The notes of “White Christmas” drift through Rice Music House, soft at first and then building to a crescendo, as Robert Schaeffer’s fingers stroke the keys.
The crisp, smooth sound is not coming from one of the Devine Street retailer’s classic Steinway pianos, but a small electric piano built based on the Steinway sound.
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With advancing technology, electric is the way of the future for pianos, said Schaeffer, who is vice president of sales.
But the demand for the unique handmade Steinway piano – each of which takes a year to create – will never fade, he predicts.
The pianos are built virtually the same today as they were in 1935, when Rice became a Steinway dealer.
Tonight, Rice will celebrate its 75th anniversary in Columbia – and its 75th year selling Steinway pianos – with a concert by Naomi Causby, co-winner of Columbia’s prestigious Southeastern Piano Festival.
“It is the piano by which all others want to define themselves,” Schaeffer said.
Perhaps the same could be said for Rice among piano dealers. The company still repairs and restores pianos, tunes them and teaches whoever wants to learn how to play them. It is the oldest continually operating Hammond organ dealer in the nation and has remained a Steinway dealer even as the number of dealers nationwide has dwindled to 62 from more than 200.
W.S. Rice started the company in Spartanburg in 1924 and once had seven locations throughout South Carolina.
The Devine Street store was built nearly 60 years ago and has played an integral role in the lives of many budding musicians. Schaeffer notices many adults’ hands still shake as they enter the recital hall on the second floor for a child’s performance as memories of their own recitals flood back.
It was on that very stage that Schaeffer had his first concert, at age 7.
The 46-year-old has been vice president of sales at Rice Music House only for the past 12 years, after spending the early part of his career as a traveling piano salesman and servicer.
He explains this standing in a hallway outside the recital room underneath a decades-old photo of Emert Rice – the oldest son of W.S. Rice who brought the piano store to Columbia in 1935 and ran the business for decades – and his daughter, Nancy.
Schaeffer’s resemblance to the younger Rice is striking.
Though the same love for music that flowed through Rice’s veins is evident also in Schaeffer, the two are not blood-related. But the uncanny resemblance does not go unnoticed. Nancy always called him “Cousin Robert,” he said, and longtime customers to this day call him “Mr. Rice.”
Rice always has been a family business – or at least felt like one. Even as Emert Rice sold off other stores, he kept the Devine Street store, and willed it to two longtime employees when he died in 1988.
And in 2004, it was up for sale as one of the owners has died and the other decided to retire. Enter the Parekhs.
J.P. Parekh – a colleague for years of Robert Schaeffer – was scouting acquisitions in 2003 for his employer, Jordan Kitts Music, which was looking to expand.
The Columbia market was considered too small at the time for an expansion, but Rice looked like a good fit for Parekh, whose wife is a native of North Augusta.
“I decided to make a bid for it,” he said.
The Parekhs moved to Columbia and immediately became involved in the community by hosting concert series, participating in and hosting music festivals and providing scholarships for young artists.
They reopened the upstairs recital hall, which had closed years earlier. And they began new offerings for students, such as a class for busy adults who want to learn how to play.
“After Mr. Rice died, it had lost some of its charm,” J.P. Parekh said. “We decided to bring it back.”
Parekh said he bought Rice with the hopes of eventually expanding the business to South Carolina’s coast, which lacks a Steinway dealer. The Upstate has the only other dealership in the state.
The Great Recession has hampered expansion plans so far. Parekh tested a new store at the Village at Sandhill in Northeast Richland, where he also holds a regular concert series. But it was not the right time.
And he tests the markets in Charleston and Hilton Head, saying he will expand when the timing is right. Meanwhile, he is glad to have made it through the worst of times without having to lay off any employees.
As for Rice, it has survived harder times – having taken on the Steinway dealership in the midst of the Great Depression in 1935.
“That said a lot about the forward-thinking vision the Rice family had,” Schaeffer said.