A piano company that is a fixture in Germantown considers moving out of the city

Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

After doing business in the city for more than a century, Cunningham Piano Co. puts a pair of buildings on Germantown Avenue up for sale.

PLAY IT: Rich Galassini of Cunningham Piano Company demonstrates a rich sound from a grand piano in the showroom.
Neal Santos

Rich Galassini, co-owner of Cunningham Piano Company, is seated at an ornate Steinway grand in the company’s Germantown Avenue showroom. This model, called the Centennial, won a competition at the U.S.’s first World’s Fair, held in 1876 at Fairmount Park. Other big winners that year were Alexander Graham Bell’s newfangled telephone, the Remington typewriter and the Singer sewing machine.

“They built 424 of them — I believe this is 123,” Galassini says of the reddish-brown piano, one of only about 30 in existence. You’d never guess that it’s 138 years old. To demonstrate that the instrument sounds as gorgeous as it looks, Galassini rattles off a medley of different styles of music that includes a couple bars of a Bryan Adams song, “Wherever you go, whatever you do … ”

(NOTE: A number of people have pointed out via comment, Facebook, Twitter, email and even text message that this is in fact a Richard Marx song. I didn't realize the Bryan Adams version was a cover!)

The question of where to go has been on the minds of Cunningham’s owners for decades; staying in Germantown, they say, hasn’t made financial sense for a long time. Just last week, they finally put their showroom and workshop on the market. After more than a century in Philadelphia, Cunningham Piano is seriously considering leaving town. 

The company was founded in 1891 by Irish immigrant Patrick Cunningham; he started out hand-making pianos and a couple decades later had a factory at 50th and Parkside and offices and a showroom at 11th and Chestnut. “I’ve had people come in and say, ‘I played Cunningham pianos in my school growing up in the ’20s and ’30s’ — Patrick Cunningham had a huge contract with the Philadelphia Public Schools before World War II,” says Galassini. 

After a shutdown during the war, the company moved to Germantown Avenue and switched focus from manufacturing to restoration, carving out a niche restoring unique, ultra-high-end stuff like the Steinway Centennial. Today, there are dozens of antique and otherwise fancy Bösendorfers and Steinways from around the world sitting in the workshop in various stages of disassembly. Of the four guys eating lunch in the workshop’s break room, one’s a Steinway technician who started learning from his Steinway-technician father at age 8; another’s hands were photographed demonstrating techniques for Piano Servicing, Tuning & Rebuilding, the book colloquially known as “the Piano Man’s Bible.”

“We’ll put our work up against anybody in the world,” says Cunningham co-owner Tim Oliver. “That’s bold, but I’m happy to back it up.”

A lot of world-class pianists are “friends of the store,” too, says Galassini. For example, Garrick Ohlsson, who in 1970 was the first American to win the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition. And Marc-André Hamelin, who’s purchased four pianos from Cunningham. After his latest purchase, Hamelin played a concert in the showroom’s upstairs performance space. “He was playing a one-handed arrangement of a Godowsky Chopin piece” — aka, a very difficult piece played with left hand only. “In the middle of this piece that I couldn’t play with my hands and your hands, he reaches out and takes a sip of wine.” Galassini laughs. “He wasn’t being a showboat — he was just thirsty.” 

Cunningham Piano, the owners say, is doing just fine on the high end. What concerns them is the bread and butter. Galassini pats a sturdy little upright waiting to be transported from the workshop to its new home. “This sold for $2,100, and I sell every one that I get. But if I had 10 times the customers coming to look at them — and, based on statistics nationally, I should — we’d hire more people and do more of these.”

Unfortunately, he says, it sometimes feels like people from San Francisco, Vienna and Beijing are more willing to make the trip to Germantown than people from the Philly suburbs. 

Galassini says that 15 to 20 years ago, lots of customers whose parents grew up in Germantown would come to them for their first piano. “But now those people have kids who are growing up in the suburbs,” he says. And when those kids need pianos, their parents aren’t driving into the city. “To a certain segment of the [Greater] Philadelphia marketplace, it’s an adventure to come into the city, or it’s a — what’s the right word? — an anxiety-producing event.”

“At one point,” says Oliver, “Germantown was the second-largest shopping district in the Greater Phil-adelphia area, behind Center City. Today, that’s King of Prussia. And it’s been King of Prussia for a long time. There used to be four piano stores in our two-block range. We’ve been the only one for a long time.”

Adds Galassini, “There was a day when we were the first phone call that everybody made. To some people who don’t live in the city, we’re simply not relevant. They go to a suburban department store, they go to a suburban pharmacy, they go to a suburban church. And there are piano stores in the suburbs.

“This is not about us going out of business,” Galassini continues. “We’re fine. I think we’d be doing fine as a company if we didn’t sell a piano in Philadelphia this entire year, because people come to us from a distance.” Those high-end customers coming a long way for specialty work “don’t buy a $4,000 or $5,000 piano. They buy a $140,000 piano, an $80,000 piano. They’re on a quest.” 

But Galassini’s still worried about losing the less-glamorous entry-level business. “If you buy your first piano from Joe Smith, you will certainly look there the next time, and the time after that. If we lose an amount of that beginner market today, we may be losing five or 20 years from now.” 

And the high-end market has its own reason that a move to the suburbs makes sense. “Just a few days ago, we sold a $108,000 piano. The family paid 8 percent sales tax because we’re in Philadelphia as opposed to 6 percent if we were over the city line” — a difference of over $2,000. 

The Germantown location makes it easy to pick people up from the airport, Galassini says, but they’ll go anywhere they move — and the closeness to the airport is the biggest objective benefit they see to staying in Germantown. 

But sentimentality is powerful. “Rich has been here almost 30 years, I’ve been here 18 years — there’s a lot of stories in these buildings,” says Oliver. “We worked for the ladies who owned it before us, and they inherited it from their dad — there’s a lineage that goes way, way back.” The sisters who sold them the family business and properties in 2007 “were like our mothers when we worked here with them,” says Galassini. “There’s a big part of us that doesn’t want to leave.” They say they’ll see if they get any offers at their full asking price on the properties by the end of the month; if they do, they’ll have a hard decision to make.

“There’s a part of me that, as we’re speaking, is actually a little ill. Because I’ve been here since 1987. I’ve been an owner for seven years; this is where my heart and soul lies,” says Galassini.

“If everything were this beautiful about doing business in the city, we would absolutely stay,” says Oliver. “But it’s not.”

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