Utah’s piano man: playing through the pandemic
The roar of traffic subsides, replaced by a tinkling sound as you walk into the store. It’s a bit like being in a museum, except that here visitors are encouraged to touch the exhibits.
“Each one, even if it’s different by one digit in the serial number, will have a different tone, a different soul,” says Brigham Larson.” He’s talking about the pianos ―150 of them― as if he were describing his children, not quite as numerous ― eight ― but each with their own personality and character.
This 42-year-old businessman owns and operates Brigham Larson Pianos, one of Utah’s largest dealerships. But it’s much more than just a store. If you wander to the back of the building, the sounds of carpentry replace the music. Pianos, in various states of disrepair and reconstruction, are being restored. Pass through another door, around a corner and down a hallway, and you’ll hear sounds played by children’s hands on the keyboards at Utah Piano Conservatory.
Artist, mechanic, and businessman
This is a business born of one man’s passion, Brigham started playing piano at the age of six. Then, at age seventeen, he apprenticed with a piano technician in Chicago, learning to repair and rebuild the instruments he loved, turning into a mechanic as well.
“Crazy as it sounds,” Brigham says, “as much as I liked playing the piano, I loved working on them even more.”
Five years later, at the age of 22, he took on a business partner when he married his wife, Karmel. In 2000, the two opened a piano repair and restoration business in the living room of their 700 square foot condominium.
“There was enough room to bring in one or two pianos at a time,” Brigham says. They moved to a three-bedroom house, but things only got more cramped in their bigger home as word got out about Brigham’s skill at restoring pianos. “We had as many as 23 pianos in that house, at one time,” Brigham says.
“Something had to go,” says Karmel. “Our family and our business had grown too large.”
Brigham moved the inventory to a 42,000 square foot space on Center Street in Orem, the new home of Brigham Larson pianos and business grew. The dealership was selling more than $2M worth of pianos a year. The company employed 26 people, as the repair shop was taking more orders than workers could handle and the school had scores of students. Until one day.
On Friday, March 6th, Governor Gary Herbert issued a state of emergency and with it, instructions for citizens to stay home and stay away from public places. The next day, the store was empty and silent and Bingham began to wonder how the business would survive.
“Our family’s life fortune is tied up in this inventory,” Brigham says. “The end was in sight, and it looked like a few weeks away.”
“It’s almost impossible to do business when you depend on customers walking in and touching the merchandise,” says Karmel. So she came up with a plan to make the impossible possible.
Playing a new tune
“Once we figured out how to let customers play safely, we could let people back in the store,” she said and the company implemented an ambitious sanitation protocol.
“Every touch point in the store would have to be sanitized,” Karmel says. That meant every key – approximately 13,200 of them ― would have to be meticulously wiped down daily.
Karmel made the announcement on social media, complete with photos and videos, a sort of instruction manual for customers.
“They were going to notice something different,” Karmel says. “Rather than being open, the fall boards will be closed.” The lids that cover and protect the keyboards would signal visitors which pianos they could play and which they couldn’t. “Once someone played a piano, they would just leave the lids open,” she says.
It worked. Within two days of her marketing blitz, customers trickled back in. A few days later, a piano sold and then a few days later, another.
“Now, selling one piano in a week’s time feels like a miracle,” Brigham says.
To help cope, employees volunteered to take pay cuts and teachers went online with virtual lessons. Repair shop workers also trained themselves to do refinishing work, keeping the entire process in-house. And Brigham made a discovery.
“Normally, we would get four orders for rebuilds in a year,” he says. “When I looked through my books, I realized we have 22 back-orders.”
The restoration work will keep Brigham busy and the store’s front doors open for the time being. In the meantime, he and Karmel agree, they’re saving their family business the way they save pianos― by restoring it to its original version.