantly,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We made great friends with many of the employees, and they were always a great crew and local company. To me, with its quality business and longevity, it stands as a staple for local businesses and bands.”

Matt Keller didn’t think of music as a full-time job the first time he set foot in Milano. As a kid, he visited the store to get music supplies, but didn’t realize it was something he’d end up devoting his life to. Keller plays keys for Gilbert-based band Lydia, and has been with the band for six years after getting his start in music at Milano.
“I started playing guitar when I was in third grade, and probably around sixth grade, my mom saw I was pretty serious about it,” Keller says. “I have been unhealthily obsessed ever since.”

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One day, his mother told him to get in the car because they were going shopping. She wouldn’t tell him where they were going, but once they pulled up to Milano Music, she took him inside and told him to go pick out an electric guitar.

He walked out with a Gibson SG.

Now 28 years old, Keller said he relied on Milano growing up because it was a hub for music in the Valley before big-box retail chains became ubiquitous. The intimacy of the family business, coupled with the selection of the store, made it all he needed for music supplies.

“It’s that damn wall of guitars,” he says. “You walk in and you’re just like, ‘Yeah. Guitars.’”

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