With Interest Down, Piano Stores Close

Sunday, January 18, 2015
Washington — For months, Nick Margaritas has been reading stories of his coming demise.

His intention, when he set up the alert for any news articles about “piano sales,” was to keep tabs on his world. What he learned instead from the emails that flowed in nearly every day was that his world was falling apart.

Margaritas, 74, read the sad puns about last notes and final keys and looked at the photos of men sitting in their showrooms full of polished pianos that all must be sold, donated or dumped.

And now, he is one of them.

A piano man with a reporter in his office, asking why he is closing and where will the pianos go and why no one wants to buy a piano anymore. His is the iconic storefront in College Park, Md., with seven pianos in the second-story window. When the store opened 40 years ago, someone had the idea to take empty pianos and paint each one a bright color, so as to attract the eyes of passersby, reminding them of their grandmothers or churches or wishes that their parents wouldn’t have let them quit lessons. For most of its 40-year life, the store was a branch of Jordan Kitt’s Music. Two and a half years ago, Margaritas, who also owns The Piano Man store in Catonsville, Md., bought the place and every piano in it from Kitt’s.

Three hundred eighteen pianos, the largest showroom selection in the D.C. area.

Three hundred eighteen pianos that all must go.

The only decorations in his office are an Elton John poster and two fake marble busts, one of Liszt and one of Beethoven — the kind of artists whose work will always prompt dedicated musicians, affluent customers and concert halls to buy pianos. But Margaritas’ patrons are mostly those for whom a piano is a splurge. On his laminate desk, a pad of paper lists all of the reasons why he thinks those type of people aren’t buying as many pianos anymore. The reasons why, for this store, now is the time to close.

Children are too busy, with their sports and their iPads and their instant gratification.

Competition is too great, with cheap electric pianos from China on the Internet.

Houses are too small.

The world is moving too fast, and the pianos are gathering dust.

The store’s dachshund mix Trapper scampers into the office and jumps on Margaritas’ lap. Trapper doesn’t care if you’re wearing a ball gown, Margaritas says, he jumps on everyone. It makes him a good closer.

On the days when there were customers in College Park, Trapper would play with the kids while their parents walked through 32,000 square feet of Yamaha and Belarus and Schimmel, of mahogany and walnut and smooth, shiny black, deciding which piano little William would play in their picture window and on their Christmas card.

Margaritas and his salesmen would know that in five years or maybe 10, William would tire of the scolding of his piano teacher and her ever-ticking metronome, or he would get too busy with the robotics club and soccer practice, or his parents would want to redecorate. The piano would no longer fit into their lives.

In the good days, that suited the piano salesmen just fine. The good days, Margaritas says, were the ’80s. He learned to play piano in the 1950s and 1960s on his brother’s brown, unimpressive upright. He spent the now-hazy years of the ’70s as a jazz musician, playing on a Wurlitzer electric, the same kind of piano Ray Charles used to record What’d I Say. When he moved back to his home town of Baltimore, he worked in real estate until the day he decided to sell his piano through an advertisement in the Baltimore Sun. For just one ad, he got 27 calls. Clearly, there was a demand for pianos in the world.

Before long, Margaritas was renting a house for $100 a month, living upstairs and selling pianos downstairs. He put another ad in the Sun: “500 PIANOS WANTED: Cash and Immaculate Removal.” He bought a shop to sell them from. He shipped in pianos by the container load, 12, maybe 16 pianos coming to him from Japan every four to six weeks. The parents came with their Williams and their credit cards. Margaritas put his 5-year-old son, Alex, in lessons too. Alex grew up to love playing theme music from Japanese video games on the family’s Steinway grand.

Margaritas looks down at his list, getting back on track. The new pianos, he says, are where he went wrong.

He bought the iconic College Park store from Kitt’s with 153 pianos inside. He brought in 100 of his own. Then he ordered $300,000 in brand-spankin’-new pianos, each costing around $16,000 a piece and up.

He renamed Kitt’s store Piano Liquidation Center, thinking “Liquidation” would suggest to the customer that his prices were low. The low prices, Trapper the closer, colorful pianos in the window — surely, a man could sell music here, even in 2012 when he opened his doors.

The optimism Margaritas had then is similar to the attitude the National Association of Music Merchants maintains today. They acknowledge that the sales numbers aren’t good, but there are bright spots, they say. As the housing market bounces back, people will buy more grand pianos. People will buy electronic pianos and pianos that hook up to iPhone apps. They point to the way Jordan Kitt’s Music, which once owned the Margaritas’ College Park store, has downsized the number of stores and modernized its inventory.

“You have to fight for it, but there’s still interest out there,” said Chris Syllaba, Kitt’s president and chief executive.

For Margaritas, though, the new pianos just wouldn’t sell. The cost of maintaining such a large building, with so many pianos inside, and so much maintenance work to be done, was overwhelming. He had another store to try to keep open. And the news stories about stores such as his kept coming. With the sad men and the charts that showed the peak year for piano sales was 1909, when 364,500 were sold in the United States, according to a recent Associated Press report. Imagine every person in Tampa buying a piano in one year. The decline ever since has bottomed out in the past few years, with only 30,000 to 40,000 pianos being sold each year for all of the country.

Success for Margaritas became selling one piano a day. It didn’t happen most days.

When did he decide it was over?

“You use that word, decide,” he says. “I didn’t decide. It’s more like, accept.”

He accepted the Catonsville store would stay open and his team would keep refurbishing pianos. But the Piano Liquidation Center would now mean liquidation for real.

The pianos must go by March 31. What doesn’t will be donated, if possible. Those that can’t be donated might be trashed.

What’s left are 34 digital pianos, like the one Ray Charles recorded on; 13 Hammond organs, like the churches used to buy; 96 uprights, like the first piano Margaritas played; and 131 grands, like the colorful pianos in the window were, before someone removed their working parts. They were always empty, and now the showroom will be too.