Oak Lawn accordion shop owner fights to keep music playing
What can Anne Romagnoli do to sell you an accordion?

By Christopher Borrelli

September 3, 2009

"I am going to sell you an accordion," said Anne Romagnoli.

"Not right -- " began the teenage boy.

"No, listen, I've got to sell you an accordion. Why can't I sell you an accordion? You need an accordion. Look at you."

"I know, but my accordion, it was my uncle's accordion, and, uh," he said, dissolving into mumbles.

"You're playing a child's accordion. You need an adult's accordion. How old are you?"

"I'm 15."

"You're 15, and you're playing a child's accordion. What can I do to sell you an accordion?"

Friday morning, a few days before Romagnoli's 83rd birthday, she sat behind the gray steel desk where she sits most days, cheerful despite a broken wrist, a container of cantaloupe before her, trying to sell an accordion to anyone who might wander into her Oak Lawn store, the Italo-American Accordion Co., on 95th Street. It's 94 years old, possibly older. You need an accordion? She sells accordions. You need a leather strap to shoulder that 30-pound instrument? She sells the leather straps. Need anything else? She sells nothing else. But Friday morning -- well, Friday morning was unusual, because Dovas Lietuvninkas, 15, wandered in and checked out accordions the way other kids might wander into a guitar store. "Unusual," Romagnoli whispered. "He's white, young and plays accordion. It is unusual."

She pounced.

Last month, she sold three accordions. Three. Last month was bad. Some months she sells 15. Once in a great while she sells double that. Lately, though, she's selling fewer than 10 a month. Four. Three. Six. Generally used.

Everything changes. Even with accordions. The Italo-American Accordion Co. probably started in 1910, under a different family; Romagnoli's daughter Roseanne has seen vintage receipts that prove as much, she said, but her mother doubts the date.

Anne was born a Piatanesi, the family moving to America from the tiny coastal Italian town of Castelfidardo, "where all they know is accordions," Anne said. Soon after arriving, her father, Demo Piatanesi, and his brothers Bramante and Finau joined the business and moved it from Taylor Street to 51st and Kedzie; in 1948, an accordion salesman named Joe Romagnoli, whom Anne had met in Italy, moved to the United States and married her. Two years later, he took over Italo-American, first importing from Italy, then making the accordions himself. Joe and Anne traveled throughout the 1950s with accordions in the back seat of their car, selling several hundred a month to music stores.

But "he wasn't a businessman," Anne said, and her daughters spoke of finding unclaimed checks stuffed in drawers after his death in 1994.

"He was an artist," Anne said. He made the accordions himself, for years, from scratch -- reeds, springs, keys, more than 2,000 parts -- until his death. "He would make just enough to sell throughout the next year," said Anne's older daughter, Joanne Hernandez, 59, who lives in Florida. Anne had her accordion school, Republic Music School, on South Kedzie, which closed in 1976 because of declining enrollment; Joe had the Italo-American Accordion Co.. "When my father died," Hernandez said, "the business just dropped in her lap, and she had to learn it on the fly. I have to give it to her, as controlling as she is, she made it profitable. Not hugely profitable, but she did all right, and she needs to be admired for that."

"Anne is pretty much a legend," said Letticia Garfio, the leader of Vencedoras, a Mexican band from Chicago formerly known as Las Destinadas. They buy their accordions from Anne. "Her competition is small, of course. But it's a tradition, and without her accordions our music probably wouldn't be out there at all. It always seems the accordions catch all the attention with us."

Still, the accordion business is not booming. "The market is more scattered than it was in the '50s, when the accordion was the No. 1 instrument and everyone took lessons and there were schools," said John Castiglione, whose Castiglione Accordions has been in Warren, Mich., for 79 years. "People still buy, but for all intents and purposes, you don't find stores selling just accordions."

Anyway, this kid, this Dovas, this kid who looked as if he should be riding a skateboard, so young his older sister had to pick him up, he stopped by Italo-American to get the accordion he dropped off for repairs and stayed to sample the accordions.

Of course, Anne pounced. "Young white kids don't have the interest now. Mexican bands, they do," she explained to a visitor. "The Eastern Europeans. The Lithuanians. This kid, his parents must have introduced a foreign element into the household." She looked at him then, the instrument tilting his thin frame forward, a shaggy head of hair falling across his brow. "Am I right?"

He heard what she said and nodded. He explained his parents are Lithuanian. He learned to play folk songs, waltzes, at Lithuanian summer camps. He said he's the only kid he knows who can play the accordion. His sister, waiting to leave, nodded, then rolled her eyes.

