Throughout my teen years, my Saturday-afternoon routine involved taking the Corydon bus downtown and doing the Portage strip between the Bay and Eaton’s.
The coolest shops — Lillian Lewis Records, the Record Room and the Stag Shop — were on the north side. But the jewel in the crown was always Winnipeg Piano at the corner of Portage and Edmonton. For me and a thousand other wannabe rock ’n’ rollers, Winnipeg Piano was our mecca and offered the stuff of dreams.
Winnipeg Piano Co. Ltd. was opened in 1903 by A.E. Grasby in what was later the Dayton Building at Portage and Hargrave. Following a fire, the store relocated to 383 Portage Ave., where it remained until 1972.
Business was brisk during the Great Depression years as people sought to make their own entertainment around the family piano (the company had its own line of pianos).
By the 1950s, the musical-instrument business was shifting toward guitars and drums. While the main floor was the place for pianos, violins and brass instruments (imported from Europe) along with sheet music and stereo equipment, the basement became the spot for rock ’n’ roll gear. The vibe couldn’t have been more different. Even the salespeople downstairs were cooler.
Descending those stairs was like entering nirvana. Expensive Gibson, Fender and Martin guitars hung on the walls while Fender and Gibson amps, including the mighty Mercury and Titan amps, lined the floor (years later, to get rid of these monstrosities, the store offered them free to anyone who could carry them across Portage Avenue). There was no pressure, and wide-eyed kids like me could ogle the instruments for hours or chat with the genial staff, who were as enthusiastic about the instruments as we were.
As the Squires’ Allan Bates recalled, "Neil (Young) and I would hang out on a Saturday afternoon at Winnipeg Piano. That was such a great place. We’d get all those guitars down off the wall and try them out."
One employee who came to personify the downstairs department was Glenn MacRae, who started at the store in January 1967. Already a legendary figure for having fronted the Crescendos (whose claim to fame was playing Liverpool’s fabled Cavern Club), MacRae brought a definite cool quotient.
"I wasn’t your typical salesperson," he notes. "I was a contemporary of many of our customers who also played in bands. I could relate to them because they were my friends."
Recalls Garth Meacham: "It was always so exciting to check out the guitars downstairs. Glenn was always such a great guy to talk to about equipment."
Fred Harling came to work at the store the following year and like Mutt and Jeff, the two kept the atmosphere lively downstairs (including the occasional hockey game in the storage room).
By this point, son Dick Grasby was running the company and he had certain expectations for his staff.
"When I started, the other employees used to hide me from the old man because I had long hair," MacRae laughs. But he credits younger Grasby for his sales philosophy. "He was a stickler for product knowledge. He held classes every morning with the staff, teaching us everything there was to know about a product and making sure we learned all we could. We knew what kind of wood violin bows were made of, how they worked, the names of all their pieces and it was like that with every product we carried. I think that had a lot to do with why the store was so successful. People came there to get information and relied on the company and its staff as a resource."
Grasby also encouraged a liberal credit policy that allowed many budding players to acquire their first instruments.
"What a concept," states Gerry Gacek. "Treating young, long-haired musicians with respect and dignity." As Fred Turner of BTO remembers, "I traded my sister’s accordion for an electric guitar and amplifier at Winnipeg Piano but I didn’t have the money for the difference. I took the guitar and amp home and my father just flipped out. I was a kid in school with no job. He refused to countersign the loan." Tail between his legs, Turner returned the gear only to have the salesperson tell him, "I’ve got a feeling you’ll pay for this. When you get some money you stop in every week and give me one or two dollars." Turner acknowledges he might never have played guitar without that arrangement. He will be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame next month.
Guitar genius Lenny Breau was also a frequent customer. "Lenny had a terrible stutter," notes MacRae, "and I remember he brought in a record player to get fixed. It took so long for him to get out what he wanted, but as he was doing so a guy next to him asked about guitar strings. Lenny turned to him and explained the kind of strings he should get perfectly without stuttering. Amazing. If it was about guitars, he didn’t stutter."
In the summer of 1970, the store hosted a guitar marathon in the front window as part of Get Together 70. The winner, Peter Bako, played for 93 hours straight and held the Guinness record for many years after. "We had 24-hour medical staff on hand to monitor all the participants," says MacRae. "One of them showed me a scan of one of the players and his brain was asleep but his hand was still strumming."
Having been bought out by Toronto’s Long & McQuade music store in the later ’60s, Winnipeg Piano moved to Osborne Street at Stradbrook in 1972 under the Long & McQuade moniker. A further move to Corydon in the latter ’70s was followed by its current location at Stafford and Pembina. MacRae and Harling still work for the company. Both still meet longtime customers who bought their first instruments and many more from them.
"Winnipeg Piano was such a cool place to work," reflects MacRae. "It felt like it was what I was meant to do. That job gave me a lifelong career and a focus."
Sign up for John Einarson’s 2014 Off the Record music history classes at mcnallyrobinson.com.