The Cali family is remarkable in many ways. They have been operating Kagan & Gaines Co. Inc. (K&G) at 7655 Roosevelt Road, since 1982. In fact, they have been making a living from selling, renting and fixing musical instruments for two generations now. Yet no member of the family reads music, or plays an instrument. 

The Forest Park store was founded by Joseph Cali Sr. The spry 90-year-old is retired and his son, Joe Jr., is now overseeing operations. But Cali remains as feisty as ever. He was only 17 years old when he began working at K&G, which was then located along “Music Row” at 228 S. Wabash. His starting date was June 6, 1942. 

“The owner, Robert Kagan, was very good to me,” Cali recalled, saying that Kagan treated him like a son. “I worked seven days a week and didn’t keep track of my hours.” Cali’s duties included receiving merchandise, pricing it and putting it on display. 

“I wouldn’t even give away a guitar pick,” he recalled. He was also good at standing up for himself, though it almost cost him his career.

One Saturday, the teenager was busy sweeping the floor. His supervisor called out to him, “Hey you.” Cali was incensed. 

“My name is Joe Cali,” he said, “or you can call me Mr. Cali.” When he challenged the supervisor to a fight, the counter clerk told him, “You’re fired.” Kagan heard the commotion and came out. He told the supervisor, “I’m the boss. You can’t fire people I hire.” The guy behind the counter was soon walking out the door with his last paycheck.

Cali partnered with Harold Carnes, another music store owner, to buy out Kagan. The silent partner, Earl Gaines, was long gone by then but his name still graces the sign. Like many downtown stores selling instruments and sheet music, Cali became a refugee from Music Row. He found this 12,000-square-foot warehouse in Forest Park. With the help of his two young sons, Christopher and Joe, Cali built out the music store.

He invited his “Music Row” neighbor, Ray Fajmon, to split the space and Fajmon opened American Music World, selling pianos. “Forest Park is a very good location for us,” Cali said, citing its proximity to the Loop and its accessible parking. “It was great to work with my son.” Cali no longer toils in the back room, repairing instruments but he and his wife, Marianne, stop in for friendly visits.

Joe Cali Jr. took over the store when his father retired in the 1990s. K&G sells every kind of instrument, repairs instruments, constructs instruments, offers music lessons and sells sheet music. Like their next-door neighbor, they also rent instruments to school bands and professional musicians. Movie and TV productions lease K&G instruments to be used as props.

Cali admits, “It’s a challenge running a retail business at the mercy of the public” but he loves K&G’s congenial atmosphere and is especially proud of the store’s extensive collection.

“We have over 1,000 orchestral instruments,” he said. “That’s our biggest strength.” The display room is filled with violins, cellos and double basses. One of the keys to their success is keeping music teachers happy. 

“When we receive new violins,” he said, “we take off the cheap strings and put on good ones. We make sure they are up to the teacher’s specifications. We custom-fit the instrument to the bow. It costs me a lot of money but we go the extra mile to please teachers.”

Thanks to K&G’s efforts, they rent many instruments to Oak Park schools. They haven’t yet rented to Forest Park schools but Cali would like to.

K&G also provides music lessons on the premises. Its faculty of 10 instructors teach over 150 students. They charge $25 per half hour for most instruments, $35 for strings. They also hold student recitals at PMSA and Dominican University.

“Our jazz and blues ensembles have played at Healy’s and local festivals,” he said. In addition to its cozy teaching rooms, the store has a large showroom where an entire band can rock out.

Another display room features a staggering number of guitars, mandolins and ukuleles. Cali is frustrated that they can’t show off more of their collection. A crawlspace above the rooms is crammed with instruments. “We don’t have much room to display horns. We have some vintage ones. We also have some oddball instruments, like the bass sax. It’s so large it sits on a stand.”

Cali keeps the costs reasonable. “I don’t want a one-time sale. Besides, instruments don’t depreciate, they increase in value.”

The front of the store is filled with sheet music, but Cali can’t read them. “I tried trumpet in third or fourth grade, but I preferred playing sports like basketball.”

At the back of K&G is the workshop where his dad fixed instruments. It’s now occupied by another father-son combination: Walter Pawlikowski works just a few feet away from his son Bogdan. They are luthiers, craftsmen who build and repair violins. Walter learned the trade in his native Poland. He started working at K&G in 1981.

Their workshop looks like a trauma unit for injured instruments. A clump of horsehair hangs from the wall, which they use for the bows. One of the bows Walter repaired costs $1,800. He also handcrafts violins. It takes him three months to build a violin worth $10,000.

Bogdan joined him in 1996. 

“I like working with my dad,” he said. “We hang out and do a lot of things together.” Father and son both play the violin, and Bogdan is passing on this skill to his children. 

“My daughter, Veronica, is only 19 months old,” he said, “and she’s already sawing away with a bow.” 

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.