Milano Means Music
Milano Music Center began in the year 1946, when Henri (Hank) and Elma (Allen) Milano moved to Mesa, Arizona after World War II. Before the war, they owned and operated the largest chain of accordion studios in Southern California.
Henri and Elma met in 1935 at Howell-Aretta Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles. Henri was a professional accordionist from Salt Lake City who was placed on the teaching staff where Elma worked as a receptionist. She was also a popular professional accordionist. They had a lot in common so love soon bloomed. After a three-year courtship, they were married at her folks' home in Eagle Rock, California on December 31, 1938.
In 1940, Elma and Henri opened their own accordion studio in a large, old (but newly painted) house in a residential district. Business began dropping off at this location and it wasn't until they moved onto busy Crenshaw Boulevard that business began to boom. This taught them the importance of being in the right location. With their neon sign mounted high on a pole in front, and with the help of a small, yellow page ad, Milano Accordion Studio became the largest accordion studio in Southern California.
In 1942, after World War II had been raging for a year, Henri was inducted into the army and shipped to Camp Wolters, Texas. This left Elma alone with their music business. She taught 100 students herself, had a waiting list, and hired an assistant. When Henri came home for his first furlough, they realized how much they missed each other, closed their studio, and moved to the Lone Star State.
Three and a half years later, after the war, they decided to move to Arizona and open a music store. Henri and Elma loved the quiet simple life and basked in the beautiful sunrises and sunsets of the desert. Even though Mesa did not have the population to maintain a store, Elma had a host of supportive relatives. Henri felt his teaching would get them by until the store was established, and he was not disappointed. In 1946, they opened Milano Music Center at 58 S. MacDonald. By 1952, they had outgrown this little store, to they moved into a larger location at 45 W. Main.
These were years when Elma was busy at home bearing and teaching little "Milano Accordionists." Henri, Elma and their six children became the world's largest family of virtuoso accordionists as they thrilled at being able to make music together. Their idyllic life was shattered when Elma and Hank were divorced in 1961. Elma was left with the business in lieu of child support and alimony along with six children, whose ages ranged from three to 14.
Those were hard days for Elma as she arose at 3:30 and went into the dark downtown to do her desk work and prepare for the day. At 5:00, she drove home to awaken the children so they could practice their music. A lot of tears were shed; many prayers were said, but Elma eventually became a fine businesswoman. As the children grew, they too were trained to help. Eventually, instead of striving to build the business, it became a challenge to care for the many customers who enjoyed coming into a family-operated, friendly music store.
In 1974, Elma expanded Milano Music Center by purchasing a building at 38 W. Main which had formerly housed a JC Penney store. By 1976, all of her children were raised, so Elma decided to focus on serving her beloved city. She belonged to many civic organizations, and was elected to a four-year term on the Mesa City Council. She sold Milano Music Center to her son, Frank, who with his son, Mike, and a highly experienced staff, catered to the needs of both amateur and professional musicians. They also expanded the school music service state-wide. Elma maintained the printed music, lessons, and pianos, renaming her segment of the store, "Elma Milano Music."
Four of Elma's five daughters married men who labored in non-musical vocations. One daughter, Mila, married John Linton, who was an asset to the family business. John and Mila had eight children who played a variety of musical instruments. They all worked in the family music business either for their "Grandma Elma" selling sheet music or their "Uncle Frank" repairing and selling music instruments and accessories.
In 1993, at 73 years of age, Elma decided to completely retire. She sold Elma Milano Music to Mila and John. They saw it as an opportunity to continue the family tradition. The name was changed to Linton-MILANO Music, and another generation was enveloped in the music business. John, Mila and their children were soon working side by side. With Elma as their mentor, the lesson department grew to over 1,000 happy, successful students. In 1997, John and Mila relocated their piano department to 45 W. Main, where there was a larger display area, and ten teaching studios.
Today, John and Mila's children are grown and little grandchildren can often be seen helping their "Papa" clean pianos and decorating the store. Two of their adult children are currently working in the family business: Chuck Linton, who works in sheet music and lessons and over in the piano department, and Sarah (Linton) Sherwood who works in the sheet music department. Other members of the family working at Linton-Milano are Isabella Linton in sheet music and Marriah (Brasga) Linton in the sheet music and lesson department. One of their sons, Tom Linton, is a member of the internationally popular Jimmy Eat World, which has received several gold and platinum albums.
Many people have gone into the music profession after being associated with Milano's. Some have gone into performing, others into teaching, and a few into retailing. What began as a husband-wife venture with owners working eighteen-hour days now enjoys a large staff of employees. Customers have multiplied boundlessly from the first few relatives and friends. After starting with little more than a love of music, they now enjoy serving many thousands of happy customers. It is humbling to realize they have endured for so many years. True, they invested money from other sources; true, they worked many long hours; true, they love music and people, but it is also true that:
"Milanos Means Music"
Milano Music has anchored Downtown Mesa for 70 years
by Joshua Bowling - Phoenix New Times Nov 2016
"Inside Milano Music Center in Mesa, guitars line the wall, the musk of sheet music manuscripts competes with the smell of wood wafting through the room, and the din of conversation streams over the chord progressions and fragmented riffs coming from amplifiers on the ground floor. A glass case displays a number of old accordions, a small hint of one of the many changing trends of music history the store has witnessed in its lifetime.
Now an anchor of Mesa’s Main Street, Milano Music Center is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year.
