“Hi, my name is Myrna, and I have money for you. I know you want to buy Middle C Music, I’m interested too. Call me.”
A few hours earlier, GW classical guitar professor Myrna Sislen had been working out in Tenleytown, part of her daily routine. She ran into a fellow musician on her way out of kickboxing class last March. Her colleague confirmed the rumors – Middle C Music, a community music store on 4530 Wisconsin Ave., was closing down. The price was reasonable. She could afford it.
Sislen walked a couple of blocks to the store. She confirmed the price with five-year owner Pam Johnson. Johnson said she was selling because she couldn’t manage the business on her own. Sislen told her she was interested in buying. Another couple was interested in the property, Johnson told her. Sislen walked back out the door.
“On the sidewalk, right there I took one step, then another. By the second step I was just completely overwhelmed, overcome by this feeling,” Sislen said. “I had to do something. I can’t let this store close. I didn’t know what, but I had to do something.”
When Sislen got home, she called the interested couple. She waited for a call back. She couldn’t run the store on her own; she could financially back it, but needed a partner to help her run it. An hour passed. Then another. She called back, left another message.
Sislen had no experience in retail. She had no desire or plan to own a music store. But she wanted Middle C Music to stay open, to stay a music store.
The sheet music store opened in the neighborhood in 1997. Sislen said she didn’t want it to turn into another discount mattress store. As a classical guitarist, who has played concerts at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, music is a big part of her life. Middle C was a gathering place for musicians and community members and Sislen didn’t want to see that end.
The phone rang, Johnson’s voice was on the other end. She told Sislen that someone else showed interest in purchasing the store. Johnson dubbed Sislen and Angelo Parodi, the other interested buyer, her “dream team” because they both wanted to keep the business a music store.
Parodi walked into Middle C in search of CD’s for the Politics and Prose coffeehouse where he works in Dupont Circle. He told Johnson he could not let this store close. Sislen quickly dialed his number and left a message. Within minutes he called back. They made a date for the following Saturday.
“We spoke on the phone, it was a Thursday, ” she said. “We met on Saturday, got engaged, and by the next Tuesday we were corporately married. The papers were signed a week and a half later.”
The whole processes happened within two weeks. The co-owners had the store up and running within days, switching off shifts.
“The most important thing about this store, for me, is that it is a neighborhood hangout,” she said. “That’s why we bought a piano, not only to have piano performances here but so people can come in, they can sit and play music, they can gather. That is what’s important to me and to my partner as well.”
Sislen said she never thought she would be able to show her creativity in retail business, but she said she found it is the most important factor in owning a business. In order for the store to survive, she needed to find innovative ways to keep Middle C accessible and friendly to people in the community. Every Saturday at 12 p.m., Sislen runs concerts and recitals at the store to draw people inside.
“I thought I’m never going to be doing anything else but teach, but this is just a different direction,” Sislen said. “I’ve been teaching at GW for 4,812 years and three days. But who’s counting?” she joked.
She has seen many students come and go throughout her career, and everything about teaching them has made it worthwhile, she said. Sislen said she enjoys following her students from their freshmen years and seeing them grow and mature musically and socially. She said hearing her students perform at their final senior recitals and feeling their joy in playing an instrument puts a smile on her face.
“I can give them a love of playing the instrument,” she said. “Playing an instrument is something you can do forever, that’s really the best part for those people and those instances.”
Sislen said she remembers one of her students who began playing the guitar to take a break from his life as the head of oncology at the GW Hospital. He wanted something as involving as medicine and he wanted to be involved in the creative process of learning to play an instrument.
“You find you can’t play the piece (of music) and you try the piece and it sounds awful,” she said. “But you work on the sections knowing that physically your fingers are going do it. One of the comforting things about playing an instrument, to me anyway, is if I cannot do something, I know that if I practice it long enough I will be able to do it.”
Even though juggling the store and teaching at GW is difficult, Sislen thinks she made the right decision. Things are going in the right direction at Middle C, even though she doesn’t want to get too enthusiastic about the progress. She has kept music in the lives of many Tenleytown residents and GW students, allowing them to find escape, relief and inspiration.
“It’s like getting on a train,” Sislen said. “The train stopped, and you have a choice. Are you going to get on the train or are you not going to get on the train? I chose to get on the train. I had no idea where it was going to go, but I decided I’d stay on the train until it stops.”