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Immune to iTunes, but not the economy

From the outside, Don Pedro's Musica Latina on Broadway looks like anything but a music store.

You might guess it's a country-western emporium. Maybe even a secondhand sports-equipment store. Inside its display window, there are soccer balls, wool leopard-print comforters and dozens of sneaker boxes.

But behind all that is where its real product lies: some 200,000 CDs from everywhere in Latin America.

For years, Baltimore's ethnic music stores like this one were spared from the digital music revolution that consumed their American counterparts because of their deep catalogs. But recently, the economy has siphoned away the lowly paid immigrant customers they have long relied on.

Owners of music stores across nationalities — Hispanic, Indian, Arabic and Greek — are not buying music the way they used to. Some have sold off their collections, and others are considering closing up shop.

"My customers are just dropping by now to say goodbye," said Carlos Morales, the owner of Juquilita on Eastern Avenue. He's considering closing up when his lease ends next month. "When they're the most affected people by the recession, what the hell am I supposed to do?"

If these stores stop selling music, as La Guadalupana on Wolfe Street already has, it won't just be a loss of inventory for the regulars.

"It would be a huge blow for those of us that can't afford a computer," said Carolina Portillo, a 35-year-old Salvadoran customer at Don Pedro's. "Music is how I stay connected to my country. Don Pedro's is the only place where I can find music from El Salvador."

The digitalization of music — illegal downloading, file-sharing networks, and artists who now sell their music independently — has made the traditional record store as much of a relic as the pay phone.

At least 3,700 record stores have closed around the country since 2003, according to Almighty Music Marketing, a market research firm. One of the largest chains, Tower Records, filed for bankruptcy in 2004.

But customers of ethnic stores relied on them for records they couldn't find anywhere else.

In 1950s Baltimore, when John Morekas opened Kentrikon, Greek-Americans couldn't find Nikos Gounaris, the Greek singer popular in the 1950s and 1960s, anywhere but there.

And Pedro Candelaria, a 62-year-old Puerto Rican who sports an Abe Lincoln beard, opened Don Pedro's in 1993 because he saw a gaping hole in the market.

"In those days, there were so few of us, we all had to go to Columbia Road to buy our music," he said, referring to the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Washington that's predominantly Hispanic.

Around the same time, La Guadalupana on Wolfe Street, Acapulco Musica & Videos two doors down from Don Pedro's and Ritmo Azteca in Highlandtown opened, as did several other stores that were able to capitalize on Baltimore's growing Latino population.

Traditional record stores still don't have the deep catalogs of ethnic music stores. At Sound Garden, one of the most successful city record stores, only 10 percent of the stock is non-English music, said owner Bryan Burkert.

"At the American stores, I can't buy telephone calling cards. I can't afford the technology they have for sale, and they don't have the music I want," Portillo said.

Five years ago, Candelaria and Christobalina Ramos, the owner of La Guadalupana, said they had a standing order of $1,000 worth of CDs a week. When he opened, Morales said he could still make $1,200 and $1,500 a week in profit and order $500 worth of CDs a week.

Sales of Latin music have been declining since 2005, when nearly 36 million units were sold, to just under 17 million last year, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

David Bakula, an analyst at Nielsen Entertainment, said the decline in sales for these stores has less to do with the Internet and more to do with the economy.

Many of the stores' customers, like Portillo, aren't even online. "Many of my clients who come from rural countries can't even turn on a computer, let alone download music," Morales said.

Unlike Americans, Latinos haven't turned to iTunes to consume Latin music. Digital sales account for under 5 percent of all sales of Latin music, according to Nielsen. (Nielsen doesn't track other subgenres of non-English music.)

"The discretionary money just isn't what it was in the past," Bakula said.

Baltimore's ethnic music stores can see the trend clearly on their ledgers.

"How's business?" Candelaria said. "The word you're looking for is 'lean.' We can't compete with music piracy, downloading and the economy, too."

At the Arabic music store Koko Market on Eastern Avenue, owner Ashraf Rashwan said he's buying music now only before major holidays instead of monthly.

Ramos stopped ordering music a year ago; the leftover inventory now collects dust. And Morales cut back to buying $500 worth of CDs a month.

He had to take a second job, driving pickup trucks 10 hours a week to keep up with his house's mortgage and the store's rent.

"I've survived because of my part-time" job, he said. "I'm not making anything here. My customers are going back to their countries. The people that stay haven't recuperated. If they have a little money, they don't want to spend it."

At Greektown's Kentrikon on Eastern Avenue, owner Nitsa Morekas said that customers at Baltimore's oldest ethnic music store have changed, too. Where they once had depended on her when they were looking for a new Tolis Voskopoulos album, now they can special-order it themselves on Amazon.

"Forty years ago, they were looking to us for information," she said. "But now it's all out there."

At Sound Garden, Burkert said it's going to be difficult for these niche stores to stay open, just as it has been for many American record stores that relied on selling vinyl.

Though many have closed, some 1,800 independent music stores remain across the country, according to Almighty Music Marketing.

"The goal we always had was to cater to a lot of people," Burkert said. "If you don't have a big store with a lot of variety, if you're not reaching the entire community, you're not going to survive."

Morekas said that's not a solution for her.

"We're a Greek-American shop; we can't just rely on the rest of the American public," she said. "What are they going to buy?"

On most weeks, the 69-year-old is making just enough to maintain the shop, but she has no plans to close any time soon.

"I'm here because I want to be here. It sustains me still," she said. "Thankfully, I've got a small check from Social Security at the end of every month."

erik.maza@baltsun.com

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