Zeswitz Music Resurges Under Rayburn’s Wing
Stronger Than Ever, the Reading Penn. Retailer Celebrates its 85th Year in Business
“One of the single most important factors that has made Zeswitz such a strong force in our region is the longevity an dedication of the employees,” says Rick Dietrich, executive vice president Zeswitz Music. “The Zeswitz family cultivated this organization and even being after being sold, and going through a bankruptcy, only one employee resigned.”
He pauses, then repeats for emphasis: “During those tumultuous and difficult times, only one employee bailed!”
The store does boast something of a story that starts with a long rise, a short period that put them down-but-not-out, a union with another strong family-run organization, and now a future that is brighter than ever.
Looking at it today, it’s hard to believe the store was even ever in trouble. Bouncing back from its bare-bones days of liquidation, Zeswitz has now tripled its inventory, has increased the number of studios for private instruction, and expanded its repair operation. Its sheet music inventory has increased by nearly 500 percent, and its rental programs now reach into 70 school districts.
The Blind Date
Bill Zeswitz Sr., a violin maker/repairer/restorer who had moved to Reading, Pennsylvania to practice his trade, founded Zeswitz Music in 1923. In 1944 Bill Zeswitz Jr. got involved and developed the school service program. By the end of the 1950s Bill Jr. was at the helm, and then further expansion and success followed beyond band and orchestra, and even beyond the state’s borders. The operation would serve a quad-state region, as it does today.
Dietrich joined the company in 1991 as a woodwind repair apprentice, and rose through the ranks over the next decade. When Brook Mays bought the store from Zeswitz in 2002, Dietrich was named general manager. Impressively, the storied staff stuck around through that transition. Then in August 2006, Brook Mays collapsed into bankruptcy, and the operation was handed over to liquidators. Many in similar straights were forced to shut their doors for good, but not Zeswitz. “We had a cooperative relationship with the liquidators,” Dietrich says.
But it would take more than cooperation, and luckily for all parties, Rayburn got involved. “Technically the store was owned by liquidators for about three weeks, and then we officially came under the wing of Ronni Ginott, owner of Rayburn Music,” Dietrich says.
“The only way I can describe it is that it was much like a very successful blind date,” laughs Ronni Ginott, Rayburn’s owner. “All of a sudden one day it belonged to us, and we met all these wonderful people, and the relationship has flourished.”
It would become a strong union, able to not only continue on the strength of Zeswitz’s long tradition of service, and take advantage of Rayburn’s rich heritage of quality and personal relationships. Rayburn has been in business since 1939, and has stores in Boston, New York, and Connecticut. The owners of both had a long history of mutual admiration and respect.
Ginott says they had kept an eye open for possible expansion, but all paled to the opportunity to own Zeswitz. It was as good a fit as possible. “The more we got to know them, the more we liked them, and the feeling was mutual.” She sites similar business model, history, and emphasis on rental programs as some of the many reasons the transition went so smoothly. “The Zeswitz business model was similar to that of Rayburn and we wanted them to continue doing business as they had been. We left the name and didn’t make any drastic changes.”
One significant change – Ginott was so impressed with Dietrich, she soon expanded his responsibilities to extend across all four stores. This resulted in many corporate operations and processes being centralized in the Reading location.
Between the team at Rayburn and the team at Zeswitz, what could have resulted in a shutdown of the much loved music store became merely an inconvenient blip on the radar.
Today and Tomorrow
The store itself is currently a full line operation with 37 employees and nine teachers. The operation is 30,000 square feet, of which 5,000 square feet make up the retail floor. The teaching facility takes up another 3,500 square feet. Plus there is a stage for open mic events, clinics, and workshops.
Products found in the store include a lot of Yamaha winds, which he says are an especially “hot ticket.” Also included in the B&O segment are Conn-Selmer products, EM Winston, the Gemstone family, Jupiter, Sonaré, Buffet Crampon, Engelhardt, Amati, Strunal, EMMC, and Zeswitz Violins. Their MI combo segment includes Yamaha, Peavey, Randall, Washburn, Samick, Parker, Eden, Casio, Mapex, Ludwig, PDP by DW, Zildjian, Paiste, and Sabian, among others.
“Right now acoustic guitars are quick to move, as are most entry level electrics,” Dietrich says. “Drum sets were down for several months, but are suddenly really picking up for us. Wind instruments are always consistent for us, with flutes being the leader almost all the time. Digital keyboards are also doing really well.”
Marketing and promotion-wise they “do a little bit of everything.” This includes email blasts and a monthly newsletter that features ‘meet the staff’ segments and information on particularly hot products. They run ads in the local papers and outlining areas, and sometimes even do a little radio. They also sponsor a popular weekly in-store jazz club, “Berks Jazz Jam.” They are behind a local jazz festival and the “Gerald Veasley’s Bass Bootcamp,” among other high-profile events.
They are currently starting or expanding programs that invite the public in for open mic night events, which is especially popular with the under 21 crowd who also need something to do and somewhere to go. Zeswitz is also reaching out to the underprivileged community, too, through a program called the Reading Musical Foundation. It puts instruments in the hands of kids whose families couldn’t otherwise afford them.
It all seems to be paying off.
“We’re doing really well today,” Dietrich proclaims. “Last year we experienced double digit growth in our rental volume. We’ve certainly regained any ground we may have lost during our challenging times, and are now poised for substantial future growth.” He says that fortunately for the store, the area schools have always had and continue to have strong music programs. He says he’s not seen much of a slow down in school budgets as might be expected, and its certainly doesn’t seem to be effecting the store’s rental program.
Helping are Zeswitz’s reps. “I think we have the best school reps in the world!” he says. But he stresses that they are so good because of the emphasis on the relationships they have developed with the band and orchestra directors.
Dietrich, looking toward the future, says: “We’re expecting more of the same. We’re in a growth pattern for both retail and school rental, and we see opportunities to expand further in our ability to provide music education and become even stronger in the community. Continuing relationships is where we will have the most impact.”
“We’re optimistic,” echoes Ginott. “Rayburn is doing well, Zeswitz is doing well … we have perfected what we do and haven’t changed the model. Hopefully we’ll continue to grow.”