WALNUT CREEK -- One month after Sherman Clay and Co.'s early April announcement it would close its Bay Area retail piano business after 142 years, local music teachers and piano lovers are finding reasons to celebrate.

What at first looked like decimation of the company owned and operated by Bern Schwartz and his family since 1960 -- even casting a cloudy prognosis on the instrument's future -- appears to have been a mirage.

Rising from the settling dust, Steinway and Sons emerges as the heir apparent. Seeking to expand its presence in Northern California and coinciding with the end of a lease and the evolving interests of Schwartz's sons, Eric and Michael, Sherman Clay retail division President Tom Austin said the changeover is natural.

"Everything that I know says that there is no ounce of truth in the fact that Sherman Clay is leaving the business for anything other than a generational shift," Austin said. "The piano business is 300 years old. It's a vital part of our culture, of Western music. There may be a few less retail stores, but it doesn't mean the business is collapsing."

More importantly, in the retailer's Walnut Creek location, Justin Levitt remains as local music's knight on a white horse. As the store manager for 12 years, Levitt has been instrumental (a pun and the truth) in bringing piano music to the people. From his "Musicians with Day Jobs" concerts, showing piano players don't have to be pros to come out of their musical shells, to street strolls, in-store piano lessons, outreach to schools and community groups, Levitt has spread his bountiful love of the piano countywide.


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"I plan to continue (at Steinway and Sons) to offer a place where musicians, music lovers and the community can experience live performances in a unique and inspiring environment," Levitt writes in an email.

Austin said he and the Schwartz family are "happy as clams" about the transition.

"We feel music is a part of the Walnut Creek community because Justin's worked to make music free, to make it a healing tool for the soul. We're so appreciative of his role and how he's brought music into families' lives."

Austin said that by 1973 Bern Schwartz was no longer a part of the day-to-day operations, but that Schwartz's accomplished, cultured business practices touched every aspect of the company.

"He was a brilliant investor able to seize upon the baby boomers' changing musical tastes," he said.

Schwarz recognized a societal shift: in the 1960s and 70s, a piano in the parlor established a family's upper-middle class stature. And he was visionary, expanding the retail piano operations into offshoots, including Sherman Clay Management, Inc., a commercial real estate management firm, and Allegro Acceptance, a consumer financing service currently diversifying beyond its piano- and hearing aid-purchasing purposes.

Austin said Schwartz's children will focus their energies on the family corporation. His responsibilities in Houston and Seattle, where Sherman Clay retains retail piano operations, will continue.

Levitt, whose eyes and ears remain on both the community and the horizon beyond, will miss being a part of the family. Memories of Mac Geniuses, stay-at-home parents, and gardener "musicians with day jobs" comfort him. A Steinway Model B he helped the Lafayette Library and Learning Center to select "lives" in their concert hall and will contribute for years to come.

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