We preserve and protect the world's finest pianos!

Pickle Piano Co. In the News

Date:

April 11, 1993

Author:

Paula Lauer

Source:

Chicago Tribune

Section:

Tempo Northwest, pg. 1

Headline:

Piano passion, Pickle Piano is instrumental in giving has-beens a second life

At first glance, the back room at Pickle Piano Company in Bloomingdale looks like a place where old pianos go to die.

Massive antique concert grands caked in decades of dust share space with beat-up consoles, uprights, baby grands and player pianos stacked three or four deep.

Some of these instruments are missing keyboards, lids and legs. Many don't even look like pianos because they're standing on end and draped in dingy moving blankets or strapped to dollies.

But this back room is far from a burial ground. These silent Steinways, majestic Mason & Hamlins, weary Chickerings, Knabes, Wurlitzers and Weinbachs haven't come here to die but to be reborn.

"People can see pianos in all stages of being built here," said Don Skurauskis, who founded Pickle Piano five years ago with partner Matt Bechteler.

With a staff of 16 and an inventory of more than 350 new and used pianos in the Bloomingdale facility, plus another 600 or so in storage at a warehouse in Addison, Bechteler, 42, and Skurauskis, 50, are the largest rebuilders and restorers of investment-grade pianos in the Midwest. Investment-grade pianos are instruments especially valued because of the manufacturer and craftmanship.

Sales in new and used pianos for this small corporation average more than 600 instruments a year; dollar figures for sales and service work topped the $2.5 million mark last year, and, according to Bechteler, they continue to climb.

An "old-fashioned piano house," Pickle Piano caters to the keyboard needs of everyone from pint-sized beginners to accomplished professionals. Along with used pianos that range in price from $500 to $25,000, an impressive stock of new pianos includes European barons such as Bechstein, Petrof, Weinbach and Feurich as well as American and Korean names such as Wurlitzer and Hyundai.

Under the umbrella of Pickle Church Organ systems, the business is also the exclusive representative in the U.S. for the top two European pipe organ companies, Reiger-Kloss of Czechoslavakia and Guilbault-Therein of France.

And to round out the inventory, they offer Wurlitzer electronic digitally sampled organs, electronic keyboards, player and reproducer pianos and nickelodeons.

But it's through the preservation-pickling if you will, hence the name-of fine pianos that Pickle Piano has created a niche for itself.

Indeed, if you venture a little farther into their back room you'll notice this well-lit shop is a beehive of activity. To the right, a technician painstakingly re-levels keyboards propped on a chest-high workbench. Three sets of legs (human) surrounded by piano parts stick out from under an old Steinway, and farther back, Pickle's two-man touchup team, wielding fine brushes and palettes of stain, eliminate any remaining imperfections in the finish of a soon-to-be delivered piano.

"What we enjoy-the satisfying part-is that we can recondition pianos that are built oftentimes better than a great many new pianos," said Bechteler. "Old Chickerings, Mason & Hamlins and Steinways ... they're just so wonderful tonally, and they're 20 to 50 years old. Someone can have a great piano for $1,500 to maybe $2,300 or $2,400, but that quality couldn't be duplicated today. They'd have to spend $4,000 or $5,000."

New or used, the partners' passion for pianos and a desire to educate customers has earned them an admirable reputation and a clientele that Bechteler estimates is about 80 percent word of mouth.

"They are an exceptionally reliable company. They understand everything there is to know about a piano and they're very good at relaying this to their customers," said Jim Nicoll, president of Dundee-based Premier Piano Co., the U.S. agent for Hyundai, Bechstein, Feurich and W. Hoffmann pianos. "When the customer goes in to visit their store, they can be assured of not only being treated politely with a lot of respect and without high-pressure tactics but by extremely knowledgeable people."

"They're more of a full-service company," agreed Dick Christian, divisional vice president of western sales for Wurlitzer piano based in Loveland, Ohio. "They're our largest dealer in the Chicagoland area, and I think they're recognized as one of the better companies, one of the more trustworthy companies. We respect them highly."

