Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Though it’s been a fixture in the local music scene for decades, The Candyman Strings and Things almost never existed in Santa Fe.
In 1969, its founder, New Yorker Matthew Schwartzman, planned to open a music store in the San Francisco area. As current Candyman owner Rand Cook tells it, Schwartzman had settled in the Bay Area city of Sausalito for about a week before realizing that, on his way to California, he had driven through the city where he was meant to open a shop.
“So he doubled back and came back to Santa Fe,” Cook said during an interview last week at Candyman’s current location on St. Michael’s Drive.
“It’s one of those decisions that happened, a decision in the beginning that made obviously a huge impact on this community,” Cook went on to say.
The store – which has evolved since its start as an acoustic guitar shop – is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month. “It’s pretty amazing,” Cook said of the milestone.
He and his wife Cindy took over the operation in 2009 after Schwartzman passed away from a brain tumor. Cook, a Santa Fe native who bought his first instrument from The Candyman when he was three, has worked at the store since 1990.
“For any independent business to survive, particularly in this day and age, for such a long period of time is exciting,” Rand added. “And it’s exciting to be involved with a business that has such roots in the community.”
The Candyman has scheduled celebrations throughout the year for the anniversary. Mayor Alan Webber is scheduled to declare Friday, May 31, as The Candyman Strings and Things Day. The store has already received a governor’s proclamation celebrating its golden anniversary.
In August, the New Mexico Music Commission will also honor the store with the Lee Berk Foundation award at its annual Platinum Music Awards ceremony. The Berk award honors non-musicians and institutions that have made significant contributions to the state’s musical landscape.
And, on Sept. 22, The Candyman is hosting a day of music themed around Woodstock – the legendary rock festival in upstate New York that was also born 50 years ago – at the Bridge at Santa Fe Brewing Company. The event will raise funds for the store’s scholarship fund for its music classes, and Soldiers Songs and Voices, a nonprofit that provides instruments and lessons for veterans.
Expanding its audience
The origin story of “The Candyman’s” name is one that the business proudly documents on its wall – where the staff has made a timeline – and on its website. Rand explained that from what Schwartzman told him, the name was inspired by songs from two blues masters, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. Both musicians sang about a “candyman” character. The candyman, Rand said, was an early 20th-century traveler who would go from town to town in the old West, and bring people news and entertainment.
What he gleaned from working with Schwartzman, Rand said, was that “when he moved from New York, the West was yet untamed in 1969 to a very great degree. And when he landed in Santa Fe, we were a one-horse town. It was not a very big place.”
“He fancied himself that character from the turn of the century, the guy who brought the candy,” Rand said. In this case, the “candy” was music.
In May 1969, the store opened downtown on Water Street. It soon moved into another location on the same street, where it would stay until a fire damaged the building in 1981. In the current store’s wall display, the staff has hung up slightly burnt Linda Ronstadt records salvaged from the blaze.
The Candyman settled into its St. Michael’s location in 1983. The current business is starkly different to what it was prior to 2009, the Cooks said. The Candyman used to sell instruments in another part of the building, but the current 10,000-square-foot space was largely for records, then CDs and consumer audio and home installation equipment, like hi-fi audio systems and home theaters.
Taking over during a recession, and as a way to attract a new audience in the changing retail landscape, the Cooks made major changes. The selling of recorded music and in-home goods ended, and they filled that big 10,000-square-foot space with instruments, sheet music and other musician gear.
Though the couple primarily sells guitars, Rand explained that they went from selling just rock instruments and accessories to becoming a “full-line” facility, including brass and woodwinds. The facility also offers rentals, repairs and audio installation services.
Most notably, the Cooks explained, they formed an education department for music classes and community programs. That includes single and group lessons, rock camps, Sunday jam sessions, and meet-ups. Lessons are offered to kids, as well as adults, in a variety of instruments. One woman, Cindy noted, is taking washboard lessons at the store.
The store was founded on a “community-centric” concept, Rand said, mentioning old photos from the Water Street location that show dozens of people packed into the store to hang out. But when the Cooks purchased The Candyman, they wanted to change the culture and atmosphere of the store. Music stores, Rand said, can often have a reputation for being condescending or exclusive.
“We wanted to become something for everybody, no matter if you’ve never played music before and you wanted to investigate how,” Cindy said.
Before long, Rand said, they saw their audience quickly shift from a “club” feeling to a comfortable spot for a wider demographic, including both professional musicians and the families bringing in their kids to take up an instrument.
“Now, it’s more of a family-oriented business where it’s men, women, children, preteens, teenagers,” said Tom Valencia, a staff member who has worked off and on at Candyman for more than 20 years. “It’s really become a community center, where there’s opportunities for everyone. Not just pros looking for a set of strings.”
Gatherings at the store can include celebrities, some of whom live here and some who are in town for work. Actors like Jeff Bridges, Alan Arkin and Adam Sandler have stopped by. Cindy recalled that when Sandler visited The Candyman while in New Mexico shooting a movie, he paid for a guitar that a boy visiting the store with his mom had been eyeing.
Looking forward to the next 50 years, the Cooks said they are hopeful about two factors they believe will push them into the future: a cultural shift among young people to support local commerce rather than buying from the internet or big corporations, and ongoing scientific research that indicates how learning to play musical instruments can benefit both children and adults.
They also hope to eventually expand the Santa Fe operation to other parts of the St. Michael’s building, as well as their footprint in other areas of the region. They opened a Los Alamos branch in 2016 and are interested in doing the same in other parts of Northern New Mexico.
“We just want to continue turning people on to music in a bigger way,” said Cindy.