Music Shop Owner's Goodwill Struck a Chord With His Patrons

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

At one time or another, Littman Danziger was a government economist, a Navy officer and the youngest lawyer in Texas. But by the late 1940s, the violin-playing immigrant was looking for something new to do with his life.

Forsaking the stability of a federal paycheck, "Dan" Danziger followed one of his greatest interests -- music -- and in 1947 bought a record store near Dupont Circle from his brother-in-law. Over the next 38 years, he made the Disc Shop an informal center for classical and international music and jazz.

When Danziger went into business, Washington was a smaller, less cosmopolitan place than it is today, but it was a time of greater musical literacy. Classical music was on the radio, someone at every party knew how to play the piano, and even the Department of Agriculture had an orchestra of employees.

"In those days in Washington, my father had customers from the White House on down to custodians," said Arnold Danziger, who worked with his father for more than 20 years.

The Disc Shop opened at 1619 Connecticut Ave., later moved two doors up the street and ended up in 1961 on the ground floor of the Universal Building at Connecticut and Florida avenues. At that location, the store had 100 feet of panoramic show windows. Danziger kept a letter from Frank Sinatra in his store, thanking him for one particularly effective display.

Renowned musicians came to the store, along with a number of Washington celebrities, including first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

Danziger once saved a personal check that President John F. Kennedy had sent to pay for his wife's records. He later received a call from the White House, requesting that he cash the check to balance the presidential accounts.

Danziger, who died Nov. 10 at 94 of complications of Alzheimer's disease, had a reputation far beyond Washington as one the nation's leading retailers of classical music. He would carry 20 or more recordings of a single work and was familiar with all of them. His out-of-town business was brisk, and sometimes he made deliveries to embassies in person.

"His philosophy," said his son, "was to be as courteous to the customer as possible, to have the best inventory and to have a knowledgeable staff."

An amateur violinist, Danziger was a close friend of longtime National Symphony music director Howard Mitchell's and was one of the orchestra's leading fundraisers. He once sat in on a rehearsal led by conductor Arturo Toscanini and had a five-hour lunch with violinist Jascha Heifetz.

Although his first love was classical music -- his favorite composers were Mozart and Beethoven -- Danziger also had large jazz and international music sections. Once, after he put thousands of children's records on sale, lines of customers stretched outside his store for a week.

As contented as he was as a 72-hour-a-week shop owner, Danziger was a man whose accomplishment went well beyond his store. He was born in Poland and came to the United States when he was 9. He settled in Houston, where his father had lived without his family for seven years, trying to build a new life.

Danziger took speech lessons to lose his European accent and graduated from high school at 16. He went directly to law school (a college degree was not required in those days) and passed the bar exam when he was 19. Newspaper articles and congratulatory letters from two Texas governors described him as the youngest licensed lawyer in Texas history.

He worked for Texaco and handled a few legal cases before giving up law to move to Washington in the mid-1930s for a government job. He went to George Washington University, receiving a bachelor's degree in economics; married native Washingtonian Jeannette Naiman; served as a Navy officer in World War II; and raised two sons. He was working for the postwar Reconstruction Finance Corp. when he bought the Disc Shop in 1947.

He was a longtime member of Adas Israel Congregation, volunteered for Jewish charities and helped raise money for music programs for minority students.

Year after year, though, his life revolved around the Disc Shop, which he kept open until 9 p.m. six days a week. In 1977, he launched a second branch of the store, run by his son Arnold, at Mazza Gallerie.

With growing competition from suburban chain stores, Danziger closed the downtown shop in 1985 and moved to Pompano Beach, Fla. The Mazza Gallerie location remained open until 1995.

"When my father finally closed the store in 1985, it was very painful for him," Arnold Danziger said. "It was a real landmark."

And Washington lost a small oasis from a more civilized age.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company