In Dante’s Inferno, the eighth circle of hell is reserved for thieves and falsifiers.
If there’s any justice in the afterlife, that’s where the dude who allegedly stole $650 in cash — from a beloved musician’s funeral fund — will end up. At least according to the survivors of the late Walter Kühr.
On January 2, Kühr, a bandleader, shop owner, and overall champion of the accordion, died at age 59 after a long battle with lymphoma. His family and friends spent the weekend of January 10 and 11 clearing out and closing up his Lower East Side accordion shop, Main Squeeze, which has been in business at 19 Essex Street since 1996.
The group was short on funds — both for shuttering the business Kühr operated for nearly twenty years and for holding a funeral for the musician. “It costs money to close a shop, and it costs money to have a memorial,” explained Kühr’s friend Marianne DeMarco, 42.
So his supporters came together and held a giant clearance sale, offering up Kühr’s sheet music, posters, and handmade accordion ties for as little as a dollar to help offset the costs of the memorial they held for him earlier in the week.
On the first day of the sale, DeMarco remembers a strange man entering the store, asking what there was available for free.
“He just seemed like such a nice man,” she said. “Bragging about how he was 59, but he could still carry everything…we thought, ‘Aw, Walter [Kühr] was 59.’ ”
After giving the man an air conditioner, an electric grinder, a fan, and a 36-drawer craftsman’s cabinet at no charge, DeMarco told him to come back the next day to pick up more free things, which would likely be left over at the end of the sale. She even set aside a slice of cake for him in the back of the store — where they were storing the money they’d collected from the sale.
Ten minutes after the stranger left the store, the money was gone. “We broke bread together!” said DeMarco, aghast. “He’ll get his.”
The celebratory nature of the gathering at the store made the group hesitant to call the police. Ultimately, they decided against filing a report.
“There were a lot of people in there, a lot of good vibes. I just didn’t want to bring it down,” said Lauren Schwartz, Kühr’s girlfriend. What’s more, because the store had been full of people, there was no way to prove the man was to blame, she said. “There was really no way of knowing who he was,” said Schwartz, 52. “If we thought we could find him, we probably would have. If he needed the money that badly, then fine.”
Instead, DeMarco took to Craigslist — where she’d originally advertised the free stuff available at the sale — and on January 10 fired off a strongly worded rant that later made its way onto Reddit NYC.
“UNLESS YOU STOLE THAT MONEY TO GIVE TO A PEDIATRIC BURN UNIT, I HONESTLY HOPE YOU CONTRACT AN INCURABLE SCROTAL FUNGUS,” it reads. “YOU ARE PROBABLY THE CRUELEST PERSON I EVER MET.”
But despite feeling “heartbroken” to know that her friends’ donations have disappeared, DeMarco is staying positive. “What he can’t take away from us,” she said, “is all the people coming out of the woodwork who were Walter’s friends.”
It’s true. The next day, the small store was once again full of people who perused broken accordions, ate White Castle sliders, and drank cider as they picked up mementos of Kühr’s life. Christmas lights twinkled in the window as cardboard boxes full of forgotten things kept bubbling up from the store basement. Sometimes, friends would call up for help lugging the stuff. Other times, unusual offers floated through the crowd: “Does anyone want a suitcase full of weights?”
“He was a romantic…he worked really hard to stay my friend,” said Kühr’s ex-wife Claire Connors, as she held on to a kitschy vintage sign for “The Mermaid Lounge,” insisting on paying $20 for it. The sign read, “Cast away your troubles and have a mar-i-time.” It was slated for her beach house in the Rockaways, which Kühr, who was married to Connors for ten years, adored: “It was one of his favorite places.”
Friends remembered Kühr as an artist and, secondarily, an entrepreneur. The bandleader of the all-female accordion group known as the Main Squeeze Orchestra, Kühr also performed with a Latin jazz group called The Last of the International Playboys.
Credited by fans with making the accordion cool again, Kühr’s rumored list of buyers at Main Squeeze Accordion Shop included Lucinda Williams and John Linnell. “He just didn’t care about celebrity at all,” said Connors. “But they thought he was the coolest guy ever.”
Kühr was the kind of guy who would refuse to sell a favorite accordion because he once played it at Carnegie Hall, and he’d just as quickly photocopy sheet music for struggling young musicians so they wouldn’t have to purchase it from him — even talking new artists out of buying instruments that he considered too expensive.
Despite the fact that the group’s last open house involved some turmoil, they’ll be opening the doors of 19 Essex again on January 13, to clear out some of the last items in the store — stuff like cheesy polka records, German novels — Kühr was born in Frankfurt and didn’t move to the United States until the Eighties — and a giant display case. In some ways, it might be the perfect send-off for the store owner known for his unselfishness.
“He was too generous,” DeMarco said, “to be a businessman.”