The rhythm of Centre Street



THE MAN has brought a flute into Ted's Musician Shop on Centre Street downtown. It doesn't work, he says. Expertly, Fernando Roman assembles the instrument and presses the keys.

"The rod's bent," he says. "The pad's worn here. Needs cleaning. You bought it at a pawnshop?"

The guy nods, shamefaced. Gently, Mr. Roman lets him know that he would have sold him one cheaper, one that worked. Mr. Roman specializes in woodwinds. He has been here since he was 13 years old, since Ted Martini, the store's namesake, owned the place. Now Mr. Roman and his brother, Al, have it.

You walk in through a glittering if dusty jungle of trombones, trumpets, French horns, bassoons, saxophones, bugles, cornets and tubas, hanging casually from the ceiling. A little ways on you come to a forest of fiddles, from doll-sized Suzukis to the kind you have to buy a seat for on an airplane. And then the guitars, zithers, sitars, dulcimers, mandolins and banjos. And then the drums -- African, Latin, bongo, kettle, gourd, snare -- you name it. Not to mention the wonderful collection of bowstrings, picks, conductor batons, panpipes, tambourines, thumb pianos, reeds, harmonicas (a neon sign in the window reads: "Harmonicas 25-50% Off"), tin flutes, chin rests, tuning pipes, sheet music and whole separate room for electronic keyboards, amplifiers, synthesizers.

"Ted started in 1934, across from the Walters Museum," Mr. Roman says. "He was at the Juilliard [music school] in New York, had a store there with his mother before he came to Baltimore. His wife was a violinist with the Baltimore Symphony for 35 years. Evelina."

By the time Martini died seven years ago at 82, his store (with "Teds" spelled out in 4-foot-high red block letters) was known to musicians all over the world. He has specialists to repair most instruments, a violin man from Yugoslavia, Mr. Roman and his father for woodwinds, and so on.

"We had 20 times as much stuff before the fire a few years back," Mr. Roman mutters. "Lots of students come in, people from Hopkins, teachers, the symphony. Three generations."

He owns the shop next door, too; he plans to open a teaching studio there.

In a dusty corner near the front window stands a larger-than-life wooden bust of Beethoven. Where did it come from? "Oh, some artist at the Maryland Institute needed a guitar, so he carved that and traded it. We did a lot of barter in those days." It is an exuberant bust, with hair like an angry surf.

Here comes a violin teacher with a battered case. He sets it on the counter and brings out a large, somber violin that he is selling to Mr. Roman, an old friend. "It's a delBussetto," he tells the hangers-on, "a Cremona violin maker who taught Nicolo Amati himself. It has to be older than 1684."

Mr. Roman peers into the f-shaped sound hole with a flashlight to read the ancient label. "Yup," he says. "Looks like that."

"It's got a large sound," the violin teacher says. "It's a concert instrument. The maker has a reputation for being hollow-sounding, but not this one. This has a beautiful tone."

In another minute he will start playing the thing. Three other customers are already milling around in the narrow shop.

"It was just sheet music first," Mr. Roman says. "That was the main thing at Ted's. But then the musicians started coming in at night, and they'd hang around and pretty soon they'd be playing."

A woman in furs bustles up. "Do you have guitars?" she asks. "I need a guitar for my son."

"Do we have guitars?" Mr. Roman says, smiling.

Michael Kernan writes from Baltimore.

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