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Liberty Bellows: The Squeezebox Renaissance.

June 19, 2013

LibertyBellowsInside01smallText and images by Chris Malo. Middle image by G.W. Miller III.

Liberty Bellows‘ owner Michael Bulboff grew up in the Northeast and took piano lessons until stumbling across his father’s accordion. Being of Polish descent, it was passed from one generation to the next until it was bestowed onto him. Immediately, he connected with it.

“You think you are picking an instrument but in reality,” Bulboff muses, “the instrument picks you.”

LibertyBellowsJUMPsmallPhiladelphia has long been a city of immigrants. Over the course of time, the influx of immigrants from various other countries brought not only people, but culture and customs to the city. Those coming from places like Poland, Italy and Germany often packed their accordions along with their hopes and dreams when they set sail for the new country.

“There were tons of accordion schools down South Broad Street and in North Philly,” says Bellows’ employee Evan Perry-Giblin.

But when Elvis Presley hit Ed Sullivan’s stage, putting rock ‘n’ roll into the spotlight, the accordion became passé. What was once a staple of many genres of music became virtually taboo, banished into obscurity.

With a resurgence in popularity of folk music and with bands like Arcade Fire and Beirut featuring the accordion – along with a new wave of immigrants from places like Mexico – the squeezebox is slowly coming en vogue again. But even if the instrument is getting more exposure and becoming more popular, it doesn’t mean anything if there’s not a place to buy one or take lessons.

Bulboff had no inclination that owning an accordion store was his career or life calling. Initially he studied computer science at Princeton University.

“I got bored with that,” explains Bulboff. “Then, I did an economics masters’ at Wharton. Got bored with that. Then thought that this was the real deal. This is the real deal. I am going to be the best accordion fanatic in the world. That’s the dream.”

The dream began to take shape in 2005 while he was living at 18th and Sansom streets. As his skill level on the accordion progressed, he started teaching others how to play. When they showed up with junky accordions, he began tinkering with the 3,000 parts that make up the instrument and began doing  repairs. When his roommate moved out, more and more accordions moved into the vacant bedroom. Soon he needed help and was joined by Kim Tice. Eventually the room became so full of accordions that when a tucked-away Tice needed to get out, Bulboff would have to get up and leave to make room for Tice to exit.

LibertyBellows02smallTice showed up with a U-Haul full of nearly 60 accordions from a music store that closed in Erie, Pa. It became clear that this was a legitimate and growing business. More space was needed. In 2010, the duo opened up shop in a temporarily roomy space on 9th Street in the Italian Market and they hired Perry-Giblin. Before long, there were 300 accordions in the shop from floor to ceiling, even hanging from the rafters.

“You would never guess how many accordion players there are,” Perry-Giblin says with a laugh. “I guess they are all closet accordion players.”

Once again, they packed up shop and moved to the more spacious (again, for the time being) 614 S. 2nd Street location in January. Already, the three floors of the former beauty salon are being put to good use. The first floor features dozens of beautiful accordions in the front, with repairs done in the rear. Walking up the first flight of stairs, you come face to face with a wall of masterfully crafted accordions. The second floor boasts an open practice space on one side and plenty of storage space on the other. A trip to the third floor again puts you in front of a virtual accordion museum in the staircase before reaching rooms used for lessons.

The shop staff’s reverence for the accordion is obvious, from the displayed works of art to the manner in which they talk about the instrument. It is a love that this group of musicians wants to share with anyone interested.

“We want to have stuff people want to play,” says Bulboff. “We want them to like playing accordion. If they have ever just thought about it, just come in and try one.”

One Comment
  1. Al Mermelstein permalink
    October 14, 2013 10:50 pm

    Your story nearly mirrors mine. Accordion (Excelsior) as a kid then the treadmill of life. Now, teaching accordion and starting to fix them. I buy used accordions and rent them to my students, here in the Richmond, Va. Area. I have some students that will be looking to buy their own accordion. Are you able to offer me any kind of a deal which would be good for all concerned? I want to take care of my students and get a little for my efforts. I have started looking into manufactures but I like what you had to say. I believe in dealing with fair people. I am slowly getting the accordion back in this area. (From upstate N.Y. Not many accordion player here. New and used deals on 120 bass. 804-647-5338c. Call or email. Thanks. Squeeze out a super day.

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