Christy Myers grew up in the piano business in Mobile. Her husband, Chris, not so much. While she was surrounded by elegant instruments, he was in the Army, piloting a helicopter – including three deployments in Iraq.
When it was time to choose a future together, the two opted for pianos over helicopters, working first in her family business in Mobile and then, in 2016, opening their own Steinway Piano Gallery in Spanish Fort.
There’s something pleasantly solid about working on pianos on the ground rather than helicopters in the air, Chris quips.
Chris and Christy had been close for ages. While Chris, a Scottsboro native, was studying at Samford University in Birmingham, Christy was in school at nearby University of Montevallo. Both worked at McRae’s Department Store until graduation, when he went to the Army and she to a retail career. Friends for years, they only began to suspect their relationship was more when they were miles apart. When Chris finally returned to the States, during a brief Army schooling stint at Fort Rucker, he traveled to Birmingham and proposed — then got redeployed for another year in Iraq.
They married as soon as he returned and began working in the piano business.
Several years later, Steinway & Sons approached them about opening a store — one of just 60 Steinway & Sons galleries in the Americas — and they did just that in 2016.
To make a go of it, they expanded their expertise beyond salesmanship.
“One good thing about the military,” Chris reflects, “I was able to use my post-9/11 GI Bill to pay for my schooling at Boston’s North Bennet Street School.” Developed last century to teach trades to Italian immigrants, the school is one of the few places that teaches piano technician skills, along with crafts like bookbinding, violin making and jewelry design.
Christy thought it was an excellent option for Chris. “Have you ever seen the cockpit of a helicopter and all those things you have to know how to do?” she asks. And a piano isn’t simple — it has some 12,000 parts, she notes. Her conclusion: “If he can fly a helicopter in combat, then he can make that piano sound great.”
They had already made choices to keep their fledgling business viable.
Rather than a downtown metro site, they opted for a piece of property on U.S. Highway 31 in Spanish Fort. They skipped the crystal chandeliers and marble floors, too. “The consumer is so smart these days,” Chris says. “They understand that if you’re in a high-rent district, if you have crystal chandeliers and marble flooring, those costs and the cost of the real estate are transferred to them when they purchase the piano.”
While it might not be the location you would consider for a classy piano store, it’s pretty savvy, they believe — close to Mobile and Pensacola, in the heart of the rapidly growing Eastern Shore where some 4,000 new homes are planned in the “golden triangle” formed by Highways 59 and 31 and Interstate 10.
They also added a music academy, which has now grown to about 100 students, both children and adults.
But the instruments themselves — and the ability to keep them in perfect condition — are the heart of their business.
Christy knows pianos inside and out — how they are hand-crafted at Steinway & Sons in New York, what woods go into them, what makes one better than another, and how to find the best model for your budget. Chris keeps them performance ready.
In case you wonder, a nine-foot Steinway concert grand carries a price tag of about $190,000. No one will buy one if they give it a test run in the store and it’s out of tune.
In fact, keeping pianos in tune and in good repair is one of the big chunks of a piano store’s overhead. Reining in that cost is undeniably valuable.
“A bad piano can’t sound good,” Chris says, “but a good piano can sound bad.”
And there’s only one chance to sell a piano. “It’s not like a car dealership where people replace their vehicles every five to ten years. When it comes to a piano, we have one shot. Usually, a piano is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase. The thought of somebody coming in and the piano not sounding perfect and them not selecting that piano, that puts a lot of pressure on me and on Christy, too.”
But Chris’ skills in piano craft take him outside the shop, too. He tunes pianos for the Mobile and Gulf Coast symphonies, Mobile Opera, the University of South Alabama, University of Mobile and Spring Hill College — for concert pianists and rocks stars.
“They say that piano tuning is a dying art,” Chris says, estimating that he has only about a dozen competitors in the region.
“But don’t let that talk you into buying a cheap keyboard,” Christy advises. A second-rate instrument just means that what you play won’t sound good. She recommends a quality used piano at a modest $1,000 or so, and if your playing outgrows it, most of the cost can be recouped when you move to a better instrument.
“Our business plan had always been to limit our overhead so we could stay in business,” Chris says. “So, we had the best piano salesman on the planet — and now we had a technician in house. So basically, most of our overhead when it came to employees was covered by our family. Sales and service.”
That led to 60-plus-hour weeks, until they were able to add another salesperson, a pianist recently home from the Marine Corps Band in New Orleans, bringing an infectious happiness to the store and a millennial’s comfort with social media.
And — much to Chris’ relief — they were able to partner with Ronnie Payne, owner of Payne Movers in Cantonment, Florida, who specializes in moving pianos. No longer did Chris have to rely on casual laborers to help him move a $50,000 instrument into position. Payne can move a piano upstairs or crane it into position in a church choir loft without a hint of a scratch, Chris says.
Now Christy can concentrate on what she does best — building relationships with potential customers and, when they’re ready, helping them find the perfect instrument, whether lower-range Essex, mid-range Boston or top-of-the-line Steinway grand.
The two love being associated with a first-rate product — a hand-crafted instrument made by an American company with an unflagging attention to quality yet simultaneously innovating. A hundred years ago, a piano was the home entertainment center, they say. During the pandemic year, when they sold more pianos than in any previous year — an average of one every three days — people discovered that it could be again. And for those longing for something more high-tech, there’s the Spirio — recreating an artist’s performance on your piano, not with the plink of a player piano, but with the depth and richness of a live performance.
There’s a lot to enjoy in their line of work. But ask what they like best about the business, and the two respond in unison. “It makes people happy.”
Says Chris, “We’ve had clients tell us, ‘If I knew that this piano would change my life in this positive direction, I would have bought it years ago.’ It’s wonderful to know that what we have facilitated is something they can enjoy for their entire lives.”
This story is featured in the May 2021 issue of Business Alabama magazine.