Looking for a bronze bust of Beethoven? Or perhaps a pair of mixing spoons with drumsticks for handles? Or adhesive notepads in the shape of a grand piano? All of these treasures and scores more are available at The Symphony Store, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s gift emporium.
In March, like hundreds of other retail establishments, however, it was forced to close its doors at 67 E. Adams because of COVID-19 restrictions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that hundreds of the store’s products have been and continue to be available on its website, symphonystore.com. Even though its over-all sales are down, web sales are soaring, according to store manager Tyler Holstrom. Indeed, the shop’s July sales of just under $21,000 were its best ever for the month, a 40 percent jump over the previous record, when it had both in-store and web traffic. “We’ve been averaging $3,500 to $4,000 a month online, which is considerably higher — double-plus what we normally bring in,” Holstrom said.
Beginning in 1970, the Women’s Association of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (now the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association) sold holiday cards and later recordings, T-shirts, coffee mugs and other items from kiosks during Orchestra Hall concerts. The Symphony Store — originally staffed exclusively by Women’s Association volunteers — opened on Nov. 12, 1992, in the Santa Fe Building (also known as the Railway Exchange Building) at 224 S. Michigan, in a small, narrow location just down the sidewalk from Orchestra Hall. The new store provided a physical space that could carry more stock and maintain daily hours of operation.
The retail operation really took off seven years later when it moved to the adjacent Borg-Warner Building, 200 S. Michigan, occupying a more than 2,400-square-foot, main-floor space that was accessible from the arcade at Symphony Center (created in the 1997 renovation of Orchestra Hall). “It was a lovely space — all custom cabinetry,” said Jeri Webb, who served as store manager and later, retail director from 1994 through 2004. “It flowed nicely from Orchestra Hall into that space. It had really high ceilings.”
Revenues grew eightfold or so, and the expanded location allowed the store’s staff to host compact-disc signings by everyone from sitar master Ravi Shankar to cellist Yo-Yo Ma to soprano Renée Fleming. In addition, to boost sales among its younger customers, it introduced two costumed characters — Meowzart and Woofgang — who circulated in the lobby during family concerts.
After that space closed in early 2009, the shop operated from mobile kiosks in multiple spots in Symphony Center’s rotunda and lobbies. For the holiday season in 2009, the store temporarily relocated to the former entrance to the Eloise W. Martin Center (known as echo, a hands-on, technology-driven education center) and moved into that 500-square-foot space permanently in fall 2011. When he was still an undergraduate music-education major, Holstrom began working as a part-time sales associate in 2012 and stayed in the job after graduating. He was thrilled to be promoted to store manager in 2016, because he had discovered he didn’t want be in a classroom.
As might be expected, the Symphony Store sells a range of products connected to the CSO, including the orchestra’s recordings, as well as mugs, bottles, hats and other items with the orchestra’s logo. “Anything CSO-branded obviously lives in our store,” Holstrom said. He tries to pay attention to societal trends, commissioning a few years ago, for example, a CSO-emblazoned pop socket, when the removable smartphone grips became popular.
In addition, the shop has a variety of products with direct and indirect ties to classical music in general, including items such as musically oriented children’s books and paper napkins adorned with drawings of orchestral instruments. “We just go on the hunt for musical knickknacks,” Holstrom said. “Anything that I can find at a trade show or a gift show that has music on it, we’ll give it a try.” Two of the store’s biggest sellers are music boxes, including ones with snippets of works by Verdi or Chopin, and “interesting and goofy” socks with images of composers, musical notes or key signatures.
The store’s normal hours are 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, and it attracts a mix of tourists, passers-by or subscribers perhaps stopping by Orchestra Hall to deal with tickets. It usually stays open before orchestral and Symphony Center Presents concerts and during intermissions, and receives heavy traffic during those times.
When the shop closed in March, along with the rest of Symphony Center, Holstrom took a kind of wait-and-see stance, because no one knew how long the shutdown would last. Once it became apparent that the closure was going to go on for much longer, he began to focus on the store’s website, which he helped establish in 2015 with then-store manager Roberto Bravo and began to oversee subsequently. (Before then, the store sold just recordings at cso.org.) “When this became our only outlet for revenue,” Holstrom said, “we started really started beefing up our web presence.”
He added jewelry, stationery and other products that the store hadn’t featured before online and increased the selection of items previously offered. He tried to target products that people sequestered at home might want or items that they normally buy in the store and couldn’t get anywhere else. An especially in-demand item has been greetings cards, which have soared in popularity nationwide during the pandemic. In all, more than 1,000 products are available at the store’s website. “I’m lucky to have the social media accounts of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at my disposal,” he said. “If I want to run a social-media campaign, or we want to send an e-mail to 200,000 people, that’s just a couple of e-mails away from me internally. I can’t imagine doing this more organically.”
He goes into the store regularly to pack and ship web orders, getting a little help from his mother because the store’s staff has been furloughed. Besides Holstrom, there are normally three other employees, including Kathleen Vogt, who has worked for the Symphony Store since 1996 and is known to longtime customers. She has served in a variety of roles and currently is the assistant buyer.
For the moment, the physical Symphony Store remains closed. But CSO administrators are looking at possible options for a reopening. One would be to offer some kind of in-person shopping experience for the holidays while enforcing maximum-capacity limits and social distancing. The second would be to reopen in January, if concerts resume then, and have merchandise available in less-confining lobby areas. Stayed tuned for updates.
TOP: Though the physical store is closed, hundreds of products have been and continue to be available on its website, symphonystore.com. | Photo: Tyler Holstrom