by Len Lear
What is the definition of a gentleman? Someone who knows how to play the accordion but doesn’t.
Michael “Bellows” Bulboff was born in Roxborough Hospital; his father’s family has lived at Paoli and Ridge in Roxborough for his entire life (39 years), and he still loves biking along Forbidden Drive and the Tow Path, but Mike has branched out, just like the accordions he plays, sells and repairs. Although Michael was a brilliant student at Princeton University, where he graduated in 2002 with a computer science degree, and from Penn’s Wharton School in 2007 with a master’s degree in applied economics, he gave up a career on Wall Street in New York to put the squeeze on an unappreciated group of mostly Philly area accordion players.
Bulboff worked for several high-profile financial investment firms, including Blackrock, the world’s biggest (they manage $7 trillion in investors’ money), from 2002 to 2008, but gave it all up to open Liberty Bellows in 2009 at 614 S. 2nd St. in Queen Village, where he sells, rents, trades, repairs and teaches how to play, of all things, the accordion. His is the only accordion store in the Greater Philadelphia area.
The obvious question: why give up a lucrative career in the limitless financial world to go into the accordion business? (In fact, I once heard the following joke: How do you get a million dollars? You start off with two million dollars and then buy an accordion store.)
“I got the entrepreneurial ‘bug,’” Mike told us last week, “and decided that the accordion business was ripe for modernization. Accordion was my hobby, and I found that it was very difficult to find any information or resources to buy or repair accordions. I aimed to reduce the search costs for buyers looking for accordions by presenting them clearly and in a standardized way on our website with video demonstrations to highlight the variety of sounds available.”
When Bulboff was opening the business, he was still taking classes and preparing his dissertation for a doctorate at the Wharton school, “but I ultimately decided that I would not be happy in a long-term career in academic research.”
The double Ivy League grad now employs five full-time workers, and he has hosted accordion artists over the years to help make education content and video demos, but it’s not all sunshine and flowers. “The accordion business can be very frustrating at times because every accordion has thousands of parts, and attention to detail is a fundamental part of the job. Fortunately, I have trained and cultivated a team of technicians and support staff to help with all the work. We now have a very streamlined business. From a supply and demand point of view, there is a stable or growing demand for accordions, and the number of dealers is dwindling as they age and retire.”
Has Bulboff ever regretted leaving a high-profile career in finance to open an accordion store? “Never. I take great pride in the business I have built, and there are many perks such as live concerts every day from world-class accordion players. I have also developed many connections with customers and accordion players over the years. One of my favorite personal friends in the business is Matt Hensley from Flogging Molly. He’s a multi-talented individual and always makes a point to stop by when the band is touring through the city … Bruce Springsteen band members Charles Giordano and Nils Lofgren each purchased an accordion from the shop when on tour in Philadelphia recently.”
Comedians have been making jokes about accordion players for years, maybe because of Lawrence Welk. Do such jokes bother Bulboff? “In many countries, the accordion is a respected instrument and played in many genres of music,” he replied. “It was also hugely popular in the 1950s and a number one selling instrument at one point. Once rock and roll took over, the accordion was left behind. It was seen as ‘square,’ and the rebellious youth shunned it. Fortunately, many of them are returning to the accordion, and many young people are also finding interest in the accordion.”
Bulboff’s own band, Polkadelphia, is busiest during the Oktoberfest season and last year enjoyed a number of performances at the Longwood Gardens Beer Garden. Bulboff has hundreds of accordions ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000. Many people might be surprised to know that there are actually several different types of accordions — piano accordions, concertinas, bottom boxes, etc. “Every accordion is different; they are like snowflakes,” said Michael.
Bulboff’s father, Henry Zacny also played the accordion and was born and raised on Paoli Avenue in Roxborough. He played many instruments and played accordion in the Duffy String Band.
For more information, visit www.libertybellows.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org