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Ruth Lefter ran landmark music store with her husband for 50 years

Times Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — Everything Ruth Lefter needed still lies within 20 feet of her favorite chair, a modest yellow recliner that has been there since she and her husband built the house in 1953. Mrs. Lefter, who with husband Joe Lefter ran the iconic Lefter's Music Shop for 50 years, saw no reason to change so much as a seat cushion.

Her magazines and the remote within easy reach, she read or watched television as Pepper, a blind and deaf rescue poodle thought to be at least 20, snoozed on her lap.

Though she had outlived her contemporaries, there were no pill bottles in this Christian Scientist's medicine cabinet. Mrs. Lefter never took so much as an aspirin, her family said. She had her first medical check-up at age 98.

Competition and a changing marketplace would eventually eclipse the family business.

Mrs. Lefter, who was known for her work ethic and mastery of the store's inventory of sheet music, died March 19, at home. She was 99.

Joe Lefter was the better known of the two. He had played piccolo in John Philip Sousa's band, and directed the Sunshine City Band for 30 years. The band shell at Williams Park is named for him. But the store's business backbone might well have been his wife.

"If she couldn't locate a particular number we were looking for, she would hunt and hunt for a long time to make it available to us," said music teacher Joan Gessler, 94.

Joe Lefter opened the store in 1930 as a music repair shop in the Florida Arcade.

Ruth Childs, an East Orange, N.J. native who had moved to St. Petersburg at age 14, was waiting tables at a Central Avenue cafe nearby when she met the outgoing Lefter. They married in 1934.

Mrs. Lefter, a saxophonist in high school who played in a female dance band, shared her husband's interest in music. The store moved to 2927 Central Ave. in 1958.

Inventory increased to include Magnavox phonographs, popular records and a large supply of band instruments. They added air-conditioned listening booths in which customers could preview records. Mrs. Lefter managed records at the store and a growing supply of sheet music, much of it hard-to-find material geared to piano teachers.

"You have to know your field and have a family that will stand back of you with long hours of work commitment," she would later say of running a family business.

But customer service could only go so far. After half a century, Lefter's found itself competing with big-box discount retailers like Peaches Records and Tapes.

"You had to get bigger or you were crowded out of the picture," said J. Baird Lefter, 65, Mrs. Lefter's son.

In 1980, the Lefters sold the business to Joe Fish, who had worked in the store since high school — and who also found it hard to sustain a mom-and-pop music store.

"When Peaches took over the record side and with eight-tracks going out, cassettes were in," said Fish, 60, now a classified advertising division manager for the Tampa Bay Times. "That was where the money was, so when you were left with just sheet music and books you were nickel-and-dimed."

Joseph Lefter died in 1982, at 72. The new owners, who had retained the Lefter's name, closed the shop in 1986.

Mrs. Lefter never considered remarrying, her family said. She enjoyed her several civic organizations, gardening and doting on her rescue dogs, including the arthritic Pepper and Tori, an elegant Afghan-standard poodle mix who has the run of the furniture.

Mrs. Lefter died three says shy of her 100th birthday.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248.

Ruth Childs Lefter

Born: March 22, 1912

Died: March 19, 2012

Survivors: son Joseph Baird Lefter; sister Ethyl Bailey; one grandson; two great-grandchildren; two stepgrandchildren; three stepgreat-grandchildren.

Celebration of life: 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday; 1520 Beach Drive NE.

Ruth Lefter ran landmark music store with her husband for 50 years 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 8:00pm]
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