Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Music History

A walk through Union Plaza and Music Village, a relic from a better time
VILLAGE PEOPLE: Music Village has expanded in San Jose's Union Plaza over the years, taking over a former liquor store, but keeping its old sign. Photo by Gary Singh

After a lifetime of experience, I can say were it not for Music Village, no one from outside Cambrian Park would go to the intersection of Union and Foxworthy avenues. The tiny stripmall there, Union Plaza, goes back to at least the '60s. I don't think the sign has been updated since then.

Yet tucked away in the corner, I was proud to rediscover yet another stomping ground from my youth. Along with Guitar Showcase not too far away, Music Village might be the only similar shop left from decades ago, a living throwback to what now seems like the vanishing Wild West, when an industry of locally-owned instrument retail businesses thrived in various pockets of the suburban landscape.

Music Village reminds me of the days when music and art were still included, if not required, all through elementary school. I grew up that way. And I still hope for better days when everyone can grow up that way again. For the time being, places like Music Village might be all we have left.

Last week, I visited Union and Foxworthy just as the 11am sun began to warm the air after a chilly morning, bathing the whole glorious stripmall in light and shadow. The signage was faded and peeling in all the right ways. Since I knew it in the '80s, Music Village has expanded considerably, long since taking over a liquor store that used to occupy the corner space. In fact, the sign above the roof still retains the shape of a liquor jug, as it was once a kooky neon sign for the liquor store. The clock sprouting from behind the Music Village sign is probably the second greatest stripmall clock in San Jose, after Time Deli.

As I walked up, a uniform tract house across the street with its garage door open was blasting Tom Petty's Free Fallin', a quintessential suburban soundtrack which somehow fit the whole scene perfectly. Union and Foxworthy is not Reseda, but it comes close. Inside, Music Village is wall-to-wall delights including drum parts, band instruments, guitars, digital pianos and more sheet music than you'll find anywhere. In pre-Internet days, people preferred to rifle through piles of real sheet music. As a kid, I did this at many places, especially a store called Music, Music, Music off Winchester Boulevard, or other establishments like Stevens Music and Reik's Music. All of these were local, family owned retailers.

Also, I couldn't possibly contemplate Union Plaza without mentioning Baker Lock and Key, another legendary local business for almost 50 years now. Entire swaths of San Jose might seem like indistinguishable suburbia—because they are—but between it all, one will discover gems. True gems. If you know where to look.

Now, connoisseurs of San Jose's underbelly might prefer I instead write about the former Burger Pit across the street from Music Village. The Burger Pit at Union and Foxworthy first opened in 1958 and was one of the last ones left when it closed in the late '90s. During an armed robbery, an employee was murdered inside the place, after which it was done.

For myself, I can add to the local suburban noir by confessing I used to buy beer underage at the liquor store right next to Music Village. A Punjabi dude in a turban ran the counter and could tell by my surname that I came from a family of Sikhs, so I convinced him to sell me booze even though he knew I wasn't legal. Sikhs seemed to own several liquor stores in those days, so I used that trick in a few places.

But back to the music.

Any musician will tell you that growing up with a musical instrument and/or playing music with other people teaches you all sorts of worthwhile life skills. Plus, one grows up with a better and much more varied taste in music overall. So this is not about nostalgia for the past; it's more about hoping for a better future in which art and music education are valued again, thus producing a better, more empathetic and civil society. Long live Music Village.