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Coronavirus watch: At a Harford County music store, a plan to serve customers from a distance | COMMENTARY

A customer parks in front of Joe Noto's Music Land in Bel Air. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the store has offered customers curbside pickup of musical instruments and other products.
A customer parks in front of Joe Noto's Music Land in Bel Air. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, the store has offered customers curbside pickup of musical instruments and other products.(Music Land)

The late Joe Noto is said to have walked three miles in a blizzard to open his music store in Bel Air. No one who knew the man remembers exactly when that happened — it could have been the 1996 storm — but they are sure it happened, and it probably happened more than once. That’s how Giuseppe Noto rolled: There might be two feet of snow on the ground, but you never know when someone needs a saxophone.

An immigrant from Sicily and a musician who gave lessons and performed in a combo, Noto was a big presence in his Harford County store. If you were looking for a guitar or needed sheet music, you didn’t go to Music Land, you went to Joe Noto’s Music Land.

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That’s now the official name of the business. His son, Larry, took over after his father died in 2015. He made the name change as an homage. He also had the store enlarged and renovated. I’ve known Larry since his college days at Loyola University Maryland. He’s 43 now, knows the business and speaks guitar.

“Do you know how many people come in here and say, ‘I bought my first guitar from your dad’? It happens a lot,” Larry Noto says. “I also had a guy come in and say, ‘I’m Tom Moscato, and I taught your father English.’”

That would have been in the late 1950s. Joe Noto established his first music store in Baltimore about a decade later. He moved to Bel Air in 1971. He sold thousands of instruments to thousands of customers, and he defied blizzards to keep the store open.

But a blizzard is nothing compared to coronavirus.

The owners of businesses with the option of remaining open have had tough decisions to make in the wake of Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s executive order to close bars, restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and malls to slow the spread of the disease. Curiosity about how a local retailer decides to reduce or close operations took me to Joe Noto’s Music Land.

The whole retail sector is already challenged by consumers buying billions of dollars worth of stuff online every year, particularly from Amazon. Personally, I’d like to opt out of the all-things-delivered market. I have Amazon Aversion Syndrome and try to buy from local stores as much as possible.

But that’s going to be tough now. Given the realities, you have to wonder how brick-and-mortar businesses will survive a pandemic when person-to-person contact is discouraged, if not outlawed.

So I decided to check on Music Land, with its over-the-counter sales, private lessons and an open mic night that draws 15 to 20 performers each Wednesday. People like to hang out in the store. For guitar lovers, there are rows of eye candy hanging in Music Land’s big, bright spaces.

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Starting a week ago, Larry Noto tried to assure customers of his concern for safety, writing this in an email blast on March 13: “We will remain open and operate under normal hours while taking every precaution necessary to ensure a clean and safe environment for our guests. We have had the store deep cleaned and have purchased additional supplies to disinfect common surfaces and areas throughout the day.”

Open mic night would remain. “We will clean the microphones after each performer as an extra precaution,” Noto said.

And he adopted a “liberal leave policy” for customers taking private lessons at the store: “If you are sick or feel you are at risk and feel you should not attend your private lesson, you will NOT be charged and you will NOT lose your spot on the schedule.”

The next day, a Saturday, Music Land had strong sales — seven guitars went out the door, along with amplifiers and a couple of keyboards.

Still, Noto worried that it wouldn’t last, especially after large retailers started announcing closures. “I think that will change everyone's psyche about where they should or shouldn't go,” he predicted Sunday night.

He spent the next day contacting suppliers to delay delivery of new products. “I don’t need 30 ukuleles coming in when we’re closing down during a pandemic,” he says.

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He brainstormed ways to keep his staff of five full-timers and 10 part-timers employed. “We’re coming up with internal projects the staff can be doing if we’re open but not busy — database entry, inventory, instrument prep for back-to-school season,” Noto said.

But his plans changed quickly.

First, he cancelled open mic night indefinitely.

Then, after discussions with his staff, Noto decided to shut the store to walk-in customers and students for the rest of the month. He also shortened the store hours. “It’s the socially responsible thing to do,” he says.

The move means some of Noto’s employees will have their hours cut back. Music Land teachers, meanwhile, have started giving lessons online.

“We will be accepting special appointments to visit the store,” Noto’s Wednesday email said. “This will allow us to limit the number of people in the store at one time and supply hand sanitizer and gloves to our guests.”

Customers can order products through Music Land’s website, have them delivered (within 10 miles, on purchases of $200 or more) or pick them up outside the store, at the curb. Other local shops have adopted similar plans.

A little irony in a large crisis: Local retailers pushing online sales to survive. And it looks like there’s going to be more of that going around.

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