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January 28, 2022

Porcella’s legacy: Downtown store, in the family since 1898, has shut its doors

For more than 130 years, the cozy brick building at 7357 Monterey St. was a community hub, with countless generations of Gilroyans and others from nearby stopping in for daily goods, getting a haircut, and later, purchasing musical instruments.

It was a place where aspiring and accomplished musicians could browse the latest violins, amps, harmonicas, guitars and more, or pick up sheet music to learn some new tunes. Busted guitar strings and other instrument maladies were no match for its service, often fixed on the same day, and children would walk out of its doors smiling after mastering basic chords.

Signed photos of legendary jazz icons hung on its walls. Hollywood stars such as Jack Conley and Francesca Casale were known to frequent the store. The brick structure, retrofitted nearly 30 years ago, still displays a scar from the 1906 earthquake. Countertops, display cases and a cash drawer almost as old as the building itself remain, meticulously cared for over the years.

But when Porcella’s Music shut its doors and rolled its gates closed for the last time in March 2020, there was no fanfare. No farewell party at the store for Dave Porcella, who has carried on the family legacy that began when his grandfather purchased the business in 1898, or for Yvette Chavez, who has greeted customers and managed the store for 15 years.

Porcella’s Music, despite its importance to the fabric of the Gilroy community, was deemed “non-essential” by county health officials scrambling to deal with the invisible and then-unknown threat of Covid-19 as the pandemic was just beginning to cripple businesses and destroy lives worldwide.

The store was forced to close. Porcella, who had planned on retiring and closing the store anyway in June 2020, decided to forgo the “wait-and-see” mode that countless other businesses were in and head off to an early retirement.

It was a tough pill to swallow.

“We just shut the door and that was it,” Porcella said. “It was hard to make that decision.”

A few months later, Porcella and Chavez removed most of the store’s inventory almost overnight and boarded the windows, after word spread that a protest would make its way downtown as part of a nationwide outrage over the death of a Minneapolis man by a police officer. The protest, fortunately, was peaceful, and no damages were reported.

After more than a year since its closing, and after earlier badgering from this publication for an interview, Porcella said he’s finally come to terms with the closure and wants to share the story with the community.

“How do you let go of this legacy that has been in the family for over 120 years?” he said.

General store roots

Charles Porcella, an Italian immigrant, settled in Gilroy in the early 1890s and worked for Miller and Lux for a short time.

In 1896, he joined H.L. McDuffee’s Monterey Street business, and purchased it in 1898 following McDuffee’s retirement. Charles operated it as a general store until his death in 1922.

His death was front page news of the Gilroy Advocate on Feb. 11, 1922, where he was described as “a prominent business man and one of the leaders of the local Italian colony.”

The store then operated as a bar and barbershop called The 49 Club (named after the building’s address of 49 South Monterey St.) until 1947, when George Porcella, Dave’s father, ran a department store.

George, who founded a 12-piece band known as the Merry Makers, taught music lessons to musicians young and old in the back of the store. 

The store offered a mix of clothing and household items, as well as a good selection of musical instruments. As Dave describes it, the store was a place where one could “buy a suit, a tie, a hat, an instrument and go out and get a gig.”

Dave, coming from a musical family who was naturally drawn to the piano at a young age, would help his father out in the store. But his father, later in life, was resistant to some of the changes to the store that his son suggested, Dave recalled.

George died in 1986, and Dave, who was working at Bob Lynch Ford in Gilroy at the time, decided to continue the family business and take over the store, rebranding it as Porcella’s Music and transforming it into a purely music-centric establishment.

Memories and future plans

Yvette Chavez worked at Porcella’s Music for 15 years, greeting customers as they walked in the door and was quick to help them find whatever they were looking for.

“We gave old-fashioned customer service,” she said. “I loved everything I did here.”

She said she enjoyed seeing the customers’ smiles and hearing their constant positive feedback.

“That really touched our hearts,” she said. “It motivated us. It gave us warmth.”

Yvette Chavez greeted customers and managed Porcella’s Music for 15 years. Photo courtesy of Porcella’s Music

In addition to the Gilroy regulars, Porcella’s was known as the “go-to place” from South County to Salinas, Porcella said, drawing many customers from Hollister, Morgan Hill, Los Banos and others.

Porcella also garnered a strong reputation for helping young musicians learn their instruments and give them the confidence to pursue their dreams.

“Dave went out of his way to help others,” Chavez said.

Porcella, 71, said he is enjoying his newfound freedom in retirement, tackling projects around the home, picking up gardening and tinkering on classic cars.

Both Porcella and Chavez are hoping the legacy of 7357 Monterey St. continues on in some form that honors the establishment’s history. The building was recently put on the market with an asking price of $899,950.

“We hope this can be a place where people can come sit down, have a cup of coffee, and go back in time,” Porcella said.

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