Piano stores are an endangered species across the United States. Kids are increasingly turning to electronic devices for their entertainment, and many lack the will to sit down and learn a complex instrument.
Even those who enjoy playing music are turning to electronic keyboards or cheap pianos. The peak year for piano sales in America was 1909, when 364,500 were sold. Annual sales have plunged to 30,000 in recent years.
So, how does it happen that American Music World continues to prosper as the store approaches its 35th Anniversary?
The store at 7655 W. Roosevelt Road is successful for three reasons: selling high-end pianos at half their original cost, having skilled technicians to restore and tune pianos and offering low-cost lessons taught by veteran teachers.
AMW has another quality that is disappearing from the American landscape: it’s a family business offering personalized service.
The store was opened by Ray Fajmon at the corner of Wabash and Adams, the former location of Lyon & Healy, in Chicago.
Fajmon had been top salesmen at Lyon & Healy until it closed its 13 stores and he relocated his store to Roosevelt Road in Forest Park, because it was a busy commercial area and closer to his Riverside home.
Fajmon’s musical roots, though, go back to his childhood in Chicago.
“I started playing the drums at 9,” he recalled, “I joined a drum and bugle corps at the local VFW. We wore uniforms and played at memorials for World War II soldiers.”
Fajmon then joined a garage band.
“I took my drum set on the streetcar to the garage to rehearse,” he said. “We played at a party where they passed the hat. We each earned five bucks. That’s when I knew there was money in the music business.”
There was also safety. When he was drafted into the military, Fajmon expected to be shipped to Korea. However, thanks to his skill with the sticks, he was assigned to the 98th Army Band and sent to Italy to entertain dignitaries.
“We lived in a hotel overlooking the Adriatic Sea,” Fajmon said. “It kept me out of Korea and gave me two years of musical training.”
After he was discharged, Fajmon used his improved drumming to play with big bands in Chicago.
When he went to work for Lyon & Healy, Fajmon was assigned to visit Chicago schools to interest them in starting a band program.
“I was the Music Man,” Fajmon said. “I showed a movie to third- and fourth-graders called Mr. B Natural. We started bands at three or four schools and rented the instruments to the students.”
Fajmon laments the fact than an estimated 80 percent of students who start music lessons give up.
“Children want to learn but, when they find out how hard it is, they quit,” he said.
This is a shame, Fajmon said, because many studies show that children who learn an instrument excel in school.
“It develops their brain and coordination,” Fajmon said, “It builds their self-confidence and makes them feel good about themselves.”
After selling music to children, Fajmon began selling pianos and organs to adults.
“The Hammond organ became very popular,” Fajmon recalled, “Especially in black churches.”
Fajmon learned exactly one song to demonstrate the organ, “Fascination.” Yet, he sold organs to churches all over Chicago, including Olivet Baptist Church, where Thomas Dorsey wrote “Precious Lord.”
The piano business began to shrink, though, due to the onslaught of electronic devices.
“TVs, telephones and iPods,” Fajmon said, “Kids had their toys so they didn’t need instruments. More sophisticated families see the benefits of learning music. There aren’t too many benefits to playing a telephone.”
When he established his store, Fajmon collected the finest brands, Steinway and Yamaha. Many were pre-owned pianos that he could sell at half-price.
“We could sell a $20,000 piano for $10,000 and offer a payment plan,” he said.
He said pianos are a good investment, because they increase in value over the years. He also believes they are valuable to parents who want to invest in their kids. If they want to take lessons, AMW only charges $10 per session. They have six teachers on staff, including a husband and wife from the Czech Republic who have taught there for 20 years. The store currently has more than 100 students.
AMW also has great synergy with their next-door neighbor Kagan & Gaines. They are separate businesses but share a common corridor. Fajmon’s friendship with the owners goes back to when they were both located on Wabash Avenue.
“They are very big on violins, cellos and sheet music,” Fajmon said, which complements his concentration on keyboards. As for AMW’s future, Fajmon has two daughters and a son involved in the business. The 86-year-old still comes to work every day. He’s also still swinging the sticks.
Fajmon’s son, Rick, operates the Forest Park store, while his sisters, Judy and Bobbi, run their store in Niles. Rick Fajmon is a Forest Park resident who lives five minutes from AMW.
His goal is to continue bringing the store into the 21st century. He launched a website and keeps up with cutting edge technology. Rick has kept AMW competitive, while the recession forced other piano stores to close.
Rick’s biggest competitor is Craigslist.
“People buy pianos for their appearance,” he said, “Without even touching it. They often buy cheap pianos they’ll never use. When they come here, to purchase a quality piano, it’s a commitment. Because it’s a commitment, the piano is more likely to be played.”
Craigslist, though, does help him in one respect. It drums up business for their piano moving service.
“We move 10 to 12 pianos per week,” Rick said.
AMW also rents pianos to TV and movie production companies, as well as celebrities. They are proud to have provided a piano to Pavarotti for his performance at the United Center. They did the same for Billy Joel and Alicia Keys. They also rented one to Frank Sinatra for his apartment. Recently, they leased more than a dozen pianos to the hit TV show Empire.
Besides these services, Rick keeps up with the latest innovations. Using new technology, pianos can be converted into player pianos, which are increasingly popular. These self-playing pianos can be used for musical interludes by owners who do not play. They can also be powerful teaching tools. IPads and other video devices send waves to the piano’s receiver, which synchronizes the keys with the pianist on the screen. Steinway artists demonstrate the songs or students can learn from a Bugs Bunny video.
Converting standard pianos into player pianos is one of the jobs AMW technician Wayne Boska performs. He also refurbishes and tunes used pianos.
Boska has a side business making house calls to tune pianos, and he recently tuned the piano at First United Church of Christ for Forest Park’s first community concert.
Boska has been plying his trade since 1972. Over the years, he has worked for a number of piano dealers. All have closed their doors. He enjoys the low-pressure family atmosphere at AMW.
He also likes the challenge of being a piano problem-solver. With dedicated technicians on the premises and the many products and services it offers, American Music World doesn’t just survive, it thrives.
Celia Guyobon contributed to this report.