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After 110 Years, Music Fades at Briggs and Briggs

By Daniela J. Lamas, Crimson Staff Writer

The sign on top of the Porter Square music store reads simply: Briggs & Briggs est. 1890. Etched in small red letters, the sign is nearly camouflaged by the larger and brighter billboards of other stores.

Inside the store, it is quiet. The four-person staff is opening boxes and sorting through their eclectic selection of sheet music.

Songs from an oldies station play somewhere in the background.

"Music can give you a little lift sometimes, when it gets quiet," says Briggs & Briggs owner Fred H. Humphreys.

But it was not always this quiet.

From 1890 until just last May, Briggs & Briggs sold music from Harvard Square, situated comfortably in the storefront that now houses an Adidas sports store.

Steadily increasing rents forced the music store to move to Porter Square, a 15 minute walk down Mass. Ave.

"We didn't want to move, but they wanted more money than we could afford," Humphrey says. "It's a sign of the times down in the Square."

And now, having lost much of his client base, Humphreys has put the store up for sale.

If Briggs & Briggs is not purchased by May 31, Humphreys says he'll be forced to sell 110 years of accumulated memorabilia.

"It's just not as busy here," Humphreys says. "We've survived, but we figure that maybe it's finally time to call it a day."

The Way it Was

One of the oldest record stores in the country, Briggs & Briggs was founded in 1890 to sell sheet music.

The store has been in Humphreys' family since 1927, passing from his grandfather to his father and finally to Humphreys himself, eight years ago.

Humphreys began working at the store when he was 14. He says he'd wash the windows, sweep the sidewalk and make runs to the post office. "It was a good business," he says.

"When my father was here, in the 30s or 40s we were a very highly regarded record store."

So regarded that the King of It All, Duke Ellington, took in the store, and played the piano for customers.

"He was a real gentleman," Humphreys remembers.

Humphreys smiles wistfully.

"Those were the days when things were a little quieter," he says. "It wasn't always such a hectic world."

Doing Business in the Square

Humphreys is virtually a historian of Harvard Square business this century.

"You used to go down to the Tasty, and say hi to George, who owned the Tasty," he recalls. "Now, you go to Uno's Pizza, and you have no idea who owns Uno's Pizza."

Humphrey ruminates a lot these days.

"One day the man who used to own Stonestreets said to me, 'We have a good clientele, the rents are low, there is no evening or Sunday work, what more can you ask for?'"

"Now," Humphreys says, "all those things have changed."

But they didn't change too quickly for the venerable Briggs & Briggs.

Through the early 1990s even, business was robust.

In addition to an assortment of sheet music ranging from Eric Clapton to Beethoven, Humphreys sold a mix of classical, folk and world music.

"What we sell is pretty specialized," he says, pointing to a rack of music from Hungary, Bulgaria, Mongolia and elsewhere.

The specialized nature of the music was more of a lure to Harvard Square customers than it is to those in Porter Square, Humphreys says.

"It was fun selling things to people. It was just enjoyable to perform a service and to be able to satisfy their needs," Humphreys says.

Sadly, however, "there's just not as much of a need for it here."

Twilight of an American Business

A customer walks into the store and heads to the back, where the guitars, recorders and kazoos are displayed.

Clearly in a hurry, he asks for a wooden alto recorder. He says that he is in a rush because he needs to catch a plane to Venezuela later that afternoon.

As the man leaves with purchase in hand, Humphreys chuckles.

"That's the kind of customer I get now," he says. "He isn't local, that's for sure. You have to wonder where he comes from."

His Square patrons were different.

"We had a customer [there] from 1933 to 1998, when he died," Humphreys says. "I still have his first check--three dollars, for a record."

As for the man on the way to Venezuela, "I'll probably never see him again," Humphreys says.

Even after the relocation to Porter Square, a few dozen customers remained loyal to Briggs & Briggs.

Robert L. Loud '56 is one of them.

He has memories of the store dating to 1950.

"My buying spree began when I was a freshman at Wigglesworth Hall," Loud remembers.

"I was a record collector, and I almost immediately went into debt. I just loved Briggs & Briggs," he says.

Loud is pensive when he learns that Briggs & Briggs is up for sale.

"I suppose it's an era that, in this day and age, is bound to come to an end," he says.

Humphreys says he can only hope that someone will agree to buy the store and keep it as it is.

"People take music lessons, and they need sheet music and books," he reasons.

Loud, too, finds a demand for the service Briggs & Briggs provides.

"There is a real need for music stores, for a place that sell sheet music and music books alone, a place where you can pick up both your Beatles album and your Gershwin," Loud says.

"There is no longer any place like that around the Harvard Square area, and that's a great loss," he continues.

As Humphreys surveys his space, with its bookshelves packed with sheet music, signs handwritten in marker and boxes-upon-boxes in the back room, the phone rings.

It is the landlord. The man who had offered to buy the store is no longer interested.

The landlord asks Humphreys if he wants to lease the space for another year.

Humphreys does not even pause. "No," he answers, "we can't have it another year."

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