Asserting that a piano is more than just a piece of furniture, Rick Cornwall, Pickle's service manager and a 25-year veteran in the industry, said that everyone working at Pickle Piano possesses what Cornwall calls a passion for the instrument.

"I tell people-and I really mean this-I love pianos," said Cornwall. "I don't care what I'm doing, if I'm playing or getting dirty and cleaning one, it's just another opportunity to love the instrument.

"There's a special moment with each piano. There was a Petrof just before Christmas that I regulated and tuned, and when I was done, I sat down to play a song, and this one piano was so beautiful in tone, the entire back room stopped and walked over to listen to the piano. They weren't listening to me; they've heard me play a lot of times. They stopped to listen to how gorgeous this piano sounded. It was just incredible. It was a magic moment. And everybody sat down to play it afterwards."

Cornwall, who oversees Pickle's three-year apprentice program and does much of the training on the technical end, said, though musical ability is not a requirement to work there, almost everyone on staff at Pickle is a musician.

"You'll notice, except when someone's tuning, you'll hear someone stop and play a little run now and then," he said. "Maybe they're writing something. And they want to try something out ... they just want to play the piano. Our touchup guy plays very well. Our truck driver plays very well .... Obviously it's not necessary to play the piano when you're doing touchup, but it makes a difference if you love it. Music is an integral part of their lives."

"Tuning a piano, playing a piano and working on a piano are all art forms," said Cornwall. "When you can see the diamond in the rough and say, `This piano is 60 years old, it doesn't function right, you can't even make music on it right now ... .' Then when we're done, we make that piano sing. That's fun."

Indeed, once the technicians and refinishers complete their work, which can take from two days to six months, often the only way to tell the older pianos from the new ones in Pickle's adjacent 6,000-square-foot showroom is by looking up serial numbers in a book.

And their efforts have not gone unnoticed in the industry. Tom DeLegge, a tuner and technician from Carol Stream was introduced to Pickle Piano a couple of years ago when he inspected a piano one of his customers was interested in.

"I had it in pieces all over the floor and they didn't mind at all," he recalled. "That's not rare, but it's unexpected. I found about 20 things they did to the piano to get it ready for sale, and the things they did were just first class all the way. I was very impressed. When they sell a used piano, it's really reconditioned very well, very professionally, and that is rare."

"And we do everything except for the major refinishing right here in this shop," said Skurauskis. Because of the odor, refinishing jobs other than spraying and touchups are done at a facility in Chicago.

"Everything" ranges from leveling the keys, regulating, voicing and tuning to completely rebuilding a piano from the inside out, right down to the hardware and pedals.

"A lot of people aren't aware of what you can do with a piano, how you can improve it," said Cornwall. "You can make it more brilliant, you can make it mellow, you can make it play harder or easier. That's all part of regulating and voicing."

A complete overhaul and refinishing on a used instrument can cost between $6,000 and $10,000. Even brand new pianos are cleaned, regulated and tuned before hitting the showroom.

"I have yet to see a piano where we didn't do something to it," said Cornwall, noting that because Pickle's shop standards exceed all the dealer make-ready specifications, they'll often spend up to two days regulating and voicing a brand new piano.

Those who are intrigued by the high level of craftsmanship are sure to enjoy the sounds that go with it. Whether it's the monotonous plinking and plunking of a piano being tuned, a customer sounding out what seems to be the No. 1 showroom song, "Fur Elise," ("what they've done to Beethoven," said Bechteler, rolling his eyes in mock horror) or Bechteler himself playing a goose-bump-inducing rendition of Chopin's "Polonaise" in A Flat, Pickle Piano is seldom a quiet place.

Indeed, Bechteler, a concert pianist who holds degrees in performance piano, pipe organ and education, seems to know each of the pianos intimately and has a hard time walking by one without playing a little something. "This was made in 1930 out at the Piano Factory in St. Charles," he said, fingers rippling up and down the keyboard, "thaaaaat's a nice sound ....

"Now this is a beautiful instrument," he said moving on to a Czech-made Petrof, "and a wonderful buy because of the exchange rate .... See how smooth the tone is?"

