For more than 55 years, piano students have been waiting in the “green room” upstairs at Rice Music House – butterflies wild in their stomachs – to step on stage and perform for friends and family.
This summer, that storied recital hall and the showroom full of pianos below it – will fade to memory as Rice moves from its longtime Devine Street location to Northeast Richland’s Village at Sandhill.
The move is bittersweet.
The retailer is leaving behind a 10,000-square-foot downtown site, where many Midlands residents created memories, and moving into a smaller, more modern showplace in a suburban development.
“It’s just time,” said Robert Schaeffer, vice president of sales. “It’s an emotional decision to move away from our historic home. But it really is time to do so.”
After selling off inventory at its current location, the store will move into a 5,000-square-foot building – likely in July. The new smaller store is a sign of the times. The weak economy has slowed piano sales, meaning Rice doesn’t need as much space anymore, owner JP Parekh said. Rice will keep its flagship Steinway piano brand but will no longer sell sheet music or offer a full-service repair shop.
‘I grew up there’
Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce said he panicked when he first heard the Devine Street store would be closing.
“I grew up there. (The news) brought back the terror of standing behind the little curtain waiting for my turn” to play a recital piece, he said. “I sure hate to see it go, just for nostalgic reasons.”
But Pearce said the store couldn’t have found a better home than Alan Kahn’s Village at Sandhill. Kahn, a Columbia resident who develops shopping centers across the Southeast, is an accomplished pianist.
“It’s just a very good addition to the Village,” Kahn said.
Rice has brought concerts to the Village for several years and had a “test store” there in 2009.
“I know change is good, but it’s like, ‘Oh,’” Vivian Curry, clutching her chest, said Thursday.
Curry was 4 when her parents moved to Columbia in the 1950s and bought their first piano from Rice, then still on Main Street. The store moved to Devine Street in the late 1950s.
Over the years, the store played an integral role in Curry’s life as she played recitals, earned two music degrees and became a piano teacher.
“In my heyday, I would come in here, and I would buy $500 or $600 worth of music,” she said. Workers would have to help her carry it all out to her car.
In its new location, the store won’t have enough room to carry sheet music. Instead, it will direct its customers to Pecknel Music in Five Points.
‘Rice’s history is this building’
W.S. Rice started the company in Spartanburg in 1924. At one time, the company had seven locations throughout South Carolina. It moved permanently to Columbia more than 75 years ago.
After Rice moves, Schaeffer, the company’s vice president for sales, is worried his car won’t know which way to turn when he heads to work each morning.
“I’ve been coming in and out of this building now for 41 years,” he said, starting when he was 7 and his father took him there to get his first piano. It’s where he played his first recital. And he sold equipment to the store as a dealer before starting work there 14 years ago.
“Rice’s history is this building,” he said.
But its future will be the new memories made in a new building almost 20 miles away.
“The core of what Rice Music House is is still here and will continue to be part of our company as we go forward,” Schaeffer said.
The new store allows Rice to move into the modern era with a showroom that will allow it to use technology more fully – hooking up an iPad or a laptop to a player piano, for example, said Parekh.
The store also will be able to use the lifestyle center’s community room for concerts and recitals, effectively tripling capacity, Parekh said. And, he added, the store will continue to be part of Columbia’s arts community.
Pearce said he breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the store would move to a new location.
“I wouldn’t let anybody but Rice Music House touch my piano,” he said. “I’m just happy that they’re going to be around.”