Much like Orpheus in Greek mythology — taught to play the lyre by Apollo himself, as the legend goes — the classical music store by the same name has been the source of Boston’s musical opulence through live performance recordings, scores and rare memorabilia.
Hidden deep in the burrows of Commonwealth Avenue’s rounded townhouses sits Orpheus Performing Arts Treasures, an established retail space for a niche clientele. Although lyres aren’t played, Orpheus has offered a wide array of classical music products for more than 25 years.
Debra Portmann, an Orpheus employee who said she has worked there for 16 years and counting, finds the value of the store to be in its rarity and resources for collectors.
“[We] provide them with something that you have a hard time finding in the world today,” Portmann said, “which is large collections of classical music all in one place.”
Though their inventory is composed primarily of classical CDs and vinyl, the shop also sells jazz and pop music, as well as movies, scores, sheet music, books and autographs.
With a background knowledge of music, Portmann, along with other employees, guides customers through Orpheus’ collection to help them to find what they’re looking for.
For Portmann, Orpheus is a trove of seemingly endless options and deep catalogues for its loyal and far-reaching customers, who travel miles to return for another in-person visit.
“A lot of people come in, and collectors come in and they have their booklet of lists,” Portmann said. “We have people that come in from other countries, like this one gentleman who comes from Israel every four or five years.”
She said watching travelers “take home a suitcase of CDs” has been a special part of her job.
“It’s a joy to work with those people,” she said, “because they know what they want, and they’re willing to scrounge for it.”
Ed Tapper, the owner of Orpheus, said working at the store means being dedicated to customers’ endeavors while fostering a deep passion for an interpersonal relationship with the music.
“We all understand music quite well,” Tapper said. “All of my employees either have degrees in music history or have been in the music business for a lifetime.”
Before opening the store, Tapper taught music history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Suffolk University, he said. When the state cut back on arts programs and claimed his job, he opened the shop. Now, students from local conservatories come in to revel in and grow their music knowledge, he said.
Portmann, who previously worked as a nurse before attending UMass Boston to study music, had always dreamt of pursuing a music degree but never felt ready until she reached adulthood. After taking her own leap of faith, she received her degree in 2004 and has been at Orpheus ever since.
“That drive for music was always there,” Portmann said.
An immeasurable appreciation of classical music and the roots of sound itself seemed to be a consistent theme among Orpheus and its larger community. When Orpheus initially opened its doors, students would come in with their syllabuses and buy recordings for their classes.
Jessamyn Gangi, a regular customer and Boston resident, said she has two music degrees and a keen interest in classical music.
“Conductors [are] really important to me and the actual recordings [are] important to me, so I’m able to find usually either what I’m looking for or something that’s a little treat,” she said. “I love it in there, it’s been a staple here.”
Gangi said she studied vocal performance at the New England Conservatory of Music, and has a master’s degree from Berklee College of Music. For her, Orpheus’ large, diverse collection and affordable pricing make the store special for avid classical musicians and fans.
“They’re basically responsible for my entire record collection,” she said.
Besides the many unique finds Orpheus possesses, Gangi said what also makes “the gem of a place” notable is how it holds its own, which she said has enhanced the neighborhood as it becomes more and more commercial.
“There’s nothing that I can think of in Boston that’s like it,” Gangi said. “You have this little oasis of classical music, which doesn’t really exist anywhere … it’s a magical experience.”
Fears of economic uncertainty that have loomed over small businesses in the past year have also reached Orpheus. With many local retailers forced to close their doors last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced questions regarding the future of the space.
“COVID has changed things,” Portmann said, adding that Orpheus initially had plans to move to a larger, more organized store space, but that fell through.
Now, their online store that is operating on Amazon is keeping the business running.
“The online store is great, I mean it’s like most small businesses, it really helps us a lot,” Tapper said. “It’s kind of essential, and certainly with what’s going on today, it’s crucial to have some kind of an online presence.”
Tapper’s passion, much like Portmann’s, is connecting with customers — whether well-established maestros or budding student musicians — in person over a common love of music.
“Seeing everything and having it at your fingertips … people really love that,” he said. “It’s important to be able to have that kind of a place because there are fewer and fewer of them around.”
Orpheus has sustained its 25-year reign as a staple music store in the city of Boston for people like Gangi, who added that it has “maintained its integrity as a little gem.”
Orpheus hopes to continue to stand tall in the midst of ongoing change, Tapper said.
“We want to keep the purity of the business,” he said. “That’s been really hard work for all of us, but we all love what we do and we like to keep things going.”