Switching to a Weinbach, Chopin's Aeolian Harp Etude fills the room. "This is another Czech piano. This is a value, too. I love this piano. It has such a sweet sound, doesn't it?"

Originally from Milwaukee, Bechteler studied at Chicago's Sherwood Music School (now Sherwood School of Music) before his career as performer gradually evolved into one of teaching and piano sales. After a brief stint at Montis Music in Berkeley, Bechteler worked at Roselle Music for 12 years. During his tenure there, he developed a piano division and gave music lessons.

But like Skurauskis, a Chicago native who started tuning and tinkering with pianos when he was studying forestry at Oregon State University, he was also fascinated by the mechanics of the piano.

"Even as a kid I was interested," Bechteler said. "I'd take the action out of a grand and study it so I had an understanding of the instrument.

"Later, because of my playing ability, there were pianos I loved and there were pianos I hated, and there was no in between. But I didn't know why." So Bechteler, who lives in Roselle with his three grand pianos (two Mason & Hamlins and one Knabe) and his wife and three kids, traveled to piano factories and worked with a series of technicians to learn all he could about tuning, rebuilding and voicing.

"There are textbook approaches, but there are a lot of things about pianos that aren't written down," he said. "There are aspects of voicing that are like secrets that they don't want to pass on unless you really show that you're going to love it."

Bechteler hooked up with Skurauskis while working at Roselle Music in the late 1970s.

"I didn't know Don at the time, but I would see his little tuning stickers on pianos all over the place," Bechteler recalled. "He came in to do a tuning for me, we had lunch and I said I thought it would be a good idea for a good technician to specialize in good, used pianos."

Skurauskis, who had mastered his trade as a tuner/technician working for Lyon-Healy, a large music house in Chicago, and then later in his own business, had just returned from an eight-year stay in Colorado, where he had been running Professional Piano, an operation similar to Pickle Piano.

Bechteler encouraged him to continue along the same vein here, and he did.

"I lived in Addison at the time, and I had 202 pianos in my house at one time," Skurauskis recalled. Today he has only a Bohemia console piano.

After about a year of running a used-piano business out of his home, Skurauskis, who now lives in Lisle with his wife and two kids (plus twins on the way), approached Bechteler about forming their own business.

"We decided in about a week to go into business," Bechteler said. "It takes me two years to decide which car to buy, but we were in business a week later."

While Bechteler buys most of the new pianos, a task that takes him to Europe at least six times a year, Skurauskis, who estimates that he has worked on more than 30,000 pianos in his career as a tuner and rebuilder, does most of the buying on the used end.

He'll field as many as 50 phone calls a day from folks wanting to get rid of a piano.

"It's like finding a needle in a haystack," Skurauskis said noting that he won't buy just any piano. "I might buy two used pianos a day, and to do that, I have to answer 40 phone calls."

With more than 30 years in the business, Skurauskis knows what he's looking for.

"I'm able to gauge almost all pianos over the phone, picture them all, just what they look like and ask the right questions to find out just what condition they're in and establish a value right there. I can do that 90 percent of the time," he said.

Skurauskis said he'll "skip breakfast and run right out" for fancy period art cases with hand carving, exotic European pianos like an old Bechstein or Bosendorfer, or old big-name American pianos like Steinway or Mason & Hamlin.

Pickle's inventory runs about 50 percent new, 50 percent used, but Skurauskis said most of the used pianos are sold before they're even worked on. A piano sale can take anywhere from 10 minutes to two years, Skurauskis said.

For those who breathe new life into an older piano or bring a new piano to perfection, seeing one leave can be like saying goodbye to a friend.

"There are pianos we don't like to see go," Cornwall said. "You become involved with a piano; you develop a relationship with a piano. But it's important to keep cognizant of the fact that this piano is going to someone's house. It's going to become someone's special instrument, and, hopefully, their grandkids are going to inherit it."




Pickle Piano Company
104 West Lake Street
Bloomingdale, IL 60108

Telephone: 630-894-2992
Fax: 630-894-2743
E-mail: questions@picklepiano.com


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