Businessman Alfredo Flores Sr. survived one global pandemic and lived nearly long enough to see the next but left to his family a legacy of optimism amid significant challenges. Flores started the business that would become Alamo Music Center in 1929, just as the Great Depression began to ravage the economy and lives of millions of Americans.

As his granddaughter – Adriana Flores, vice president of institutional solutions for the music store – contemplated how the coronavirus pandemic has affected her business and others in downtown San Antonio, she said a “light bulb” went on in her mind regarding the timing of the company’s origins.

“I still just couldn’t understand how he actually did it,” she said of starting a new business during the deepest economic downturn in U.S. history. “He really felt deep down like it was a service he was giving the community back in 1929. He felt like he was providing the community with something that they needed.”

The business of joy

Her grandfather combined circumstance, business savvy, and empathy as opportunity dawned on him. After he lost his job working as a piano refinisher for the Goggin & Bros. music company, located in the building that now houses the Maverick Whiskey distillery, Flores Sr. was hired at a local bank. Somewhat ironically, his assignment was the unpleasant task of repossessing pianos throughout Texas from purchasers who could no longer make their payments. In so doing, the bank acquired a back stock of new but dormant pianos.

Alfredo Flores Sr. Credit: Courtesy / Alamo Music Center

Finally, making a repossession visit to a particular ranch near San Antonio where the ranch hand had a piano as the only form of entertainment for him and his three daughters, an idea clicked. Flores Sr. asked the ranch owner to make the payments his newly unemployed ranch hand could no longer afford, explaining the necessity of joy during hard times.

The ranch owner agreed and paid the remaining cost of the piano.

Flores Sr. then approached his bosses at the bank and asked if he could buy one of the overstock pianos for $25, which he promptly sold from his own front porch on Avenue B, then repeated the process. He informally called his new business the Fresh Air Piano Co.

Soon, he realized he could make a go of it and rented a storefront on Buena Vista Street between Frío and Pecos streets, where the UTSA downtown campus now stands, and named it the Alamo Piano Exchange.

“[Grand]dad called it ‘exchange’ because he would take anything of value in exchange or partial payment on his pianos,” Flores said, noting that bartering was common during the Great Depression.

After six years, he moved to a new location on Houston Street opposite Frost Bank. Several moves later, in 1964 the Alamo Music Center finally settled in what would become its permanent location on North Main Avenue downtown. Eventually Alfredo’s son Alfred Flores Jr. would take the helm of the business, enduring the occasional leadership critique from Flores Sr., who died in 2013 at the age of 105. Still led by family, the business would expand to include a warehouse, a new retail location on Babcock Road, and a piano store in Austin that opened in 2019. Today, Flores helps run the stores along with nephews Zach and Patrick Marr.

Trouble meets persistence

Then the pandemic hit with its accompanying economic downturn, and the family business faced a situation as threatening as the Great Depression. “We just didn’t know what was gonna happen in March,” Adriana Flores said. “We were all very, very scared,” she said of herself and the organization’s 43 employees.

Half were laid off in March due to uncertainty about the effects of the citywide shutdown, with the promise of being rehired “as fast as possible,” Flores said.

Adriana Flores. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Alamo Music Center then applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loan of $400,000, used to cover expenses for three months, including payroll and rent. Flores said she just deposited the last $6,000 of the loan and that “it did help because we just didn’t know [what would happen] and … our expenses are high.”

What came as a genuine surprise were the months of June and July. Normally the slowest months of the year for a business that brings in $10 million annually, each month saw more than $1 million in sales, “the best months we’ve had ever in July and June … ever.”

Flores attributed the healthy sales to the same need her grandfather recognized, a motivation for people to seek joy through creativity as an uncertain world swirls around them. She said customers who have long told themselves they’d like to learn piano, or guitar, or accordion realized, “I’m stuck at home. If I don’t do it now I’m a schmuck. I better get it in gear.”

Top-selling instruments are digital pianos, acoustic pianos, guitars, and the Focusrite Scarlett line of digital recording devices, which she said fly off the shelves as fast as they can stock them.

Governmental and educational sales are also part of the portfolio, Flores said, emphasizing that parents and schools are seeking instruments to help their children stay creatively occupied while learning from home. One safety-focused school district is considering a purchase of 500 guitars for students to take home and use individually, she said.

Keep looking up

While shipping expenses have gone up significantly due to the pandemic, Flores has been able to hire back most laid-off employees, even adding positions in inventory and marketing to keep up with internet-based demand. In addition to online sales, the center offers in-person visits by appointment for customers to try out instruments hands-on, with strict sanitization practices in place.

Flores said such flexibility is part of Alamo Music Center tradition, and that the business has thrived by keeping with her grandfather’s ability to pivot and adapt to change.

Arriving in San Antonio on a train with his mother fleeing the violence of the Mexican Revolution, her grandfather learned to guarantee survival by working hard and taking care of himself first so he could then take care of others. He was a member of the Optimist International club, said Flores, still in possession of his old membership card.

The words of the Optimist Creed present a lesson for surviving a global pandemic:

Promise Yourself –
… To talk health, happiness and prosperity to every person you meet
… To be too large for worry, too noble for anger, too strong for fear, and too happy to permit the presence of trouble.

Thanks to the strong foundation Flores Sr. built for the business he would pass on first to his son, then granddaughter and her nephews, his optimism lives on.

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...