A Bronx Music Store Survives Decades of Change — and a Pandemic

Casa Amadeo houses an encyclopedia of Latin music and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Arlene Schulman | Wednesday, March 24, 2021


When Charlie Montoyo arrives at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx for Opening Day on April 1, he won’t be following his usual routine.

Before the pandemic, Montoyo, the manager of the Blue Jays, would change into running shorts and T-shirt, plug the mambo beats of Tito Puente into his ears and jog along the Grand Concourse to Prospect Avenue.

The two-mile ritual led him through the history of the Bronx where apartments once filled with Jews and Italians aspiring to be middle class had been replaced by mostly Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland in the 1950s, expecting streets paved with gold.

The savory odors of pernil and rice and beans and sounds of salsa replaced those of gefilte fish and brisket and scratchy records playing Yiddish and Italian folk songs. 

Montoyo now moves past businesses selling baseball souvenirs, bodegas selling chopped cheese sandwiches and florists offering single roses. His run takes him through the part of the South Bronx that urban planner Robert Moses cut in half when he built the Cross Bronx Expressway, a six-lane highway completed in 1963.

It uprooted residents and businesses. The neighborhood lost manufacturing jobs. Record stores and luncheonettes were demolished. Property values dropped, crime rose. 

The 1970s brought heroin and drug addicts carrying matches and gasoline to burn down buildings, hired for $20 by shady landlords. Families slept with their clothes on. The South Bronx turned into piles of bricks and bonfires of flames.

“The only thing that kept us alive was music,” said Grammy nominee Bobby Sanabria, 63, a Latin Jazz percussionist and composer.

During this time of destruction, at the intersection of Prospect, Westchester and Longwood Avenues, the owner of a record shop kept his store open, hauling buckets of water from a fire hydrant for the toilet and sink. A hired man slept in a vacant apartment above to protect the shop while the Bronx burned.

The store was, and is, Casa Amadeo.

Owner Mike Amadeo outside his store. The surrounding South Bronx neighborhood was once the nexus for the city’s Latin music business. (Photo/Arlene Schulman)

In a typical year, Montoyo would hear the music of Puerto Rico and Cuba that the proprietor, Miguel “Mike” Amadeo, plays through loudspeakers into the street. He would know he was reaching the end of his trek from Yankee Stadium.

But this season, Major League Baseball’s health and safety protocols restrict team personnel from leaving stadiums in order to prevent Covid outbreaks. Montoyo will not be able to visit the store.

Montoyo first came to the record shop in 2015, long after the intersection near Casa Amadeo became the nexus for the New York City Latin music business.

It started when Alegre Records was founded in 1956 in the South Bronx, recording Dominican musician Johnny Pacheco and Tito Puente and many others. Fania Records, named after a luncheonette in Cuba, was co-founded in 1964 by Pacheco and produced records by superstars such Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe.

Mike Amadeo, who was born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, worked at Casalegre, a record store owned by Alegre Records,  singing, composing and recording music, while Charlie Palmieri served as its band director.

The rhythms of salsa were everywhere in the neighborhood. 

Afro-Cuban beats punctuated big band brass and jazz tempos at popular Bronx dance venues, including the Hunts Point Ballroom, Tropicana and the Bronx Opera House. Club 845 advertised three shows nightly and offered Chinese and American food and air conditioning. Legendary jazz musicians Miles Davis, Art Blakely and Herbie Hancock played there in the late 1950s.

But Casa Amadeo “and Mike Amadeo are at the vortex, the center of activity for the Latin music scene,” Sanabria said.

Amadeo purchased the store in 1969 from Victoria Hernandez, a rare woman in the music business. She and her brother, Rafael, first founded a music store in 1927 in Spanish Harlem. They sold that store, and Victoria Hernandez opened Casa Hernandez in 1941 in the Bronx. Casa Hernandez became Casa Amadeo, the oldest continuously occupied Latin music store in New York City and listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Amadeo, the son of composer and guitarist Alberto “Tito” Amadeo, who played with Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz, has composed more than 300 songs for salsa orchestra El Gran Combo and for musicians such as his nephew Tito Nieves, Willie Colon, Celia Cruz and Eddie Montalvo — scribbling words and chords in a notebook and on scraps of paper in pencil.

Now, 86, Amadeo has been writing hits, singing and recording since he was in his twenties. 

Through the 1970s, record stores in the Bronx were places where musicians found work, a room to rent or requested a song from Amadeo and other composers. Record companies telephoned stores to find out how their music was selling.

