By David Menconi – The News & Observer
Ruggero Piano is a linchpin of the local arts community, supplying instruments and even performance space for a wide array of players and listeners.
Richard Ruggero works on restoring a piano at Ruggero Piano, a third generation, family-owned business. The North Raleigh instrument store is a primary hub of the local arts community.
The music was lovely, a selection from Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words in D Major,” elegantly played by a friend of the late Peggy Harrington on a shiny black Bösendorfer piano. Richard Ruggero looked on with the other attendees gathered at a memorial service for Harrington, who had recently died of cancer.
By the end of the piece, Ruggero saw that Harrington’s two daughters both had tears streaming down their faces. So as everyone else applauded, Ruggero unobtrusively moved across the room to fetch a couple of napkins from the buffet table, taking them to the young women to use as tissues.
Nothing unusual about this, except the setting. This wasn’t happening at a funeral home but in the concert hall of Ruggero Piano, a North Raleigh instrument store that is a primary hub of the local arts community.
If you’ve ever attended a classical concert or church service involving a high-end piano, chances are good that Ruggero Piano supplied or at least tuned it. There’s an even better chance it was a low-cost rental (or even no-cost, if for a charitable event), which is a major reason that Ruggero Piano won a Medal of Arts lifetime-achievement award from the city of Raleigh earlier this fall.
Presided over by Richard and his wife Deborah, Ruggero Piano’s core business is selling and servicing pianos. But the store also has a live-performance side with its 148-capacity Bösendorfer Concert Hall, which presents a busy schedule of free recitals, lectures, concerts, a regular “4th Friday Mix” series – and the occasional memorial service for regulars like Harrington, a Ruggero customer for more than a decade.
“Pianos really mean something to people,” Ruggero said after the service. “We were so close and Peggy was such an inspiration, we wanted to do something for her and her family.”
Ruggero Piano Service started in 1958 as a tuning business, run out of the family home in Raleigh. The founder was Richard’s father, Robert Ruggero, a musically inclined Italian immigrant. Twenty years later, Richard was working at a gas station to save up for college. Robert offered his son 25 cents an hour more to work in his shop, which got him into the family business. By 1981, the elder Ruggero was ready to retire. The business assets consisted of a shop full of tools, a pickup truck and two boxes of index cards, which he bequeathed to Richard. “What I’d learned in his shop was it as far as training,” Richard Ruggero said. “The rest, I learned on the job or from the old-timers I knew.” Ruggero would meet his future wife and business partner a few years after that, at Raleigh’s Longbranch nightclub. He was there to tune the piano for country signer Delbert McClinton’s band, and Deborah Cook was there to run the lights. They got to talking, one thing led to another and eventually they married.
Fine-Tuning The Business
Deborah Ruggero entered the business in 1989 while pregnant with their son Chris (who now handles bookkeeping and marketing for Ruggero). On bed rest under doctor’s orders, she was bored out of her mind. So her husband put her to work out of desperation. “By then, I had three boxes of index cards,” Ruggero said. “‘Here,’ I said, ‘you’re in charge of phone calls for the business.’ Well, I’ve never worked as hard as I did when she got those cards. She left no part of the schedule vacant.” As the business grew, they started selling pianos, too, most notably Austrian-made Bösendorfers and Italian-made Faziolis. Go into the Ruggero showroom today and you’ll find everything from used instruments priced below $10,000 to high-end pianos costing multiples of that figure. Every now and then, they’ll sell one with a six-figure price tag. “Those don’t come around that often, but they do every year or two,” Deborah Ruggero said. “Getting into retail was scary, especially the first order. That was the scariest because I thought we’d be eating them for dinner. But that was many pianos ago and we’ve not had to eat one yet.”
Business was brisk enough in the mid-1990s to outgrow the Ruggero family home, which could no longer accommodate enough pianos in the dining room. After a series of downtown locations, they moved to North Raleigh in 2002, a location with enough space for the concert hall. “That recital hall at the back of the shop is a great community resource,” said John Lambert, acting editor of the online journal Classical Voice of NC. “You see everything from young and inexperienced players to professionals working out the kinks, usually free unless it’s a benefit, and almost always accompanied by refreshments.” The Ruggeros’ grass-roots outreach extends to numerous local arts institutions, including Carolina Ballet, Raleigh Little Theatre and Community Music School. “We would not be able to operate without them,” said Linda Frenette, Community Music School’s executive director. “They do a lot of things, cheerfully, and they say ‘yes’ a lot,” said Charles Phaneuf, executive director of Raleigh Little Theatre. “I’ve actually never heard about them saying ‘no’ to anything. They’re great, really big supporters of all kinds of art in the community. It was wonderful to see them get the Medal of Arts.”
After a heavy wave of recitals through the early part of December, the concert hall will be mostly quiet the rest of this month before starting back up after the holidays. In the interim, the Ruggeros are busy preparing and delivering pianos that customers have bought as gifts. They’ve sold pianos as far away as California, with Richard Ruggero or another technician going along to help with the setup. A few years back, Ruggero even sold a rebuilt Steinway to someone in the Ukraine. “I thought it was a scam email and ignored it until the guy called to beg me,” Ruggero said. “He’d seen a piano listed that he just had to have. I had an old bank account with about $300 in it, so I told the guy, ‘If $5,000 appears in there by tomorrow, we’ll talk.’ Sure enough. They had their own export company to handle the shipping, which was a good thing.” Fortunately, this year’s sales and deliveries are closer to home. But one thing you won’t see any of the Ruggeros doing much of during the busy holiday season is playing piano themselves. “I can play my little tunes just enough to fool people, but I don’t practice enough to be any good,” Ruggero said. In fact, nowadays the Ruggeros don’t even have a piano in their house anymore. It’s as much a defense mechanism as anything else. As much as they love their work, they still need to escape it sometimes. “What happens is that people somehow think we take the best one,” Deborah Ruggero said. “So they always want to buy ours. We could have three of the exact same model in the store, and they’ll still insist on the one in our house. So we’re taking a little break from having one ourselves.”