- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 18, 2004

Marion Lewis’ whole life has been music, from her musician husband to the operas she attends in her spare time to the 1,500 music boxes that surround her in her downtown store.

This week, she prepares for her 44th Christmas season at The Music Box Center, her retail store at 1920 I St. NW.

“Everything you see plays music,” she says as she walks among porcelain and hand-carved wood figurines. “They are all music boxes.”

There are music boxes in the shape of clowns, bishops, doctors, nurses, athletes. Some are shaped like musical instruments and others merely like square boxes. One has curtains that open and close while playing music to four different acts from the “Nutcracker Suite.”

A yard-long music box on the floor dates from 1885 and plays a perfectly pitched tune that even Mrs. Lewis could not name. She calls the $6,000 music box a “mandolin box.”

“In the old days, everything was done by hand,” she says in an accent that gives away her Polish origin.

Among the things she likes about her business is the musically inclined customers who visit her step-down store in a brownstone row house.

“I love being with people,” she says.

Her customers have included the king of Morocco and Tricia Nixon Cox, the daughter of former President Richard Nixon, who bought a music box that plays the medieval song “Greensleeves.”

“She came with a guard,” Mrs. Lewis recalls.

On another occasion, a White House staffer asked her to appraise a cuckoo clock that former President George Bush received as a gift in Germany. He wanted to make certain the value of the clock did not exceed White House limits on accepting gratuities.

She says members of the Reagan administration bought the most music boxes from her.

Like many retail outlets, she has had harrowing moments with customers. One of them stole the wallet from the coat of her husband, who died in 1990, at the store’s previous location at 918 F St. NW. Another time, a young man came in with a gun in a bag but left when Mrs. Lewis told him she had no money.

However, the unfortunate incidents are few and the good experiences are many, she says.

Unlike most music box stores, The Music Box Center tries to personalize the boxes by engraving them with messages or installing cylinders that play songs chosen by the customers.

She begins her workday by driving from her home in Falls Church to open The Music Box Center by 10 a.m., Monday through Saturday. Three weeks before Christmas, the store also is open on Sunday.

“It’s the busiest time of year,” she says. Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day also are busy.

Normally, she arranges the paperwork on her desk when she arrives. Afterward, she mails packages to fill customers’ orders.

The mail arrives in the morning, which requires Mrs. Lewis, her daughter or her employee to open it, inspect it for damage, price it and put it on display.

Much of the rest of the day involves attending to customers who come into the store and returning phone calls or doing bookkeeping in between their visits.

“The day is never long enough for me,” says Mrs. Lewis.

She advertises on a local classical-music radio station and in newspapers.

Mrs. Lewis moved to the United States with her husband, Rudy, in 1950 as he searched for a career as a musician in New York City. In 1952, he was hired to play the piano at the old Neptune Room in downtown Washington for six months, and the Lewises decided to stay.

Mrs. Lewis originally started collecting music boxes as gifts for her musician friends. Her collection grew into a small business, which she operated out of the studio where her husband gave music lessons.

The Lewises opened The Music Box Center in 1961.

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