"Who do you normally see in here?" the sister asked Anne.

Anne thought. "Serbian, Polish. A lot of Mexicans. Mexicans, mostly. Look. Enough. I'm selling you an accordion."

"Next year," Dovas said.

"I grew up at 55th and Kedzie," she offered, trying another way to his heart, recalling how she lived a few blocks from the old location of the Italo-American Accordion Co. "All the Lithuanians used to go to Marquette Park. You go there too?"

"Our parents."

"Lithuanians used to sit there playing cards and arguing."

At that moment, through the door came a music teacher, Gloria Guido, who owns Guido's Music in Hickory Hills. She was carrying a bouquet of flowers and a yellow birthday card. She leaned over and kissed Anne and wished her happy birthday, while Pompilio Rosiani, 67, Anne's only employee, took Dovas aside, to show him electronic accordions. Anne and Guido chatted a few minutes more, then Guido kissed Anne and started to leave. "Gloria," Anne said. Guido turned. "Don't be a stranger," Anne said. "Love you," Guido said and left.

"So," Anne said, turning back to the boy, "what you thinking?"

"I don't have money," he said.

"How much you got?"

"Like $200, $300."

"You borrow some?"

"No," he said, smiling at her insistence, "but I'll be back, next year."

His sister spoke up, explaining for her brother: "He works at camp, as a music teacher."

"The money I make playing accordion," he said, "I am going to use to buy another accordion."

Anne listened with a flat expression. "How about this black one?"

"Next year," he said.

"Give me $300."

"Next year."

"We'll see."

It seems every now and then this newspaper checks in on Anne Romagnoli. Once, back in 1990, when her husband was alive. Once, a few years after that, after Joe had died and Anne took over, moving the Italo-American Accordion Co. from 51st and Kedzie to Oak Lawn. And once in 2005, to see how Anne was doing, nearly a decade later. This time, we were mostly wondering how an accordion business stays afloat in a recession, and whether the news that the Grammys would no longer recognize polka music had dealt a blow -- at least to morale.

Turns out, Anne didn't know about the Grammys.

But she smiled tightly at the news and shook her head. "I knew," said Roseanne, her younger daughter, 57, then, changing the subject, "Hey, want to see where old accordions go to die?" She led a visitor past the workroom into a long, cavernous space, holding rows of corroded accordions. The Italo-American Accordion Co. makes most of its profit on repairs, Roseanne explained, for older people who find an accordion in the back of their closet and try to nurse it back to health.

Accordions are no longer made at Italo-American. It's a nostalgic business now, holding back inevitable decay.

Said Juliano Milo, a Belgrade-born accordion player who used to teach the instrument at the Old Town School of Folk Music, "We need that place. You have an accordion, it breaks, what choice do you have but see Anne?"

Said Ron Grenda, of the Chicago Accordion Club, "I wish I had the money, I'd buy it and move it close to where I live."

Said Joanne, Anne's daughter, "To this day my mother calls to ask, 'Did you play accordion today?' I'm like, 'Yeah, Ma, I played accordion -- first thing in the morning!' I mean, my mother, she wants this to go on forever and ever. She thinks it's her obligation to the American public to keep it alive."

For years, Anne's daughters have asked her to retire. "Retire to what?" Anne asked. "What do you do with all this stuff?"

She changes the subject. She points at the showroom, at accordions in sparkling Mexican-flag colors and accordions in funereal hues, with names such Cordovo and Monterrey. She's unsteady these days, so she pulled herself across the room by her heels, the wheels beneath her chair squeaking. She took an accordion from a shelf and pointed at its serial number -- 103-49. "That means this was the 103rd accordion made by Italo-American in 1949." Then she began to play, maybe 20 seconds of a happy song, nothing in particular, the instrument tight against her chest, her chin resting on the edge. Rosiani stepped from the repair room: "Hey, Lawrence."



Anne gave a deadpan look. Then she returned to a conversation she'd been having an hour before. "Look, what else can I tell you? If you have an old accordion, put life into it. The accordion is a happy thing. There is no other instrument this self-sufficient. You play guitar, you need people. But you can take an accordion to a picnic. You can't take a trumpet to a picnic! Not that it matters. I run an accordion company, and my great-grandson, he gets a guitar for Christmas. You believe that? Nice, huh?"

"Mom," Roseanne said, "give kids what they want."

"How do they know what they want?" Anne asked, then turned to a visitor. "Listen, I'll play it again. Someone comes in and wants me to play them a song, I always play them a song. I have a broken wrist, but I will play them a song. What else can I do?"

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