Music Man

City Paper

Instruments cover the crowded walls of Ted’s Music. Late-afternoon sunlight shines in from the large storefront window as Fernando Roman stands behind the long glass counter, as much a permanent fixture as the books of music lining the bookcase opposite him. He’s been at Ted’s a long time—about 50 years. His music store, located in Mount Vernon, is dusty, quirky, cluttered, and smells of ancient instruments. Fernando is at home here. 

More at home in fact than he ever was in Colombia, where he was born and worked as a kid in a music store, one that supplied instruments to the government. “Colombia is a big place, but of course I didn’t grow up there, I grew up here,” he says, a trace of a Colombian accent still hanging over his voice. 

Fernando moved to Baltimore during the 1960s at the age of 13. His father, also a musician, worked with Ted Martini, the original owner. Roman bought the store from Martini’s widow in 1989. 

The phone rings and Fernando picks up. “Ted’s Music.” As he listens to the caller on the other end of the line, his two employees, one of them his  nephew and the other a musician who comes in when there is part-time work available, sit in the front of the store and watch people passing by on the sidewalk. It seems to be an ancient way of life, this independently owned music store, committed to serving its local community of artists. And these men might know it. But they’re still at the store, still along for the ride. 

Even though Martini is long gone, Roman has never considered changing the name of the store. “It has a following,” he says of the name. “They call it a following because of all the people over the years. So that’s worth something. I mean, I can’t call it Fernando’s. It’s a lot of history here. A lot.”

Much of that history was almost lost. Those who were lucky to visit the music store decades ago will remember that guitars, clarinets, and other instruments used to hang from the rafters like impractical musical chandeliers. “Guy came in to take pictures. He had a big camera, and he said, ‘Can I take pictures?’ I said ‘Okay, but be careful.’ He took pictures and he had one of those big light bulbs, and he put it close to one of the drums, the Pearl drum. And that is very flammable and it ignited and it burned down all the upstairs and everything went down. And I have to start all over again.” Although Fernando got Ted’s up and running again after the 1990 fire, the store still suffered. “It was bad publishing to my business because at the time I had the fire, they published it on TV and they put that we were burned out. I lost a lot of customers because they said, ‘Oh, I thought you guys burned down.’ But we’re still here!”

Although those floating guitars and violins are long gone—the fire department no longer allows them to hang from the rafters—the store still has a lived-in feel, as if the instruments are actually meant to be taken down and handled. They cover the walls, everything from a Russian guitar, called a balalaika, to recognizable violins and drum sets. The drums are set up in the back in a hodgepodge of completed sets and works in progress. Roman says that building and covering the drums is Ted’s Music’s forte. 

“A lot of the recreational groups, they have their own neighborhood bands, so we make their drums the way they want them,” he says. “Nobody else does it.” 

Ted’s Music (or Ted’s Musicians Shop, as it’s called online) is one of the last of its kind. “It used to be in the old days there would be four or five music stores in Baltimore,” Roman says. “Now we’re the only survivors. A lot of people leave because the taxes are so expensive here. Everything is super expensive. So to keep up with the business, it’s not easy.” Luckily for Fernando, one person instrumental to Baltimore and the city’s tax rates happens to shop here: Governor O’Malley. O’Malley has a band called O’Malley’s March and comes in occasionally for musical repairs and instruments for his band. Roman laughingly says he’s mentioned this problem to the governor. 

Although times are a little harder for a music store of this kind to exist in midtown Baltimore, Roman doesn’t see himself going anywhere, especially since his store is located right across the street from the Peabody Institute. Still, he mentions that he’s thinking of advertising online in an effort to keep up with competitive internet prices. 

Roman lugs multiple photo albums downstairs and sets them on the counter. He flips through the yellowed pages and points out all of the famous musicians who have ever shopped here, including Paquito D’Rivera, the Cuban musician, composer, and winner of 12 Grammy Awards. These albums contain newspaper clippings about Ted’s Music and photos of its patrons throughout the years. There are pictures of swanky events and smiling men. There’s even an old picture of Martini hanging around the store. Roman recalls the dates and names the people in each photo and eventually gets to a picture of his own band Grupo Latino, a 13-piece Latin group that used to play during the ’90s-early 2000s. Pointing to a picture of a formal event, he reminisces about a fundraising event where Grupo Latino performed for George W. Bush shortly before his inauguration. The band also played at an event for Hillary Clinton. 

Now that he no longer plays with the band (though he does still manage them), the store is Roman’s primary connection to music. And he can’t imagine leaving. 

“It’s hard to leave the business. Like, what am I going to do? I work hard all my life. Where am I going to go? Maybe Miami or something. Retire, you know. But, it’s always about the music.” 

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