Petosa Accordions handcrafts instruments for the biggest names in music
The hum of an accordion might transport you to the streets of Paris or a drafty Italian restaurant with red and white checkered tablecloths and candles stuck in Chianti bottles. Maybe polka comes to mind; senior citizens with their socks pulled up to their knees squeezing the bellows in the corner of a Polish community center.
But accordions have regained popularity in modern music of all genres, and the country’s most famous accordion manufacturer is in Seattle’s backyard.
Petosa Accordions’ Seattle roots run deep. In 1922, Italian immigrant Carlo Petosa started building accordions in the basement of his Seattle house. He had been an accordion player for years, working the vaudeville scene while apprenticing at a well-respected San Francisco accordion factory.
After World War II, the Petosa family says the accordion was the most popular instrument in American and business picked way up.
“In 1945 my great grandpa opened our factory in Italy,” said Joey Petosa, fourth generation owner of Petosa Accordions. “That’s when we started producing larger scale instruments versus what we were used to: one at a time in the basement. Once demand picked up locally, and we were in over our heads, my great grandfather and grandfather opened up our storefront in Wallingford in 1955.”
The accordion store lived in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood from 1955 until last year, when the family packed up and moved to Lynnwood, where it’s still going strong today. But business has definitely ebbed and flowed.
“It was really the rise of rock & roll that started this stigmatization of accordion,” Joey said . “Once rock & roll came around, there was a big downturn because you had this cool guitar you could play. The accordion was something your parents did and it was no longer cool. Elvis was obviously at the forefront of that scene.”
This stigma continued for decades. Born into a family of accordion players, 31-year-old Joey was forced to play an instrument with zero street cred, starting when he was just five years old.
“You’re a Petosa, you gotta play the accordion,” he said. “I was thrown into an office on a daily basis and told to play for 30 minutes and not come out until I’m done. I didn’t like the accordion much when I was a kid. I hated having to haul my 30 pound accordion case to lessons ever week. I wanted to be outside playing baseball but it was something I was expected to do. It wasn’t until I got a little older, I realized this is something extremely special that my family has built. It’s a legacy that I can continue. It was also an opportunity to continue a really profound relationship with my dad.”
Joey says the accordion stigma has since faded. Petosa builds and sells accordions to some of the biggest names in music.
“John Mellencamp, Krist Novoselic from Nirvana, The Lumineers, Jack Johnson. There’s really not a genre of music that you won’t hear accordion being used, whether you notice it or not.”
Petosa is the only accordion company in North America still building their instruments by hand. The construction takes place in the same Italian factory his great grandfather opened in the 1940s, where skilled craftspeople have been making accordions for generations. All repairs are done in the Lynnwood shop.
“The average accordion, the are three to four thousand components,” said Joe Petosa, Joey’s dad, whose trained ear makes sure each instrument sounds perfect before it goes back to a customer. “In the larger accordions we can go up to seven, eight thousand pieces.”
Since they’re handmade, and can take up to a year to produce, most models go for $4,000 to $18,000.
“And you can go as high as thirty five, forty thousand dollars if you want to get real tricky with a converter freebase and bayan type accordion,” Joey said.
Joey owns the shop with his dad, Joe. So will his little ones be expected to take on the family business when the time comes? Joey wants them to come to the accordion on their own.
“There will be no forcing, after having been through that myself.”