When Joe Noto died, his son Larry Noto wasn’t precisely sure what would happen with his father’s iconic Bel Air music store, Music Land, but he knew one thing — he was going to keep it going.

“This was his baby,” Larry Noto said. “We really weren’t sure what Music Land was without Joe Noto; without my dad.”

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But the support from the community was “overwhelming,” he said. “It really hit home that this was something that we had to keep going. There wasn’t a question about it.”

Four years later, Larry Noto has found his groove.

“Maybe in the first year or two, I was running his business,” Noto said. “It’s starting to feel like our business now.”

Noto did a complete renovation of the store, piloted a branding update and brought in new events to Music Land, including an open mic night, all to keep pace with a rapidly changing industry, embattled like so many others amid the emergence of a strong online market.

In August, Music Land was awarded the state comptroller’s Cornerstone Award for Local Business Excellence, which office spokesman Alan Brody said is reserved for businesses that have become the “heart and soul” of their community.

Noto said he was proud to be recognized alongside iconic businesses in the state, which included Bengie’s Drive-In Theatre in Middle River and Ocean City’s Jolly Roger Amusement Park.

“It’s an honor and I always say it’s a testament to the work that the team has done in the last four years, but also to the work my dad’s team did in the 46 years prior,” he said.

It’s been four years of learning, Noto said.

“I think back on me personally, where I was four years ago,” he said. “I didn't know the difference between a Stratocaster and a Telecaster.”

Noto’s found innovative ways to stay ahead of the competition, whether it’s Amazon, Sweetwater, Facebook marketplace or Music & Arts.

In an old warehouse space at the store, he created a venue for open mic nights and concerts, and he added a classroom, demo room and humidity-controlled space for acoustic guitars to Music Land too.

“I still believe that music is an intangible thing,” he said. “People want to come to a music store, they want to talk music, they want to hear music, they want to play music.”

Twelve-year-old Dylan Marsden plays drums at Music Land’s open mic night every opportunity he gets.

Marsden, as he puts it, was virtually “born to drum,” but for a while he was hesitant to perform in front of others. He’d drum along to Green Day tracks during his lessons at the shop, but wasn’t part of a band.

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At Music Land, with the help of his teacher, and the other bands at open mic night, he found the confidence. Now, he drums with his friend Lily — who he befriended at school because of her affinity for Green Day tees, her dad and the open mic night host.

“There’s lots of people that really support me there and they make me feel really comfortable,” he said.

Open mic nights have been on hiatus at the store since the end of August, but are set to resume in November.

Noto has also spearheaded a new logo for the store, a sleek design with music notes for letters and bright orange sound bars behind them, alongside a retro logo — a caricature drawing of his dad.

It was just one of the ways he chose to honor the store’s past. He changed the business’s name to Joe Noto’s Music Land, an homage his dad, an avid accordion player who moved to the U.S. from Sicily in the 1950s and started his first music store in Baltimore a few years later.

The store has also upped its social media presence, posting about everything from new guitars to concerts being held at the new performance space — dubbed Music Land Live — including Paul Reed Smith band, which is playing there Sept. 29. (Limited tickets remain for $10.)

He manages the store a bit differently, too. Noto said he empowers his staff to help the store’s customers however they need to — even if that means giving away a free guitar strap once in a while.

“My dad would have killed them,” he joked.

On top of that, Music Land is a Fender Premium Showcase dealer, meaning the store is one of roughly 100 that get access to limited edition guitars and amplifiers.

“We’re shipping guitars all over the country now,” he said.

Frank Ciavarro, the Fender district sales manager who’s worked with Music Land since the 1980s, said Larry Noto has also started a new sale called Fender Fest at the store, where he debuts new products and offers giveaways.

“It's great to see what he did to carry on his dad’s legacy,” he said. “He left an industry that he was very successful in and came into an industry that he really knew nothing about and has made an incredible name for himself.”

When Larry Noto took over, he was the director of marketing and sales for the National Aquarium in Baltimore, but he quickly realized he couldn’t do both things at once.

His father died in early May 2015, just after the Freddie Gray unrest unfurled in Baltimore.

“It was a wild few months because I would literally be in meetings at the aquarium talking about the PR crisis in the city, and then I would have to step out and take a call about a cello order,” he said.

The more he got involved, the more he realized running the store simply couldn’t be done part-time. Making the switch has been gratifying in all sorts of ways, he said.

He’s met customers who rented instruments from his dad, and are now bringing their kids in for flutes and saxophones and trumpets.

“To be able to keep him alive and hear these stories almost daily, it’s really special,” he said.

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