The idea of Milano Music Center started in a California accordion studio. Prior to WWII, Elma Allen worked there as an instructor. She ended up marrying Henri Milano, the studio’s manager. The two moved to Mesa in 1946 and opened a music store, now the oldest music store in the state, which largely revolved around accordion sales and instruction. As time went on, though, the store adapted to the Buddy Holly era and added a guitar department. The store would later expand to include drums, keys, and anything needed to play in a school band. As the business grew, the Milano family needed a larger storefront to keep up with the influx of business. So in 1974, the family bought what used to be a J.C. Penney at 38 West Main Street, now the store’s main retail operation.
The main store resides across the street from Linton-Milano Music, which is dedicated to piano sales and repairs. The store’s name hails back to 1993,when Elma Allen Milano sold her portion of the business to her daughter Mila and son-in-law John Linton.
Working at the store wasn’t necessarily an obvious career path for Mike Milano and Chuck Linton, who now run the store. The two spent their high school years working for their family, Milano emptying ashtrays in the store — back in the days when smoking in a music store was permissible — and Linton cleaning instruments in the store’s basement. They’d balance school, music lessons, and work at the family business like anyone else whose family happens to own or operate a storefront, but it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that they’d end up running the place.
But that’s exactly what happened. As they continued to work with music out of downtown Mesa, their roles in the company progressed from ashtray-emptiers to managers. Now, they’re the third generation of management at Milano Music.
“I’m very passionate about live music and learning instruments, and I think it helps in other areas of life, too,” Milano, who is now the main store’s general manager, says. “I love this business. I watched my dad. He’s very good at talking to customers and just meeting a lot of different folks. You learn a lot about people. I just thought, watching my dad, ‘This is something I’d like to do.’”
Although the Linton and Milano families have been able to run their own businesses for 70 years, he said the store struggled to keep up with big-box chains during the Great Recession. They had to cut hours as big-box chains moved in and customers subsequently migrated in favor of lower prices. As the recession faded, though, Milano’s business began to pick back up, Milano says.
“It’s hard to look into the future,” Milano says. “Back then, we had four different stores around the Valley. … When we heard the big corporations were coming in and staking their claim, we decided to let the leases lapse and just focus on downtown here. We’ve got the building next door, too, so we’re representing about 40,000 square feet.”
Linton, 30, manages Milano Music’s second-story sheet music store and instruction center, and oversees the Linton-Milano piano department on the south side of Main Street. The store houses about 25,000 unique books of sheet music, between 50,000 and 75,000 once duplicates are counted, he says.
There are still hints of Milano Music's origins in display cases around the store.
Lessons and instruction have always made up a large part of their business. When the store opened in ’46, it was primarily an accordion store. Now, however, the store offers lessons for every instrument except the harp and pedal steel.
“As far as the numbers, there were like two guitar students and [what seemed] like 800 accordion students,” Linton says. “The proportion was just so different.”
Post-WWII, pianos were particularly unaffordable. People were more inclined to spend the money they did have on an accordion, which boasted portability and a lower price.
Milano Music is partnered with Local First Arizona, a group which promotes local businesses in the state. Kimber Lanning, the organization’s founder and executive director, says it’s important to recognize the contributions businesses such as Milano Music make to the Valley.
“They are rooted in the community, they do so much more for our local charitable organizations and our schools than any of the big national chains do,” Lanning says. “Their customer service is like 10 times better. If you’re looking for something they don’t have, they’ll order it for you. ... Their repair department is just brilliant.”
Lanning said giving business to a company such as Milano Music generates three times as much revenue for the local economy than money spent at a chain.
Valley musicians have drawn on Milano’s resources, whether they’re elementary school band students or touring musicians. The store has helped outfit successful musicians and bands such as Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World — a band which also boasts Chuck Linton’s brother Tom.
“I remember Jim ... coming in,” Milano says. “They’re always looking for used gear, looking for their tone. I tried to show them new stuff ... and they’re trying to go back in time and reinvent their sound. And they did a hell of a job as far as their style of music. Totally revolutionized the emo-punk genre.”
Milano says the store affords him the ability to help musicians mold their individual styles and sounds, and is even more rewarding when those musicians achieve success.
“It’s cool watching those guys grow up and be successful,” he says. “When they got that first band ... they started doing all these mini-tours and it really helped them set up for when they were successful; they had an audience. Next thing you know, he’s on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Like Adkins and his band, other musicians in the Valley have used Milano to stock their musical inventory. A Mesa native surrounded by a family of musicians, Jason DeVore formed the punk band Authority Zero with a group of friends in 1994. When it came time for the band to pick the instruments that would give them their own sound, DeVore and his friends turned to Milano.
“Back when we were first starting out, we would frequent Milano’s constantly,” he wrote in an e-mail. “We made great friends with many of the employees, and they were always a great crew and local company. To me, with its quality business and longevity, it stands as a staple for local businesses and bands.”
Matt Keller didn’t think of music as a full-time job the first time he set foot in Milano. As a kid, he visited the store to get music supplies, but didn’t realize it was something he’d end up devoting his life to. Keller plays keys for Gilbert-based band Lydia, and has been with the band for six years after getting his start in music at Milano.
“I started playing guitar when I was in third grade, and probably around sixth grade, my mom saw I was pretty serious about it,” Keller says. “I have been unhealthily obsessed ever since.”
One day, his mother told him to get in the car because they were going shopping. She wouldn’t tell him where they were going, but once they pulled up to Milano Music, she took him inside and told him to go pick out an electric guitar.
He walked out with a Gibson SG.
Now 28 years old, Keller said he relied on Milano growing up because it was a hub for music in the Valley before big-box retail chains became ubiquitous. The intimacy of the family business, coupled with the selection of the store, made it all he needed for music supplies.
“It’s that damn wall of guitars,” he says. “You walk in and you’re just like, ‘Yeah. Guitars.’”'