Looking for a one-of-a-kind gift for a music lover? Want to purchase the complete catalog of Chicago Symphony Orchestra recordings? Look no further than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s own Symphony Store. Located right off the Adams Street entrance of the Symphony Center complex, the store specializes in a wide array of gifts for music lovers of all ages. You can find anything from a “Here Comes Treble” T-shirt to musical instrument Christmas ornaments.
Providing a steady and creative hand at the helm for the past 13 years, Symphony Store manager Roberto Bravo (his musically themed surname is pure coincidence!) curates each item in the shop. There is not an aspect of the process that he does not influence. “Every single item that goes into the store I have personally selected it, touched it, priced it and paid for it,” he says.
Prized among the store’s eclectic inventory is the world’s largest stock of CSO recordings. “We try to carry everything the CSO has in print, and we only carry CSO CDs,” he says. “We also carry whatever CDs and DVDs are available in [Zell Music Director] Maestro Muti’s catalog.”
Besides CDs, soft goods such as socks, scarves, and T-shirts make up the store’s most popular items. The store actually sells 1,400 pairs of socks each year, and carries a selection of unique scarves and shawls that Bravo personally picks from fashion and gift shows from around the country.
Bridging the digital divide
The retail experience at Symphony Center has greatly evolved over the years and now incorporates both a physical store and a newly revamped online presence.
The Symphony Store began in the Solti era as a project of the Women’s Board, but it became a larger retail operation in 1999 when it was moved to a space in the Borg-Warner building, right next to the CSO main lobby; the expansion coincided with the opening of the newly renovated Symphony Center. Bravo notes with some irony that the store opened in its new space just two years before the first iPod was launched in 2001, forever changing the music business. “When it comes to music, we just go where the industry goes,” he says. “There is not much we can do about it.”
The shifting landscape of the music industry also necessitated a shift in locations. The store remained in the Borg-Warner building until 2009 and then used a model of lobby kiosks for a few years before it was relocated to its current spot about two years ago.
Despite the trends, Bravo and his team are working hard to keep the store relevant in the online age. The Symphony Store’s new web presence was introduced this past summer, and provides shoppers with an enhanced online experience specifically tailored for browsing and exploring. Bravo reports that they have “absolutely” seen an uptick in sales since the site’s launch.
About 80 percent of the store’s current inventory is available online, with more items being added regularly. Items can be shipped to customers throughout the United States, and online shoppers planning to visit Symphony Center for a concert can also choose the convenience of in-store pickup. If sales continue to be strong, Bravo hopes to add international shipping to the store’s services.
Meeting the musicians
CD sales still prove popular at the Symphony Store, accounting for about 25 percent of its yearly sales, despite the ever-growing trend toward digital downloads and streaming services. Much of this success is driven by the popular CD signings held by CSO musicians and guest artists each season.
Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti and the ever-popular CSO Brass by far draw the biggest crowds of 350-400 people for each signing. Earlier this fall, the CSO Brass held a signing with the National Brass Ensemble that drew an overflow crowd of more than 400 people.
The history and legacy of the CSO Brass also help drive the store’s sales in other ways. Bravo reports that the annual Midwest Clinic International Band, Orchestra and Music Conference is the store’s own version of Black Friday: “That’s the biggest week for us. It’s our ‘make it or break it’ period. During that week alone, we probably get about 15 to 20 percent of our yearly business.”
Providing a personal touch
Bravo seems to have been destined to work for the store, thanks to his deep appreciation of classical music. A native of Mexico, he had just completed a degree in composition in California when he took a cross-country trip to New York to visit a friend. “My train stopped in Chicago. I liked it and I stayed,” he recalls.
After stints working in the classical-music section of the now-defunct Virgin Megastore on Michigan Avenue and at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bravo came to work for the CSO. “Where I come from, it was pretty much a dream come true,” he says. “It’s like getting to be a bat boy at a Cubs game. I get to see the musicians. I know some of them pretty well by now. I get to see the performances and listen to rehearsals in my office. That has no price!”
Longevity is a key to the Symphony Store’s success, because it translates into excellent customer service. In addition to Bravo, the store is staffed by a team of knowledgeable associates, including Kathleen Vogt, the store’s keymaster, who has more than 20 years of service. Bravo notes that he and his staff “spend a lot of time on the floor talking to customers; some of them I have known for a decade or more,” he says. “They are very loyal to us, so we try to be very loyal to them. From the feedback I get from customers and patrons who have a general interest in music, I’m able to determine what items are a good fit for us and what’s not.”
This attention to detail and patron loyalty is, for Bravo, simply a natural part of working for an institution like the CSO. He believes that “the store has to be an extension of the whole institution. Whatever we do outside to support the orchestra, anything in this building, has to be a reflection of what happens on stage. The musicians take great care to prepare for the performances, so we should do the same.”
When he’s not researching items for the store, you can find Bravo teaching piano and guitar to his two young daughters, copying music for his professional pianist wife (“she’s the musical one!”), and making hand-crafted furniture and guitars. Will they ever be stocked in the store? “Perhaps at some point,” he says, laughing.
The Symphony Store is open Tuesday through Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays during concerts. Visit the store online or call (312) 294-3345.