Woog’s World / Sally White never stopped smiling
Published 2:48 pm, Wednesday, January 3, 2018
In the 1950s,Main Street’s Melody House was the place to go for music. A young clerk named Sally White seemed particularly helpful to adults who bought popular music LPs, and teenagers who clamored for those new-fangled 45s.
When the store closed in the late ‘50s, Stanley Klein offered Sally a job. He owned a department store a few doors away. Raising two sons alone, she said she could only work from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. She also told him how much she needed to be paid. He hired her on the spot.
Sally worked at Klein’s for more than 20 years. Her gentle nature, loving presence and encyclopedic knowledge of music influenced generations of Westporters.
I was one of many record-buyers who made Klein’s record department a home away from home. I browsed a lot, spent $1 or $2 occasionally. It didn’t matter. She treated me — and every other kid — like we were the richest, most important customers on earth.
She knew our tastes. She pointed us to new records she thought we’d like, and gently suggested we reconsider purchases we might not care for. Our parents had no idea what we listened to, or why. But Sally — who was our mothers’ age, though we never thought of her that way — did.
When Klein’s record department closed in 1985, she decided to open her own store. Her brother-in-law wrote a business plan. She showed it to the president of Westport Bank & Trust.
He gave it right back. “We don’t need it,” he said. He trusted her word.
For nearly 30 years, Sally’s Place was the place to go for music. It too was on Main Street — but the less-traveled part, beyond Avery Place. It was on the second floor of a small, little-noticed shopping plaza.
No matter. Music lovers — and musicians — found their way there. And what they found was something special.
Sally knew everyone, and everything. You’d hum a few bars — off-key — and she’d recognize the obscure show tune rattling around your head. You’d buy five folk albums, and she’d suggest a bluegrass CD that fit perfectly. You’d ask for something so obscure you were embarrassed to say it; she not only appreciated it, she knew exactly where to special-order it.
Jazz was Sally’s specialty. She loved the free-spirited, uniquely American genre, in all its forms. She knew the masters, and all their minions. She knew their studio and live records, and the back stories to all of them. She knew how to match all of that to each customer’s personality.
She turned an amazing number of young people on to jazz. Some became professional musicians themselves. She savored their successes. She welcomed them with a hug, when they returned from wherever their lives took them — just as she welcomed every college kid who stopped by when he was home for the holidays. Just as she welcomed new customers who had been directed to Sally’s Place, and had no idea of the magic awaiting them inside that top step. Just as she welcomed customers like Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan and Keith Richards. They may have been world-famous musicians, but like all of us, they always learned something new from Sally.
Four years ago, Sally closed her store. It was bittersweet. The music industry had changed. LPs, 45s and CDs had given way to downloads. Music was available instantly, everywhere. Sally had never been much of a computer person; she preferred writing things down by hand, making orders by calling her astonishing circle of contacts around the world.
Even her loyal customers came by less often. They would stop in, a bit embarrassed it had been so long. But they’d listen to whatever song Sally was playing. They’d chat, hear her latest news and recommendations. They’d pick out some music they’d intended to buy, and some they hadn’t. They left with a smile on their face, and a song in their heart.
Like many other Westporters, I thought of all that last week. Sally died a couple of days after Christmas. Her obituary said she was 87, but she was ageless. As a young mother she had found the gift of music, and for the next 60 years she gave that gift — selflessly, joyfully, with all her heart and soul — to countless men and women, boys and girls.
She saw the rise and fall of 45s, the rise and decline of CDs. She came in with LPs. Now vinyl is coming back. I’m sure she smiled at the irony.
Because — until the day the music died — Sally White never stopped smiling.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at email@example.com. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.