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January 13, 2014
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Out of tune: Piano sales end on sour note

The options for buying a new acoustic piano in Douglas County will soon be down to zero again.

Quester’s Piano Sales & Service at 1028 S.E. Stephens St. in Roseburg, is on the verge of eliminating the sales side of the business, according to owner Terry Quester.

As of late last week, he had two baby grand pianos left. Quester said when they’re gone, the nearest retail stores with what he considers a good selection of new pianos will be in Medford and Portland.

Jean Hinkle, a Roseburg piano teacher since 1956, said she is saddened by the demise of piano retail outlets, not only locally but also around the state. Both Hinkle and Quester pointed out that longtime piano stores in Eugene and Salem have closed in recent years.

“It’s awful ... to have no piano sales here,” Hinkle said. “If you want a new piano, you have to go out of town.”

For many decades, Rickett’s Music in Roseburg sold pianos, but that downtown business closed in 2001, leaving the area with no new piano retailer. Seeing a need, Quester added sales to piano service. In March 2003, he opened a display area with seven pianos. In the following 11 years through 2013, he sold 195 acoustic pianos.

Quester said sales slowed down with the beginning of the recession in 2008. He has articles on his desk about the closures of several other longtime piano businesses: Forbes Piano in Birmingham, Ala., closed after 120 years in 2009; Fresno (Calif.) Piano closed after 38 years in 2011 and Sherman Clay closed its last Seattle store in 2013 after doing business in that city since the late 1980s.

Quester pointed out that pianos just don’t have the same status that they had when they were featured in early television shows such as “I Love Lucy,” “Father Knows Best,” “Donna Reed” and “Leave It To Beaver.”

“There was a piano on every one of those sets,” Quester said. “People back then grew up with pianos in their homes. When people bought furniture, the piano was just as important as the washer and dryer. Now it isn’t. Instead, it’s a 60-inch TV hanging on the wall. Nationwide people aren’t supporting the piano industry.”

Several reasons have been given for the decrease in piano sales. People had less money during the recession and digital keyboards are much less expensive. Plus, the time and determination required to learn to play the piano is competing with an increasing number of electronic gadgets. New pianos, depending on brand and model, can range in price from a few thousand dollars to several hundred thousand.

Quester said most interest in pianos comes from baby boomers who grew up watching those early TV comedies. As those people downsize their residences or die, their pianos have flooded the used market. Buying a used piano for less than its appraised value or even getting one free is not unusual, Quester and Hinkle said.

“A lot of pianos are being given away or sold cheaply,” said Cheri Richardson, president of the Roseburg district of the Oregon Music Teachers Association. “I’ve seen that several times.”

Steve Curwick, owner of Absolute Sound & Music in Roseburg, and Bruce Spriggs, owner of Hi 5 Music in Roseburg, said their stores focus on guitar sales and service, but both also do well selling electronic keyboards.

“Technological advances have improved the keyboards to where they feel more like a piano, sound more like a piano,” Curwick said. “The ones with weighted keys are more like an acoustic piano.”

Keyboards can be as inexpensive as $150. Those with keys that reproduce the feel of an acoustic keyboard start at $600, and they can cost up to several thousand dollars.

“We as a society have given up quality for convenience,” Curwick said.

Spriggs said that musicians on TV make music look easy, and that’s appealing to young people. He said kids don’t always initially realize that daily practice is needed to develop musical skills.

An added benefit of an electronic keyboard is that background music can be played as the beginner learns. That helps fill the need for instant gratification.

Hinkle said there are about 25 teachers who give private piano lessons in Douglas County, fewer than in the past. She said as far as she knows they all have about as many students as they want.

Most students are in grade school or middle school, but there are some adults taking lessons. Hinkle added some teachers have waiting lists.

Richardson said she had 30 students and all have access to a piano or keyboard except one who practices on a school piano.

“If a student gets serious about it, then I try to influence the family to buy a piano if they don’t have one,” Richardson said.

Quester called playing a piano a form a relaxation, a form of transcendental relaxation.

“I don’t think the piano is going to disappear completely,” Quester said. “It’s been around for 300 years. It’ll never, ever be totally obliterated from the landscape. The baby boomer generation is still buying into it, but the next generations, it’s not what they do, to sit down and practice at the piano. But I believe it’ll be back.”

• News-Review business reporter Craig Reed can be reached by calling 541-957-4210 or by email at creed@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Jan 13, 2014 11:10AM Published Jan 16, 2014 01:48PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.