An iconic storefront in downtown New Milford went dark Jan. 3.

The New Milford Music Center was set early this week to consolidate its operations to the Bank Street building's second floor.

Opened in the 1950s by Joe Santarone, the music center has been the gateway for hundreds of young musicians just starting out.

The present owners, Russ and Bill Dorfschmidt, are having a close-out sale of guitars, amplifiers and drum sets as they prepare to move operations upstairs, closing the store front and reducing hours.

"We're consolidating, not closing," said Bill Dorfschmidt, whose dad, Russ, bought the center from Mr. Santarone in 1988.

"The catalyst was having the schools cut the fourth-grade band program at Sarah Noble Intermediate School," Bill Dorfschmidt said. "We'd just invested $200,000 in new band rental equipment. The storefront has to go by the way as a result."

Trying to compete against Internet sales and big box music stores that have opened in the greater New Milford area has proven difficult as well, Russ Dorfschmidt said.

"We can no longer get dealership from major brands like Fender. They only go to the big store," he said. "Things were going this way already and may be for the best. Bill's interest is in teaching."

The center will continue music lessons, providing some music accessories, instrument rentals and repairs.

"I can't say enough great things about those guys," said Joseph Conway, whose son, Brenden, has taken guitar lessons at the center for four years.

"I often sit in on lessons. Bill challenges Brenden as much as he can. At the same time, they have a lot of fun," Mr. Conway said. "He'll ask Brenden `what do you want to learn today?' "

"If there's a song by a band Brenden likes," Mr. Conway added, "they work on it for a few days. Brenden's the musician he is today at 18 because of Bill."

Bill Dorfschmidt sees the change at the center as an opportunity to expand his services to the schools' remaining band programs from fifth grade up. He said he will be concentrating on providing "better equipment and easier access to rentals" for kids in band by starting a to-schools service.

"I'll be starting a routine of visiting the schools," Mr. Dorfschmidt said. "We'll still be part of the town. Dad can still enjoy his retirement. This is the best solution."

"We just can't sit out this year keeping the storefront open," he said.

Shrdlu Ashe has been a regular on the New Milford music scene since the 1960s. Last week, he remembered moving to the town as a boy in 1958 and the music center being a mainstay of young musicians then.

"I bought my first bongos there," Mr. Ashe recalled. "In the 1970s to mid-1980s, lots of local musicians centralized there. Joe Santarone was a saxophone player. A musician himself and older, he was a mentor to us."

When Russ Dorfschmidt bought the center, he also started instrument rentals rather than using an out-of-town source to rent to kids.

That localized rental fees, Mr. Ashe recalled. A teacher at the center for 15 years, Mr. Ashe is saddened by the present situation.

"A lot of people just want to get their kids started on an instrument," he noted. "They need a little spot in town where they can take them."

"Any time we lose or partially lose a storefront in town it's not a good thing," he reflected. "I hate to see this happening to a mom and pop business."