Grand Piano Man STILL TICKLED BY THE IVORIES SAM BLACKMAN, 80, WILL BE SELLING INSTRUMENTS AT HIS BALTIMORE SHOP AS LONG AS HE'S UPRIGHT

August 27, 1998|By M. DION THOMPSON | M. DION THOMPSON,SUN STAFF

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

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