Music Features

Chick Music is Closing After 79 Years as a Classic City Cornerstone

(l-r) Steve and Van Shepherd stand outside Chick Music, closing Dec. 15. Credit: Sarah White.

Every corner of downtown is filled with history and businesses that have fostered the whimsical music community Athens is known for—although many locations are just memories and topics of bar chatter now, especially after the pandemic. After 79 years of service as Athens’ oldest full service music store, Chick Music is closing its doors Wednesday, Dec. 15. However, this close is one of bittersweet relief: The Shepherd family is retiring.

Lewis Chick opened Chick Music, then Chick Piano, in 1942 on Jackson Street. Chick, a blind lawyer who found it difficult to obtain clients during World War II and decided to join the music business, met Billy Shepherd at a school for the blind and hired him. In 1965, Billy and Anne Shepherd purchased the business from the Chick family after Lewis’ death, and they moved the store a few years later from its Lumpkin Street location next to the Georgia Theatre to Clayton Street, where it has remained ever since. The Shepherd children (Van, Steve, Christy and Carol) grew up in the family business and continued running it together alongside Anne after their father’s death.

Steve reflects on Chick first moving to Clayton Street, which was not much of a retail space at that time, and says across the street was a barn-like brick building housing a John Deere tractor dealership. As downtown has changed over the years, so has the nature of the music business. As the name suggests, Chick Piano began as a piano and organ store, says Van, but organs are now outdated. As the ‘60s ushered in rock and roll, Chick began selling electric guitars and amps. 

“Peter Buck [of R.E.M.] bought his first guitar from my father, and we’ve built relationships with the Athens bands in their infancy,” says Van. “The upstairs that we opened up, the first thing that we had up there before we had any kind of recitals was The B-52’s used it for two weeks to prepare for their tour when they did the show at The Classic Center. Back in the day when [Widespread] Panic would travel, we would ship things to them when they were on the road and needed something.”

In the early 2000s, band instrument rental and repair and a lesson studio became integral parts of Chick’s business model. It is currently the only music store in Athens able to service band instruments. “We stand behind what we sell, and I think that’s very important as far as dealing with local businesses, as opposed to something on the internet. People come in with the off-brand instruments they bought on the internet, and we can’t fix them,” says Steve. Hand-in-hand with band needs, the state of sheet music has been one of the biggest demand changes. The Clayton Street store condensed down to a third of its size because people did not buy sheet music like they used to, says Christy, and due to this, Chick started a download service.

Unfortunately, the lesson studios have been empty since March 2020, and many teachers set up online lessons from home because of COVID. At the height of the pandemic, Chick received approval from Athens-Clarke County to open three hours a day, three days a week for curbside pickup, despite not being an “essential business.” Supply chain issues continue to affect music businesses, especially small businesses that are not able to warehouse backup inventory. “Small dealers with less capital, we have less inventory, so when it’s cut back, you suffer quickly,” says Van. “We lost a lot of sales because of that.” Small businesses of all types have felt similar pains over the past two years.

As this year comes to a close, so does the lease for Chick Music. Steve and Van say that at their age and with the declining health of their mother, who requires full-time care by Van and Carol, it’s just the right time to say goodbye. “We have been around each other all day, every day. Not many people work with family all the time, and so it’s going to be weird not to see them every day,” says Christy. 

The Shepherd family welcomes and encourages all who wish to stop by for a visit or a final chance to shop ahead of the official closing date.