Sam Blackman's friends say he ought to retire, maybe take up golfing and stop making the drive from Randallstown to West Baltimore.

His wife, Ann, wouldn't mind if the University of Maryland marched up West Baltimore Street and took the family business, just like it took the old one downtown when the school expanded. Then Sam, 80, would have to stay home. But she's not going to push him.

"The truth is, if I was to stop this here, I would be going to places that may not interest me as much as this place," he says, sitting beside one of the used pianos he sells. "This? I've found my way of living."

Baltimore used to be a piano town. The Stieff and Wm. Knabe factories turned out high-end instruments. Hecht's had a piano salon. Mr. George sold pianos at 716 W. Baltimore St. Hammann's Piano Store was a stone's throw away at 211 N. Liberty St. The Music Centre was at 313 N. Charles St., and the J.S. Reed Piano Co. had a shop at 29 W. North Ave.

They're all gone. Nowadays the piano shops are in the suburbs, except for Blackman's -- Baltimore's last piano store.

"We were the only brave ones. We stuck it out," Blackman says. "It's not like it used to be. The '80s were good years. The keyboards came, and that hurt us a lot. But now people just stopped. People don't come no more."

There's little walk-in trade from the neighborhood, where used furniture stores are common and the annual median income is about $16,000. Most of Blackman's business comes by word of mouth, or through the classified ads. In a good month he'll make two sales.

He tries to get down to his shop twice a week, but there's no guarantee when he'll show up. The best way to catch him is by appointment, then he's sure to be in the 1400 block of West Baltimore Street, sitting in his shop, cater-corner to the Blue Note Lounge.

It's not one of those fancy places with a perfect temperature and a room full of expensive pianos polished to a mirror-like sheen. It's a musty, dusty, damp old place, a one-time restaurant and bar with a tin ceiling from the Baltimore of street cars and packet steamers to the Eastern Shore. A small sign on one wall reads: "Life is like a piano. What you get out of it depends on how you play it."

Sheets of Masonite cover the beat-up barroom floor. Blackman picked up the fiber board cheap a little over 30 years ago. Rows of sheet-music covers climb up the faded green walls: "Oh You Suffragettes," "Mutt and Jeff in Panama," "Over There," Al Jolson in blackface singing "Goodbye Boys."

Then there are the pianos, church organs, antique organs worked by a bellows, player pianos, old grands by Wurlitzer, Settergreen, Hardman and Mendelssohn, a Baldwin "Acrosonic" console, a Melville Clark spinet. Some are horribly out of tune. A Gulbrensen studio upright has been collecting dust for two years. Yet, they are here, and they are cheap.

"The prices we sell, ridiculous prices," says Blackman. "Anyone who can't afford it comes here."

And there's always room for negotiation.

"That's the beauty part of it. It's a cat-and-mouse affair," he says, savoring a lifetime of sales. "Let's face it. You go to any place that sells used stuff. People say, 'Is it negotiable?' "

Occasional gems

Once in a while, there's a gem among the hand-me-down pianos.

Last week, Blackman had an upright Steinway, a model F, made in New York City and finished on Nov. 19, 1888. The Steinway company says the first owner was Mrs. George Hasberouck of 131 W. 76th St. in Manhattan. She had the piano shipped to her home on Dec. 8, 1888.

After 110 years, the Steinway was in playable shape, though the finish needed work.

Regina Vallerani, 33, bought it for $1,995.

"It was just dumb luck for me, to be honest," says Vallerani, who works for a local software company. "I just walked in there and there it was, and a week later I bought it."

Her piano teacher told her Blackman's was a good place to find a cheap starter piano. She called and made an appointment. She wanted a console or a small grand, but she stumbled on a massive old Steinway. Blackman picked it up about a month ago in Silver Spring. He needed four men to move it into Vallerani's Roland Park apartment.

Selling pianos isn't what Blackman came looking for when he caught the bus out of Borough Park in Brooklyn. That was before World War II, when he was barely 20. He didn't see the front lines during the war. He saw the assembly line at the Martin aircraft factory in Middle River. He was deferred from military service four times because of the defense work.

"Every day there was a plane going out," he says of those years when he and others rolled out B-26 Marauders like clockwork. "Let's face it. You needed planes. No question about it. And it was bomber planes. Those are the ones that did all the damage."

Wartime romance

He met Ann Sopher, whose mother, Hilda, ran the Sopher Ice and Coal Co. near Pine and West Baltimore streets. He and some other New Yorkers used to go to Irving and Jack's deli, which just happened to be full of Baltimore girls. Nature took care of the rest.

"They saw us. We saw them and then we started dating," he says. "You know how it goes."