“Record stores were for networking if you were a musician,” said Sanabria. “You would let the proprietor know – ‘hey, I play trumpet or timbales or sax.’ People would sit and kibitz and reminisce.”

Jukeboxes filled with 45 rpm records were once a significant source of business for Amadeo, who typed labels using a manual typewriter and two fingers. “There were hundreds and hundreds of clubs and restaurants,” Amadeo recalled. “One on every corner. They all had jukeboxes which needed records.”

But dance halls and clubs were replaced by churches or chain drug stores or were abandoned or torn down. The music business moved from 78s, 33 and 44 vinyl records to 8-track tapes and cassettes to CDs, suitcase-sized boomboxes and, now,  online streaming. “People now listen to music on their cellphones,” Amadeo lamented.

Casa Amadeo carries an encyclopedia of Latin music. (Photo/Arlene Schulman)

There is not much of a market for CDs anymore. Montoyo, 55 and born and raised in Florida, Puerto Rico, would meet up with Amadeo a few times a year, buying 25 CDs at a time or bongos or cowbells before jogging back to the stadium with his purchases tucked under his arm. 

“Casa Amadeo,” Montoyo said, “is the only place where I can find old salsa.”

Salsa, a rich stew of percussion, bass, trumpets, trombones and saxophones, with its roots in Cuban beats, dates from the 1920s. Casa Amadeo carries an encyclopedia of Latin music, including works by its king and queen, Tito Puente and Celia Cruz, as well as Machito and his Afro-Cubans, Hector Lavoe, Marc Anthony, Bebo Valdés, Chucho Valdés, Cachao and more, with their names and CDs compulsively arranged in cubby holes along the shop wall with handwritten labels in magic marker.

Amadeo polishes spotless glass cases filled with maracas, cowbells, guiros, t-shirts and keychains. A shrine to Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Roberto Clemente sits on a shelf in the back room filled with 45s, a vintage refrigerator and black and white photographs.

When Amadeo drops a CD into the stereo, the sounds of salsa bring back a time when Willie Colon, 16, and playing the trombone walked into the store. A poster of El Gran Combo, a Puerto Rican salsa orchestra, is the largest on the wall. Amadeo wrote its most famous song, “Que Me Lo Den En Vida” (Give It to Me While I’m Alive). Royalty checks arriving every three or four months keep the store open.

Amadeo keeps polishing the display cases and waits for customers. Some days there are none. Nevertheless, he opens and closes gates to the store six days a week.

Cash only.

No bargaining.

No Wi-Fi.

No computer. 

No mail order.

He uses a flip phone, drives a 1979 Ford Granada and relies on a vintage cash register to ring up sales. They total maybe $1,200 a week now, with only about a dozen CDs moving off the shelves if he’s lucky. That’s down from $5,000 a week, with 600 to a 1,000 CDs selling each week during the 1980s. Guitars are a popular item now, with people home during the pandemic.

Owner Mike Amadeo avoids talking about the future of his store. (Photo/Arlene Schulman)

George Hercules, 18, saved up his $30 a week allowance to purchase a teal green acoustic guitar. He has only started playing. Victor Cruz, 71, a regular since the store opened, tuned it for him and Amadeo, who has played the guitar for 75 years, threw in extra strings and demonstrated how a musician carries the guitar.

Brando Gracia, 21, a soil technologist who owns congas, timbales and bongos and plays with the Afro-Latineers, stopped in the store to purchase vinyl albums for his grandfather-in-law-to-be.

 “There’s so much history here,” he said, as his grandfather played one of the small four-string cuatro guitars sold in the store.

Folklorist Elena Martinez, artistic director of the Bronx Heritage Center with her husband, Bobby Sanabria, worries about the store when Amadeo dies.

“From mambo to hip hop, he bridges all these generations. He’s the last link,” Martinez said.

“Mike,” said musician Edwin Perez, “is one of those figures we never think of as having an expiration date.”

“He would not trust that store with anyone,” said Miguel Jr., a former New York City corrections officer who lives in Florida and has no interest in taking over the store. Neither does his brother, Tommy, a corrections captain residing in Mount Vernon. “He’s so particular,” Miguel Jr. said of his father. “ No one would run the store the way he would want it.”

For now, Amadeo, who has lived alone since his wife died several years ago, avoids any discussion of the future of the store. Instead, he cranks up the stereo and conducts an invisible orchestra to Luna de Paris (Moon of Paris), a romantic piano ballad, and hopes that Montoyo will soon come jogging down the block again.


This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.