Bea Polverini-Zimmerman in her shop
Bea Polverini-Zimmerman in her shop Photo: Maria Ponce

It is Friday, March 6, 2015, and my friend Eric and I are on one of our aimless walks through Chicago’s streets. Days like these, we walk like it is our job, meeting at 9 or so in the morning and not knocking off until 5 or later, ranging as far as our feet will take us, seeing as much as our eyes can see.

Today the cold has a quality that it gets only in late winter, when the chill has frozen in place for so long that it seems it might never abate. Half a foot of snow obscures the ground, and the wind bites through our various layers. We are on Elston, one of our favorite diagonal streets, just north of Belmont and south of Melrose, when we see a dirty white building, itself the color and texture of old snow.

The structure would blend into its ghostly surroundings entirely were it not for its arrestingly misspelled vinyl sign. “ACCORDIANS,” it yells in crooked hot-pink capital letters above the door. As I stand on the icy sidewalk, fumbling with mittened hands for my camera in order to capture this strange bit of ephemera, a bespectacled face peers out through the glass of the shop’s front door.

“Hey,” says a 60-something woman in a pompommed knit cap, opening the door a crack. “Wanna come in and see?”

It’s almost as cold inside as it is on the street. The store isn’t technically open, the woman tells us; we just happened to catch her when she’d come by to shovel and tidy up. Wire racks and shelves line the walls, adorned with electric candles, figurines, straw hats, and other tchotchkes, making the smallish room feel even smaller. A musty smell mingles with a holiday-candle scent, even though the closest holiday, calendar-wise, is St. Patrick’s Day. As if to drive the point home, a discarded pair of felt reindeer antlers, presumably from a Christmas party, collects dust on an empty instrument case. On one side of the room stands an old upright piano. The rest of the space is crammed with a cheerful jumble of accordions, maybe two dozen in all, their mother-of-pearl details glinting in the weak gray light.

The woman introduces herself as Benilde. “But call me Bea,” she says, explaining that she made the misspelled sign a few years ago, testing her skills on a vinyl-lettering machine in back. She was in a hurry to hang the sign for a neighborhood festival, hence the mistake.

So transfixed were we by “ACCORDIANS” that we’d missed the banner declaring the store’s name, which Bea informs us is Alywind. The word is a portmanteau of Aly, the name of a friend of one of Bea’s forebears, and “wind” — an homage to the Windy City. Bea goes on to tell us that the shop’s origins date to 1889, when Bea’s paternal great-great-grandfather, originally a boat builder, started making accordions in Castelfidardo, a town in the Italian province of Ancona. Her father immigrated to Chicago and opened his own shop, Polverini Bros. Accordions, here in 1952. Some years after that, the business moved to its current location and changed its name. When Bea was a girl, her father traveled as an accordion salesman throughout the Midwest and as far east as New York. She was part of his road show. “He’d tell people, ‘The accordion is simple! Even a child can play it,’ and I’d play.” He sold instruments to Lawrence Welk, Guy Lombardo, Art Van Damme, and other greats of the postwar era.

“Nobody famous buys them anymore,” she says.

We keep our coats on as Bea gives us a tour of the shop. Eric takes off a glove and plays a few notes on the piano. A collectible ceramic plate is perched on the music stand; it bears an illustration depicting, aptly enough, an old man teaching a boy to play the accordion. I think of my dad, who played the accordion as a boy in Nebraska, one of seven kids in a family that lacked the space or the money for a piano.

Accordions, by contrast, are little boxes of music, easy to tote and store. This portability has made them a fixture on street corners in cities around the world. Her breath coming out in clouds, Bea tells us that many of the accordions she sells are still made by relatives who stayed in the old country. “Some work on the reeds, some on the keyboards, the buttons, the framework,” she says. “There are over a thousand parts to an accordion.” Bea goes on to explain that the accordion consists of three main sections: the expandable bellows and the two end units — the treble keyboard on one end and, on the other, the bass buttons that control low notes and chords. The reedy sound of an accordion never fails to evoke, for me, both Old and New World images simultaneously: a musician squeezing air through the reeds on some cobbled Paris street, and my dad as a kid practicing in the attic of a mustard-yellow Midwestern house.

Impromptu tour over, Bea hands us her card and tells us to be in touch if we ever need anything accordion-related. Later that night, I’ll be struck with the urge to learn more about accordions. A little research will reveal that while the instrument seems like it’s been around forever, its origins are, in fact, relatively recent and hotly contested. Some say it was invented in Berlin in 1822 by one Christian Friedrich Ludwig Buschmann, who called his instrument the Handäoline. Others claim that it was invented in Vienna by someone named Cyrill Demian, who patented his creation in 1829 and gave it the name that the instrument would ultimately be known by worldwide. The word “accordion” entered the English language around 1830 from the German Akkordeon. Akkord is the word for a musical chord or a concord of sounds. The instrument’s name also has a cognate in the French verb accorder — to agree, to be in harmony with.

Stepping back onto snowy Elston Avenue with Eric, I wonder how much longer Alywind Musical Instruments, an inheritor of all that history, will be around. Out here in the city’s far-flung neighborhoods, Eric and I often find ourselves on once-humming corridors of commerce that have become necropolises: empty storefronts populated only by “For Rent” signs. Of course, if I were capable of being objective, I would ask myself: Why do you care if Alywind continues to exist? You will never in a thousand years buy an accordion from Bea. Her store’s life or death will have little quantitative impact on the material conditions of your life.

Luckily, I am not capable of being objective. My subjective self would answer that the commerce offered by shops like Bea’s — shops that exist in physical space, shops that can be stumbled upon by chance — is more than monetary. Such places’ social, historical, personal, and imaginative exchange is not quantitative, but qualitative, and when you say that something possesses qualitative value, often what you are trying to get at is that it’s priceless.