One of Ann's girlfriends told her she ought to come see the New York guys. She did, and there was Sam, an easygoing guy with beautiful head of curls. And he was just her size. Ann is 4-foot-11. Sam says he might have lost a couple of inches. Back then he was 5-foot-6.

"He was a good-looking guy. He was a wonderful guy," says Ann, 76.

Sam laughs, "You'd better tell everybody that."

"No, he was a good-looking guy," she says.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he says. "We were all good-looking in those young days."

They married in 1942 in a rabbi's house around Park Heights and Oswego avenues. Sam can't remember the rabbi's name. "It used to be a flypaper memory," he says, "but not anymore." He does remember crushing a glass for good luck.

"We're married 57 years," says Ann.

"Yeah, 57 years," adds Sam, his voice overlapping.

"In March," says Ann, finishing the thought.

They opened Blackman's Food Market after the war, sold groceries, clothing, costume jewelry, furniture, anything, raising three daughters along the way.

"Saturdays we had the greatest days," says Ann. "We sold more hot dogs than fountain sodas. We sold 15-cent kosher hot dogs. Can you imagine? They sell them for $2.50 now."

Around 1960, the Blackmans started selling used upright pianos for $49.95. They had groceries and dry goods on one side of the store at 15 N. Pine St. and pianos on the other.

Staying put

By 1967, the University of Maryland's expansion pushed the Blackmans out of downtown and out to West Baltimore and Stricker streets, just in time for the riots of 1968. They watched it on television from their Northwest Baltimore home. It broke Ann's heart. But the shop came through unscathed. After all, jokes Sam, stealing a piano is not easy.

He could've joined the business exodus after that, but he stayed.

"A lot of them moved out beyond the Beltway. I said, 'Why move out there?' " he says.

Ray Remmers, 45, remembers those days. He came into Blackman's and bought his first piano that year for $89.95.

The shop "had a lot of tall, old uprights," he says. "It was packed."

Remmers, who tunes pianos for a living, started coming by Blackman's a few years ago to help keep the stock in playing order. It's a Sisyphean task. He'll get a piano in shape, stay away a few weeks, come back and find the instrument out of tune again.

"It's tough to keep stuff maintained here because he's not here a lot and I'm not here," Remmers says one afternoon while working on a Baldwin he suspects hasn't been tuned in 20 or 30 years. "In the winter, sometimes it's down to 40, 50 degrees in here. You walk in on a winter day and it's like walking into a refrigerator."

Brian Thomas, 27, Blackman's part-time apprentice, and a neighborhood guy who only goes by "Pee Wee," provide the muscle whenever Blackman needs to move a piano. One day, Pee Wee says to a visitor: "So, you want to see how real men work."

Blackman has a call to move a piano from Essex to Timonium. It's hard work. Except for moving the dolly, Blackman stays out of the way. Pee Wee is in charge. He says the movers have to be in sync as they wrestle 700 pounds of wood, steel and string down a couple of flights of stairs. That's the easy part. It is fighting gravity and hauling a piano upstairs that really kills you. On this day, there's plenty of huffing and puffing, straining and pulling as Thomas and Pee Wee struggle to get the console up three flights of stairs. At the second landing, Pee Wee, 46, a veteran of 20-plus years of piano moving, takes a breather.

"I'm fine. I'm just tired, getting too old," he says. "I ought to go over to the Sunpapers, write a column about how it was to work for Blackman's piano company."

A grand symbol

The Blackmans caught the post-war wave of the piano business. Through the 1960s and 1970s and even into the early 1980s, more than 200,000 pianos were sold each year. Blackman could count on five or six sales each month. Since then, sales have fallen by more than half. About 95,000 pianos were sold last year.

"The only thing that has stayed around is the grand," says Blackman. "The grand is a symbol. It's a status symbol in the house. Even if they can't play it. It's a nice piece of furniture in a house."

Blackman prefers to think of them as instruments, fascinating, intricate collections of 10,000 moving parts. Some, like the 60-year-old Wm. Knabe upright that commands one wall, are pieces of history. He dreams about them, not a musician's dream of virtuoso playing, but a merchant's dream of everyday business concerns: "How are we going to get this one out of here? What are we going to do with this one we just got in?"

Ann stopped coming around a couple of years ago. As for Sam?

"I'm counting the years now. But I think this is what keeps me moving. Eh, Ann?" he says one afternoon, the strained notes of Remmers at work sounding in the background.

"I told him that after 55 years, I'm tired of running," says Ann. "I say, 'Sam, whatever you do, I say it's OK.' "

"That's the thing. It keeps me," he says, smiling. That's enough of a reason. "Just to keep coming down. It keeps me young."

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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