Accordion store is his main squeeze

  • Article by: BEN GOESSLING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 10, 2008 - 6:34 AM

Ken Mahler has long known the ins and outs of the business; now, with an assist from an old friend, his store has an online revival.

As kids, Bruce Pastorius and Ken Mahler made an odd pair: Mahler, the quiet kid who dutifully practiced his accordion 45 minutes every day as his excitable friend from parochial school impatiently waited to go play in the streets of St. Paul's West 7th Street neighborhood.

But the sound of that accordion kept a link between them as they went to different high schools and pursued disparate career paths. Now, it has turned the lifelong friends into co-workers.

Mahler Music Center, a 25-year-old bandbox of an accordion shop on Raymond Avenue, is enjoying new life as one of the nation's preeminent online accordion dealers, thanks to a makeover Pastorius gave his buddy's business. The store's companion site, AccordionHeaven.com, turns 50,000 hits a month and that's helped push Mahler Music's yearly revenues to $250,000 and give the business a second market.

Mahler has also kept the store going thanks to his fanatical collecting of old accordion parts for future repairs and the success of his self-designed, Italian-manufactured accordion line.

"There was a point I was ready to give up," Mahler said. "[Going to] the Internet was one of the smartest moves I made."

Website helps store evolve

There's nothing about the store that would suggest it's the brick-and-mortar home of a thriving online business.

Its walls are lined with accordions new and old. A not-quite-soundproofed practice room fills the shop with sounds of beginners learning to navigate the instrument's keys and bellows.

There is no place for the 51-year-old Mahler to sit, except at his workbench in the back of the store, where he uses wooden blocks to tune accordion reeds and matches a stockpile of obscure parts with instrument brands he is seeing for the first time.

It looks like the kind of neighborhood music shop vanishing from cities across the country.

And had Mahler not brought his old friend on board to help modernize the business plan, his store may have joined that club.

Pastorius, also 51, had built a career in sales and marketing in the software industry. He moved back to Minnesota from California in 2002, having done some consulting to help "storefronts get out of the Dark Ages" with regard to the Internet.

Pastorius found his old friend looking to upgrade his Internet presence. He helped Mahler craft a vision for the website -- which includes a description of each instrument the store sells, as well as MP3 samples of some accordions -- and used his knowledge of Google's site-ranking system to give the site more exposure with consumers looking to buy accordions online.

He has also become a regular fixture on message boards frequented by accordion players -- "I'm pretty good at going in there and dropping a link," Pastorius said -- and it's all resulted in online sales to customers across the country and even Europe.

"I did a little looking around here [for an accordion] and there were none to be had close to me," said Maril Row, a Washington state native who has bought two accordions from Mahler in the last month. "How the site presented itself gave me the impression they wanted to be top-drawer. ... Being so far away, with no resources close, that's important to me."

Mahler estimates the website now generates 50 to 65 percent of the store's business, and it has put him in a position to run the business for another 20 years.

"I'm planning to do this until I can't," he said.

More than just a business

But it's not like Mahler would have found it easy to walk away even if the business had floundered.

He has been working with accordions since 1972, when he was repairing them as a teenager at Terlinde Music on W. 7th Street, and he has accumulated enough accordion parts to fill the store's two garages, basement and shed -- and his shed and basement at home.

His accordion brand, Planet, now his best-selling line, came as a result of eight trips to Italy.

For Mahler, the instrument is very much a way of life.

"I made up my mind," he said, "that I'd go broke doing this."

And Pastorius, who never quite understood Mahler's bond with the accordion when they were kids, gets it now.

The best part is that he's in a place to help Mahler do what he loves.

"Ken's the main guy. Everything's on him," Pastorius said. "He's a good friend. I used my skills and I was able to help him out."

Ben Goessling • 651-298-1546

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