Gary Zimmerman seems to measure his life in music and people.
From a light bulb going off at 7 years old when his father handed him a ukulele, to turning 66 and eager to learn the accordion, he’s never been far from an instrument.
At the end of the year, Zimmerman will step away from a 34-year career as owner of B Street Music, his San Mateo business where he’s taught, jammed out and recorded with students, friends and even the occasional famous musician.
“They call it the ‘music store hang,’ it’s part of the thing that keeps you going,” Zimmerman said.
Growing up in the 1960s, it was the Beatles that initially inspired him to pick up a guitar. A few years later, it became the sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton that strengthened his resolve to play music. He mastered the saxophone after dabbling with a range of other instruments and went on to earn a degree in music instruction.
The Half Moon Bay resident and longtime proprietor of the local music shop has a memory like a history book of the downtown San Mateo merchant scene. Over the decades he’s seen people come and go, witnessed redevelopment shift small businesses and watched as tech transformed children’s musical inclinations.
In many ways a pragmatist, as a young man Zimmerman ultimately set aside grand dreams of being a rock star in recognition of the need to make a living. He graduated from San Francisco State University, continues to play in a variety of bands and forged a career in B Street Music.
Now that he’s at retirement age, it’s time to focus on his own musical inspirations.
“I’ve always liked playing with bands. Now that I don’t have to rely on [the store] for my main source of income, I didn’t need to have a music store,” Zimmerman said. “I want to be going out vertically rather than horizontally. … I’m walking out under my own power instead of someone else’s.”
Zimmerman recalled his foray into the music shop business after graduating college and finding himself earning a buck by teaching the occasional lesson or playing gigs at weddings and bar mitzvahs. One day, he walked into a San Mateo music school formerly owned by Ed Pickard and asked for a teaching job. A few months later, as Pickard neared retirement, a buddy convinced him to open up a music shop. Hesitant at first thinking it sounded like hard work, he soon realized gone would be the days of horse trading with musicians to afford suitable instruments. Now, the walls of his shop are lined with a range that includes pricier options like Hawaiian koa ukuleles and Ramírez guitars, to instruments for beginner middle school band students.
He started the shop in the 1980s and he kept his dreams of performing alive by playing with local bands and opening up a recording studio nearby on North B Street.
“We built that place on burritos and promises,” Zimmerman laughed while recalling the cast of characters who lent a hand to help construct the studio. “We all had the dream.”
But by the end of 1998, they were getting forced out of their music store location as an office development was taking over.
“We went through our growing pains and trials and tribulations,” he recalled.
Eventually, another merchant who owned a sewing store mentioned a place that was for rent at 245 S. Railroad Ave. near the Caltrain station before the transit hub was relocated just north. The aged warehouse that once functioned as a dairy before a coffee roasting company took over would eventually become B Street Music. The two-story building has multiple rooms, nooks and crannies, all of which are filled with instruments and gear. Since announcing he’s closing up shop, sale signs line the walls and tags with slashed prices are draped off guitars, drums, wind instruments, keyboards, amps and more.
Now, Zimmerman’s attention is absorbed by the influx of longtime clients, musicians, parents and others who’ve come to pay tribute to B Street Music and its leader.
“It’s a real validating experience, it’s heartwarming,” Zimmerman said.
The majority of his clients have been local band students and hobbyists. But he’s also helped musicians like members of Tower of Power and old school San Francisco psychedelic bands. Bruce Springsteen once used the B Street Music recording studio after a road manager called looking for a secluded place where the award-winning guitarist could practice leading up to a local performance, Zimmerman said.
But like most brick-and-mortar merchants, it’s been tough to compete with chain retailers and the rise of the online shopper.
“There is an assault on the small businessman these days with the online thing,” Zimmerman said.
The building housing his recording studio was eventually sold to a developer and Zimmerman said he painfully watched as they ripped out the hard work of those who’d helped out for little more than free food and promises of free studio time.
He’s seen the music culture change as record bins and eventually CDs stands lost popularity. He also wonders whether he should have dedicated more effort to establishing a music school. Although a variety of music lessons have been taught through B Street Music, he knows kids are influenced by mainstream music. He himself was inspired by the Beatles, after all.
“Now, they’re playing their phones, on different DJ devices, and of course the rise of rap. Everyone’s playing turntables or mixers. It became more of an equipment thing, an electronic thing,” Zimmerman said. “But what’s missing is actually learning how to play an actual instrument.”
With the clock now counting down toward retirement, Zimmerman said he looks forward to becoming one of those hobbyists. A musician with more time for the songs he never got around to finishing and nights to play with his local bands. And regardless of the trends, he truly believes will always be a place for musical instruments.
“Those who are destined to play will play,” Zimmerman said.
B Street Music is located at 245 S. Railroad Ave., San Mateo. Call (650) 342-6565 or visit bstreetmusic.com for more information.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 106
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