Keeping a third-generation piano business finely tuned

Recession being the bane of piano retailers, it seems wholly remarkable that Harry Cohen and his son, Lou, decided to start selling Baldwins and Wurlitzers in 1937 — the year the economy relapsed toward the end of the Great Depression.

But somehow the Cohens survived the recession of 1937 and 1938.

In fact, the family business, founded in Philadelphia, thrived through three generations and extended into three states. Hundreds of families in Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland bought new and used pianos from one of the Cohens over the years.

Steve Cohen, Harry's grandson and Lou's nephew, manages the last of the Cohen piano stores, a handsomely appointed showroom in a humdrum office park near Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Sales are conducted by appointment, with walk-ins accommodated on only a few Sundays per year.

This past Sunday was one of them — the latest of Steve Cohen's special "benefit" sales that are key to a business plan he created a couple of decades ago to survive recessions.

Cohen owns Jason's Music Center and Piano Warehouse, a business that grew out of the original Cohen family store in Philadelphia. In the 1950s, as various Cohens started their own piano showrooms, Steve Cohen's father, Irv, landed in Baltimore and established Jason's in the city's then-bustling Howard Street retail district.

Steve Cohen carried on the family business and became expert in the reconditioning of pianos and sales. He knew from experience that, while the company's band instrument division would always do well, its piano side would always be vulnerable.

"A piano is one of the first things people forget about buying in a recession," Cohen says.

It was during the downturn of 1990-1991 that Cohen decided to consolidate three Jason's showrooms in the Baltimore area into a single piano store on Ritchie Highway.

A few years later, he came up with a business plan in the hopes of surviving future recessions.

"I was reading a story, I think in the Sun business section, about Lockheed Martin," Cohen said. "They were getting into some high-tech soldering and needed people trained to use a new machine. They loaned one of the machines to the Montgomery County schools and offered a certificate in the use of the machine to students who learned how to use it."

Lockheed Martin got some nice publicity out of the venture — and skilled employees.

Steve Cohen's idea: Loan pianos to school systems in return for direct notices about the sale of his Baldwins, Pambergers and Kawais to every student in the elementary, middle and high schools.

"We're a small business that depends on the community," he said. "I would trade pianos for advertising."

Over the last 15 years, he struck deals with Anne Arundel County, Baltimore County, Cecil County, Harford County and the Archdiocese of Baltimore. From his new showroom near the airport, Cohen loans dozens of pianos each year. And each year, thousands of students in all grades receive a take-home flyer about Jason's piano sales.

Cohen offered discounts to school parents and teachers — enough incentive, some weekends, to sell up to 20 pianos.

The "benefit" for the school systems, Cohen says, is the free loan of pianos for music rooms and auditoriums — 18 in Baltimore County, 22 in Anne Arundel, 12 to the archdiocesan schools. In the 15 years of the program, only one piano has been badly damaged.

Cohen, a consultant to the piano industry, has written a manual on how to get such a program established. It has been copied elsewhere.

Still, as successful as his school "benefit" sales have been, a piano is a tough sell, he said, noting that three other retailers in the Baltimore area did not survive the recent recession.

"The [overall sales] numbers are down," says the last of the piano-selling Cohens. "But we still get middle- and upper-income people who played the piano when they were kids, and want one again, or they want their kids to play."

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