Fairhill: Centro Musical Is More Than Just Music

Third-generation owner Cristina Gonzales at the counter of Centro Musical.

Latin music radiates along El Centro de Oro, the block along 5th Street near Lehigh Avenue, drawing a steady stream of customers into the store like the warm, familiar voice of a close friend.

Centro Musical is deeply entwined with El Centro de Oro, or “The Golden Block,” the colloquial nickname for the neighborhood, and has a long-rooted history spanning five decades, according to the store’s third-generation owner, Cristina Gonzales.

“This business started back in the early ’60s with my grandfather, Nestor Gonzales,” Gonzales said. “And then in the late ’60s my father bought it off my grandfather.”

The store was originally founded at 6th Street and Germantown Avenue, but eventually moved to its current location after establishing a name for itself within the community.

“[My father] brought it over to 5th and Lehigh,” Gonzales said. “With the promotions and getting involved with the Latin community, he made the name Centro Musical the big name that it is today.”

Gonzalez’s father managed the store until nearly 10 years ago, when he retired and officially handed over ownership to Cristina and her brother. Centro Musical is a music emporium with a Latin American focus, selling albums from an enormous selection of Latino artists across an array of different styles including salsa, merengue and reggaeton. The store also carries more vintage recording formats, like cassettes and eight-tracks, but that’s not all they have to offer.

“We’re more than just a music store,” the owner said. “We have musical instruments especially from our culture, which are the cuatros, the guiro, stuff like that.”

In addition to offering music and instruments from Puerto Rican culture, they also vend other unique wares of Puerto Rican heritage, such as artwork and souvenirs.

Centro Musical has a unique relationship with the Fairhill neighborhood which distinguishes it from the other businesses in the area. Terrance Murray of the Fairmount area said he grew up around 7th Street and Cumberland Avenue, and came to the store as a child.

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“When I was younger we had a little junkyard band, and we did come by here to get picks and strings,” Murray said. “We couldn’t afford any new instruments.”

Murray said his family eventually moved to southwest Philadelphia, but he still remains in close contact with the store and friends he made in the area.

Upon opening each morning, the store turns on the distinctive Spanish music that resonates all day, a tradition residents in the community are extremely familiar with. Once the music starts playing, customers begin streaming in.

“The store’s also a community advocate,” Gonzales said. “We help out any way we can, whether its answering simple questions to hard questions.”

Residents in the community use Centro Musical as an important resource to address their concerns, to which Gonzales faithfully takes the time to assist customers with any issues they might have. As an example, residents often need help contacting Maria Quinones-Sanchez, the city councilwoman representing the Fairhill district, so the store’s often used as a liaison for community members.

“Four times out of the year, we have the councilwoman here. We help out the community and people have access to her and staff,” Gonzales said. “We have her office to help out with taxes, with the new programs that are out there, anything that’s needed they can get it through Centro Musical.”

Despite working with Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez, Gonzales said there is no political agenda involved.

“It’s not so much politics, it’s more about helping out the community,” Gonzales said. “Whether it’s answering questions, filling out paperwork, access that they don’t know they can get, rhey come here and we find the avenues to help these people.”

Centro Musical also undertakes a variety of volunteer initiatives to help those in need including food drives, back to school drives and coat drives during the harsh winter weather. Gonzales even uses her registered nursing background to give medical advice and provide safe-sex education to young adults in the community.

The store feels compelled to give back to the community, not only because it’s a tradition started by the original founders, but also because the community makes sure to give the store business. Since the onset of the digital age, digital music sales have put a major dent in the sale of physical copies, and many brick-and-mortar music stores have felt the sting.

CD albums sales declined by 50 percent between 2000 and 2009, according to an IBISWorld report, a research firm that tracks industry-based information. Fortunately for Centro Musical, the store has been able to stay afloat because of their reciprocal relationship.

“My community helps me because I help them, and that’s why we’re still around after 55 years,” Gonzales said.

The store has seen its fair share of Latino celebrities and music artists pay a visit, including well-known bilingual singer Marc Anthony during the early days of his career. But despite the prominent clientele and the overwhelmingly positive reputation, Gonzales said she always remains humble and views her community as her family.

“I’m a North Philly girl, born and raised here,” said Gonzales. “I think maybe that’s why we’re still around, because people know we’re from here and we keep it real.”

 – Text, images and video by Charles Brown and Rhonda Elnaggar

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