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East Cambridge Piano at 40: Adapt, Evolve, Succeed

Christian Wissmuller • FeaturesJanuary 2018 • January 29, 2018

First things first: Massachusetts’ East Cambridge Piano – one of the oldest piano dealers in the Boston area – is not located in the city of Cambridge, but rather in neighboring Somerville.

“Well, we started out in East Cambridge,” explains owner and founder James Nicoloro. “My family is an East Cambridge family and I took over a small storefront in the neighborhood back in 1978 – that’s how we got started.”

More specifically, the business began when Nicoloro, then a student at Berklee College of Music, was working as an apprentice piano technician and tuner. Initially, East Cambridge Piano primarily revolved around reclaiming and reconditioning neglected acoustic instruments and selling them as lower-priced student pianos. “Restoration is minor now, though,” he says of the present-day operation. “I mean, we used to maybe do one piano [restoration] a month. Now we’re lucky if we get one or two a year.”

However, 25 years ago, the business had grown to the point where Nicoloro had to uproot and move to East Cambridge Piano’s current spot at 343 Medford Street in Somerville’s Winter Hill neighborhood. The showroom is on the third floor of a quirky, ornate building built by “The Knights of Malta,” as a decorative copper exterior feature proclaims to this day.

As it happens, this particular location is a mere three blocks from yours truly (and lies along one of my regular routes for walking my dog), so it made good sense to take the (brief) journey.

When I met with Nicoloro in the summer of 2017, he noted that the store was “Going on our 40th anniversary, but not there yet!”

Cue to the present – the first month of 2018 – and we can now officially congratulate James and his team on having reached that impressive milestone. The business offers new and used pianos, digital pianos, tuning and repair, restoration, and rentals, as well as consignment sales. Currently East Cambridge Piano has two part-time employees in addition to Nicoloro – one of whom, Reed Cournoyer, is Nicoloro’s trusted technician who began working in the shop back in 2008.

Growth and Change

“I just outgrew where I was,” he explains when discussing the relocation to Medford Street a quarter-century ago. “The first store was small. It was 1,500 square feet, or something like that – small. This is probably about 3,500 [square feet]. I have space spread out over a few rooms. In the back is another workshop where we do primarily electronic work.”

The piano market, overall, has changed drastically in the past four decades. As Nicoloro notes, “We’ve moved, the world, and I’m not sitting still. This [segment] is going digital. I’ve been at this a long, long time. I mean, let me just tell you the landscape back when we moved in here: We had three piano stores in the immediate area. We had Broadway Piano down on Broadway, and then Garfield Piano was on Garfield Street, which is right off of Broadway over here… What I’ve done – and I don’t claim to be a genius or anything – but I saw what was going on and I adapted. I mean, the piano dealers that wanted to just stay strictly acoustic have all gone out of business, but I’ve taken on digitals in a big way. The point is, if you want to stay in a business you’ve got to change with it. I have done just that and now I am getting a big piece of the shrinking pie for sure, you know?”

The store’s current inventory includes restored Steinway, Yamaha, and other brand’s grand pianos and upright acoustics, as well as a number of Korg digital and Casio Hybrid pianos.

Embracing ‘the New’

“I came across the Casio at NAMM a couple of years ago, the Hybrid,” explains Nicoloro. “This [Celviano Grand] Hybrid line is huge now. For the Hybrids, I jumped in with both feet and they’ve been selling. It’s really a great instrument, developed in collaboration with Bechstein, and the features, size, and price make it ideal for urban living – people in this neighborhood and surrounding cities in the Boston area. I call those ‘the ultimate urban piano.’ You’ve got the volume control, the headphones, and best of all the versatility. We’re slamming with them. I’m telling you, it’s the best thing that’s happened to this shop recently. I’ve got them all over the place – the Seaport Hotel just bought one, I recently wound up selling three in the new Millennium Tower residences downtown.’ As evidence of the store’s success with these consoles, East Cambridge Piano was named “Casio’s 2016 Digital Piano Dealer of the Year.”

The store isn’t immune to other, drastic changes to commerce, overall. “Years ago, to shop, people had to get in their car, drive around, and compare this and that. Now they get on their phone and comparison shop – right in front of you, too! A guy just left the store a few minutes ago and that was a warranty job for an Amazon purchase. I didn’t get the sale, but I got the service job. And that’s another reason I like the Casio. It’s a protected territory, so you can’t buy that online.”

A Successful Model for Today and Tomorrow

The current business model sees a fairly healthy spread across service areas. “Tuning keeps me busy, but revenue-wise I’d say probably maybe 20 percent or something like that,” Nicoloro says. “Another 20 percent would come from Reed back there doing digital repairs, with retail taking up the remaining 60 percent.”

With 40 years under his belt as a piano dealer, James Nicoloro has witnessed trends come and go, weathered economic upheaval, and seen his own business change focus at times. His perspective is unique, but his business philosophy and advice is rooted in the basics: “I’m telling you, I’ve been doing this a for long time and I’ve dealt with tons and tons of companies, and seen tons of changes. You change with the times, adapt, and provide the best customer service possible and that’s the key.”

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