In 1976, early in my career, I was working as a piano rebuilder and also in sales, at Owen Piano on Washington Blvd., a dicey neighborhood in Los Angeles. I was tuning a rebuilt Chickering when two men walked through the door, one in short shorts with long, greasy, scraggly hair, looking like he hadn’t showered in weeks, and the other in a tank top and Levi’s. They approached me and asked to see Steinway pianos. I asked if either of them played, and was told “a little bit.” When I asked what size, they said, “The bigger, the better.”
Now, at this point, I began thinking this was a big joke being played on me by the competitor down the street—we always played practical jokes on each other. I decided to play along to see what would happen. We had just brought a rebuilt Steinway B (1908) to the front of the store from the shop in the rear, so I showed it to them. It was refinished in the original rosewood, and had turned legs and a scrolled music rack—absolutely elegant. I demonstrated the piano for them, and they seemed to like the sound. They then asked me how much, and though I didn’t know the exact amount Mr. Owen wanted, I knew that $25,000 was more than the normal asking price. So I turned to them and said “$40,000.”
“Okay, but can you refinish it in white?”
I laughed. “Yes, but that would cost another $7,500.” (At that time, we were charging $3,500 for refinishing a cabinet.) They looked at each other. “Okay, we’ll take it.”
I broke out laughing again. “MasterCard or Visa?”
They smiled. “We’ll pay cash.” The scraggly one then turned and nodded to the other, who left the store.
I took Mr. Scraggly up to the office to write up the deal, still thinking this was a joke. When I entered, the other salesman was in the office, reading the paper. As we sat down at my desk, he started waving his hands at me. I couldn’t figure out what he wanted or meant, so I started writing the invoice. I asked where the piano was to be delivered and was given an address in Bel Aire, a swanky suburb. I then asked his name. When he gave it to me, I said, “May I ask what you do for a living?”
“I sing and write music.”
“Under what name?”
His name was Rod Stewart, and at about that time the other guy returned to the store with a briefcase full of cash, and they paid in full!
In 1992, my store was located in the performing-arts district of San Francisco. One day in January, a woman and her son entered the store. The woman explained that she was looking for a piano for her son, and that they had been to several stores but hadn’t seen anything they liked. When I asked what pianos they’d seen that had come close, the woman looked at her son, who remained silent. She named several brands they had tried, then remarked that they would like to play some of our pianos. I took them to several uprights, which the young man immediately dismissed without saying one word to me. I tried to engage him in conversation but was ignored. I then took them upstairs to our more expensive pianos and sat him down at a German upright. As he played, I asked his mother if I had said or done something wrong, since her son wouldn’t engage me and seemed hostile.
She smiled and pulled me farther away from the boy. “We lost our piano recently in the Oakland Hills firestorm, and the house was destroyed,” she said. “Unfortunately, my daughter was also burned alive, and her brother can’t seem to play piano anymore without thinking about her. They used to play duets.”
On a lovely spring day in 1998, a customer came into my store pushing a stroller with a two-year-old. After exchanging pleasantries, I extended my hand and introduced myself. He shook it and said, “I’m Steve and this is Lisa.” He explained that he was looking for a piano for his daughter and the new home he had just built in Palo Alto, near Stanford University. I showed him numerous pianos in a variety of finishes, but none elicited any enthusiasm from him. I then took him to a Sauter upright in German cherry that, when he heard it, seemed to produce a sparkle in his eyes. I told him Sauter’s history, and explained that the company was a small manufacturer and able to custom-build pianos to any specification or color. He asked if I knew what alder wood was, and I said yes, and went and got a sample from my office. He looked at it: “Perfect!!!” He asked how long it would take to build the piano we had been discussing in alder, and I quoted six months.
“If you can have it here by June 1, I’ll take it.”
I chuckled. “Don’t you even want to know what it costs?”
“I’m sure you’ll treat me fairly,” he replied. Do you know who I am?”
I said no.
“I’m Steve Jobs.”
Russell I. Kassman
R. KASSMAN Purveyor of Fine Pianos