If you want to buy a piano, Melvin Besbrode is the expert. Catherine Turnbull reports on an unlikely business success story hitting the right notes
This is art,” says Melvin Besbrode, as we are surrounded by concert grand Steinways and beautiful decorative instruments in his 1780s woollen mill – a paradise for pianists.
“Things just happen; it has all been a happy accident,” says the director of Besbrode Pianos in Leeds, who started his business with a £5 upright.
It just so happens that he sells 800 pianos a year to China and has sold three pianos to Noel Gallagher, in his business which ‘may’ be the biggest piano dealership in the UK; an almost fact which is irrelevant to the proprietor. “I always laugh at business plans. I am an artist with an artist’s mentality. This is all a happy accident,” says Mr Besbrode.
He arrived at Leeds College of Art from a council house background in Leicester, where his father was a shop steward for the railways and his mother a seamstress.
“I was a good draughtsman at school, I used to do conceptual art; indoor lawns and that sort of thing. Leicester was an affluent place with a high percentage of millionaires,” he says.
He felt more at home when he moved to Leeds in 1968. “I remember going to a row of back to backs up Woodhouse Lane. I walked up and a door opened and a horse came out and an old man whistled it back in the same way as you would a dog. I liked it that the place seemed to be inhabited by humans and it is the right size for a city. I have been here ever since.”
Mr Besbrodge studied performance arts, played in a band and performed street theatre in such places as the Edinburgh Fringe and the ICA. “Anyone who you might have looked up to, like John Lennon and The Kinks, went to art school so that was the place to be really,” he said by way of explanation.
After a period of unemployment, his life changed when he saw a piano for sale at a farm for a fiver. “My mother was a good pianist and we used to sing round the piano so music was always there. I had time to play so I bought this upright piano, it happened to be a very good one with elaborate decoration,” he said.
“I liked it and I thought someone else might so I advertised it in the paper and got 15 replies and I thought this would be a way to make money and carry on doing my art. That was in 1974 and it went from there as I bought more pianos. I had a daughter and another on the way and we had three pianos, one grand and two uprights in our back to back in Domestic Street. The pianos took up all the room and one had a television on top. We had to move to a larger house in Chapeltown. The business just developed from there.”
Mr Besbrode, who is married with three daughters and five grandchildren, now has one piano at home in Bramhope and 300 stored in his warehouse.
“Pianos in their heyday around 1900 were a status symbol and in this country’s humid temperate climate they last 100 years, but in a dry climate as low as ten years,” he says.
Besbrode Pianos is certainly thought to have the largest collection of British and European instruments, ranging from the Steinways to Bechsteins and Yamahas to art case models that were carved, inlaid and hand-painted for the wealthy and titled of Europe when a piano was as much a status symbol as a Ferrari today.
“Because England ruled the waves when pianos were being produced, there are an awful lot of pianos in the UK in good condition. In other countries there are not. People had them in the sitting room from the 1840s right up until well after the Second World War, usually as Alan Bennett would say, with a telly on top,” he revealed. “So we had a good supply but low interest in the UK.”
The French with their warm dry climate wrecking the glue and wood of their own pianos, were the first to realise there was a good stock here. Mr Besbrode spent the first 10 years of his business selling to the French. The Germans and Italians followed the trail, which has now led all the way to China, where 40 million people are learning to play the piano.
Wenbin, a Chinese business student in Leeds, contacted him to ask if he could practice the piano at the warehouse – the result was 15 Chinese friends who now pay a nominal fee to play on the world’s best pianos in Mr Besbrode’s showroom.
Wenbin also came in handy to translate emails from people in China who wanted to buy pianos and has worked full time for the business for three years. Now around 80 per cent of business is with China – 800 pianos a year. He has attended enormous music fairs in Shanghai with 30 supermarket sized halls, two of them dedicated to pianos. In Frankfurt, once a booming piano market, there is now only one event every two years.
“Steinways are the best; they are all handmade,” says Mr Besbrode as we linger in the art gallery-style showroom by two specimens which look identical to the untutored eye.
One is in fact 100 years older than the other and the technology is unchanged. Restored Steinways are actually a good investment and can be worth 50 per cent more after 10 years. If you can’t afford one, you can pick up an upright from £1,500.
Most popular musicians play Yamahas – think Elton John and Jools Holland – but the likes of Daniel Barenboim and most classical pianists go for a Steinway every time.
Leeds Piano Competition asked Mr Besbrode to get involved so he has loaned them 11 new Feurich pianos for the competitors to practice on and nine which he distributed across Leeds for the Me and My Piano musical jaunt.