Roberto Romeo and his W46th Street music shop were a Midtown fixture for over 40 years — until he was unceremoniously ousted from the space at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, the owner of Roberto’s Winds — one of few music shops left in a neighborhood once known for them — is suing landlord Montague-Lee Limited Partnership for $2 million in damages as he rebuilds from scratch in a new location.
As first reported by The Real Deal, Romeo’s attorneys allege that Montague-Lee Limited Partnership wrongfully terminated the beloved woodwind repair and rehearsal studio’s lease at 149 W46th Street in December 2020 for failing to replenish their security deposit “while a state-mandated eviction moratorium was in effect.”
Although the music shop’s lease was not set to expire until October 31, 2022, Romeo’s attorney stated that the landlords “nonetheless used the replenishment of security deposit provision as a pretext to terminate Plaintiff’s lease,” adding that Roberto’s Winds “was current on its basic rent obligations and only fell behind in the ensuing months because its operations were substantially restricted with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Romeo’s legal team further alleges that the management company rejected $300,000 offered by Romeo from a New York State Shuttered Venue Operators Grant loan, opting instead to terminate the lease and force the longtime tenant out. An email from W42ST to Montague-Lee Limited Partnership regarding the suit was not immediately returned.
For Romeo, the eviction was devastating. “I’ve been on 46th Street for almost 41 years,” the 64-year-old said. “It’s where I learned my profession, and it’s where I started.” The jazz musician, who arrived in New York from Italy in 1982, quickly found work at Saul Fromkin’s W46th saxophone repair shop and took over the entire enterprise when Fromkin retired in 1989.
For the next three-plus decades he steered the New York store, providing instrument repairs, vintage sales and a vibrant rehearsal space for professionals and students. Giancarlo Esposito, Esperanza Spalding, Sonny Rollins, Joe Lovano, Molly Ringwald, Max Weinberg, Alan Menken, Alain Boublil, Matthew Broderick and Anna Gasteyer are just some of the greats who passed through his doors, in addition to pros from The New York Philharmonic, The Brooklyn Philharmonic, The Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall and The Disney Company. “A lot of musicians, a lot of teachers made their living out of the rehearsal studios,” said Romeo. “They’re a really good space.”
Then COVID-19 hit and Romeo was forced to close, “I told my landlord that it was going to be very hard to pay the rent,” he said. Before the shutdown he had always paid on time and when industry shutdowns hadn’t lifted by December 2020, “I got some relief money from the government, and I made an offer very close to what I owed them,” added Romeo. The landlords refused, instead threatening to terminate his lease unless he replenished his security deposit — a move that Romeo’s attorney remarked was conducted in a way that made it “virtually impossible to comply with.”
In addition to being unable to bring in revenue through the shop, Romeo had sunk as much as $1 million into the space for repairs and renovations. “The problem is that all my money is inside 46th Street,” he said. “The building was in terrible condition when I got the place. I had to soundproof everything, fix everything.”
Without other options, “we had to move away to 39th Street,” he said. And after weathering the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 shutdowns, Romeo found himself starting over, asking banks for loans to rebuild the rehearsal studios. “The banks are giving me a hard time. I’ve spent four months asking them for help.”
Though many of his customers have migrated over to W39th Street, Roberto’s Winds was incomplete without its signature rehearsal studios. “People keep calling, saying, ‘Are they ready? I hope you can rebuild the studios!’ I’m trying my best,” he added.
While Romeo hopes to recreate the magic of Roberto’s studios on W39th Street, he acknowledged that losing the original space was just the latest casualty to befall the once vaunted, now scant music shops of NYC. “It was an iconic place — 48th Street was an exciting street,” said Romeo. The block flourished in a golden era of music retail when legendary shops Sam Ash, Manny’s Music and countless others known as “Music Row” sold instruments and equipment to the likes of Benny Goodman, John Coltrane, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. “I remember people just walking back and forth on the block to look into the windows and see who was coming around,” said Romeo. “Then they took it all away.”
A changing musical landscape altered by the dawn of the streaming era shifted the industry’s economy, and by the mid-aughts most of W48th Street’s shops had moved, consolidated or shuttered. Even longtime landmarks like W46th Street’s Colony Records — a legendary sheet music emporium known for its extensive music theater collection — closed in 2012.
And now, as one of the neighborhood’s last holdouts has been forced to abandon its post, Romeo mourns the end of an era. “It’s sad,” said Romeo. “it’s like a flower where each of the petals falls away.”