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Brick & Mortar: Uncle Bob's Music Center

BY JOAN ELOVITZ KAZAN
PHOTO BY DAVID SZYMANSKI

June 2019

Dennis Zenoni

On Christmas morning 15 years ago, I opened up a guitar and an envelope stating that I would start lessons in the next few weeks. I was ecstatic, dreams of being a singer/songwriter or a famous lead guitarist already dancing through my mind.

According to Dennis Zenoni, who co-owns Uncle Bob’s Music Center with his younger brother Jeff Zenoni, I was in the majority at that time. Now, he says, young kids aren’t as interested in learning to make music. Instrument sales, as well as music lessons, are declining in the area.

“How many kids [do] you know that are playing an instrument?” Dennis asks. “Everybody wanted to play the guitar. Christmases years ago, we [would] buy 40, 50 guitars in the $40, $50, $80, $100 price range. Now it’s a handful we sell at Christmas.

“Part of it could be online [sales],” he continues, “I just think kids have too many electronic things to play with.”

Currently located in West Allis in the former Stuermer Music building, Uncle Bob’s Music Center is celebrating 50 years of operation as a family business. The late Bob Zenoni Sr. opened the business at its first location in Milwaukee 50 years ago and moved the store to its current West Allis location about 30 years ago, right before his passing. Bob Jr. joined the shop after he left the service, but has also since passed, leaving the business to the remaining Zenoni brothers Dennis and Jeff, both drummers with a repertoire of band experiences.

When Dennis was 14, he saw “The Gene Krupa Story” in theaters. The movie inspired him to create a band called The Triumphs, which included his brother, Bob, and their friends Jack Grassel and Mike Balistreri. The former drummer says the band’s biggest moment was making it onto the Ted Mack show in high school; their final performances were at Alpine Valley. “I was OK in the day,” Dennis muses. “Today’s musicians — especially the drummers I hear and see — are fabulous.”

Jeff says he’s “toured all over the country [in] probably about a hundred bands.” The younger Zenoni spends his nights and free time making music. During the day, he spends long hours working with customers and sourcing quality instruments for Uncle Bob’s.

“I know what I do,” he says. “I get anxiety on certain things — I know this. I don’t get anxiety to sell the customers the best product out there, because I’m buying the best product out there, even though there’s cheap stuff. There’s middle of the road stuff. There’s real expensive stuff. I will spend more money to buy the better stuff, when a lot of the other stores are buying the junk.”

The brothers work with consignment and resale, shopping for new, old and unique drums, guitars and keyboards to offer customers as well.

“A few years ago, somebody brought in a Larson Brothers parlor guitar, which is from Chicago, that was made in the ’30s,” Dennis reminisces. “That sold right away. There’s a big collector’s market for old instruments, especially guitars and bass guitars. I had a guy call me two Saturdays ago. He had a 1954 Precision bass.

“I watch all the ads,” Dennis continues. “I’m always looking for [collector’s pieces]. Old drum sets even have somewhat of a value. But it all depends.”

Though the music scene in Milwaukee is constantly growing, Dennis and Jeff agree that the industry has drastically changed for locally owned music shops.

“We [still] get kids that want to play guitar,” Dennis says. “We just sold a guitar yesterday. [The guy] was doing construction around here, so I helped him pick one out. But it’s not like it used to be, not at all. Most music stores survive on the band instrument rental, and we don’t do any of that.”

Still, Jeff has a few ideas on how to try to keep up with the changing industry, including adding online shopping to their website to cater to changing shopping habits. “We need to try some new ideas,” he says. “You have to. ...You have Craigslist, eBay, Amazon, Reverb. You have to diversify.”

Even with those plans in motion, Dennis still urges music enthusiasts to celebrate mom-and-pop shops and shop local.

“I had a woman call me the other day. … She got a drum set online and she says, ‘How do I put it together?’” Dennis chuckles. “I don’t know what she did, [but I thought,] ‘Why? Why didn’t you buy local?’”

This story ran in the June 2019  issue of: