Bob Lupo says “every piano has a ghost,” but his Waltham store is very much alive
In 1993, when 719 Main Street in Waltham was put up for sale by a group of owners who had allowed it to fall into disrepair as a decrepit doctor’s office, Bob Lupo was at a turning point.
“I’d gone in for a physical, and they’d found a tumor. I said to myself, ‘If I get out of this freakin’ thing alive, I ought to do something I love—something that makes people happy,’” Lupo said in a recent interview.
Thankfully, he did make it out alive.
Lupo grew up in Cedarwood, a small, hilly neighborhood right off Route 20 in Waltham. Playing Hammond organs gave him an early love of music, and soon enough he was flying around the country for piano and organ showcases. For years, he was a panelist for the international trade show of the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), presenting on the state of organ technology and the future of the industry. Over time, by immersing himself in the piano business scene, he accumulated a number of direct distribution lines for piano and keyboard manufacturers.
He was also busy earning a law degree at Suffolk University and starting to practice in Newton. Lupo was successful but jaded; he’ll tell you all about the corruption of attorneys and judges he came across in his practice. So following his health scare, in 1993 he decided to focus on his real passion: pianos.
For years, Lupo had been nursing a large collection of used acoustic and digital pianos in a small colonial house in Weston. He moved those onto the ground floor after purchasing the 719 Main Street property, leasing out the other suites to stock traders, a barbershop, and, ironically, lawyers. His first set of employees were a group of music business students from UMass Lowell, who helped him name the business Piano Man Inc.
Of his various lines of piano distribution, Lupo’s most profitable stream comes from the Japanese company Kawai, whose instruments Lupo has seen a lot of success with. At one point, he recalled, “I was importing salespeople from all around the country, taking out ads in the [Boston] Globe every month, and we were selling hundreds of thousands of dollars of pianos.”
But in the late ’90s, the rug got pulled out from under him.
“One day, I got a letter from Kawai saying they were taking away my line and giving it to somebody else,” he said. “The piano industry—it’s like the wild west.”
The keyboard market relies on ground-level salespeople of giant manufacturing conglomerates, Lupo elaborated. Aficionados and business owners like him work independently to build ties to relatively low-level representatives of companies like Steinway or Yamaha, looking for the best wholesale deals at trade shows and to be the only resellers in their area. But those margins aren’t set in stone and contracts can be cut at any time on a whim.
Meanwhile, the market for acoustic pianos has shrunk. Mass-produced knockoffs of classic European brands—mostly manufactured in China—started to flood the scene in the early 2000s, creating a price vacuum that small business owners like Lupo simply could not match.
“They’ll take some high-class German name like Neumeyer and stamp it on there, and sell them for nothing,” Lupo said. “The layman may not be able to tell the difference, but in terms of lasting quality and performance, they can’t touch the American products.”
Digital pianos also began overtaking acoustics, creating a stark contrast from the cultural staple of the living room grand piano of the 20th century. Lupo says, “most people were just using them as a display for their picture frames.”
Since he started his business, Lupo said his experiences have been up and down. “It’s never been an easy ride—still isn’t.” He does not take out ads anymore, and his large team of salespeople is gone. The pandemic took a major toll on the shop, especially on their sales of physical music books. But he would like to get back in the saddle.
“There’s still demand for these digital keyboards, and I have a building on Felton Street that I’d like to turn into a community music center,” he said. As of right now, business has been slow, and Lupo is working on rejuvenating interest in 719. Still, his genuine love for the instruments shows—whether old pianos, new ones, uprights, grands, Baldwins, Steinways, or Hammonds.
“I always say, every piano has a ghost. You never know who played it. We have the old Red Sox organ in here—that’s history.
“I’d like to do something that makes people happy, and that’s always been the goal.”