NOBODY LIVES FOREVER." That's a truism all must accept.
But institutions? Places like Beesley's, where four generations of Utahns dropped in for the latest sheet music, ran their fingers up and down the piano keys or maybe took a lesson in a back room? Such places acquire an aura of immortality, invulnerable to the buffetings of misfortune.Nonetheless, Beesley Music Co. will close its doors for the last time Wednesday, May 31, ending almost a century of service to music in the Salt Lake Valley.
It was in 1903 that Ebenezer Beesley, patriarch of a musical family, founded the company; and ever since, in several locations, through good times and bad, the store has been owned and operated by members of the numerous and colorful Beesley clan.
Family disinterest precipitated a crisis in the early '60s, with most members of the closed family corporation wanting to get out. In 1966 Joseph W. Beesley, a contractor by trade, offered to buy up the stock. "My Uncle Bill said that I was the only one in the family who could handle it," laughed Beesley, a small, peppery man with fire in his eye and a dozen projects on his mind. "I kept it going because I'm proud of the company," he said with a little catch in his voice.
"We just felt that Beesley's shouldn't fail our public," agreed his daughter, Jeannette Beesley Hoopes, who with husband Darryl has run Beesley's since 1975.
Jeannette Hoopes sat at a desk in the store in Sugar House, presiding over disposal of the company's remaining assets - some fine Baldwin pianos; a stash of sheet music; some antique artifacts, including a giant brass cash register, used for business from 1906 until just recently. Her eyes looked both weary and wary.
"If we could have gotten out sooner, we would have," she said candidly. "My husband has found a good job in the Midwest that gives us the option."
She blames Beesley's decline on several factors beyond individual control: public apathy toward learning to play an instrument, economic factors, development of electronics and other competitive trends.
"People don't acknowledge the importance of musical training anymore," she said. "Fifty years ago it was the norm to play the piano or another instrument, or sing. Kids don't get a choice on some things, and for my kids, one no-choice item is playing the piano. But few parents still feel it's important for children to learn concentration and self-control through musical practice - and the responsibility does fall back on the parent."
The market for conventional instruments took a nosedive about three years ago, she said. "We live in a day of instant gratification. If we hadn't been handling the Roland electronic instruments, we would have been out of business by now."
"It's all a matter of values," Joseph Beesley added. "People think nothing of buying a $12,000 automobile that's used up in a few years. But if you spent $12,000 on a fine piano, your grandchildren would be scrapping over it!"
"Society has changed so much," Jeannette Hoopes said with resignation. "With both parents working out of the home, there is not the energy to push through a discipline like piano playing. People come home needing entertainment, so they flop in front of the television. Or the mother may say, `Go watch television while I make supper.'
"We love music, and we love this business, but it's too hard," she said. "Small-business people are all terribly discouraged. If the competition doesn't get you, the economy will.
"And Utahns especially are in a squeeze. When you are the 48th state in per capita income and the first or second in percent of income that goes to income tax, you know that people don't have much money for big-ticket purchases like pianos.
"Small businesses have traditionally been the backbone of the nation, and as they close, you wonder if the strength and spirit of America isn't ebbing away. The big conglomerates that are taking their place will never have the personal touch."
Ebenezer Beesley and his bride, Sarah Hancock, were 19-year-old English immigrants who pushed and pulled a handcart across the Plains in 1859. "A sick woman was assigned to their handcart, and they had to pull her all the way," said Jeannette Hoopes. (The woman made it, too.) Worse yet, Beesley's precious violin, with which he entertained the immigrants on the trail, was stepped on during the trek.
In the valley, though a shoemaker by trade, Beesley quickly gravitated to music, playing in the old Salt Lake Theater orchestra. ("There was always at least one Beesley in that orchestra, from the time the theater opened until it closed," said Joseph Beesley.)
Besides violin, Ebenezer Beesley was proficient on flute and piano. He conducted the old 19th Ward LDS Choir for 25 years before moving on to lead the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, 1880-89. A talented composer, his Mormon hymns include "High on the Mountain Top" and "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words."
Ebenezer Beesley was 63 when he opened the store. With the slogan, "We play, sing and sell music," the company dealt in pianos, organs, sheet music and supplies. The business first opened on Main Street, just south of South Temple, where the main Key Bank now stands, then hopscotched into a number of buildings on that block until 1967, when it moved to West Temple.
Since Ebenezer had two wives and 11 children, there was always a supply of musical Beesleys to run the store. Ebenezer's son Frederick gave 45 years' service to the store, as did Frederick's son Fredric A., father of Joseph, with many children and grandchildren doing odd jobs.
Joseph Beesley recalled an ill-fated venture in the late '20s - the photoplayer, a giant mechanism of sound effects designed to accompany the silent movies. Beesley's business included giving tender, loving care to these leviathans in movie theaters around town.
"When the talkies came in, we had to repossess most of the photoplayers," said Beesley. "My first job as a 10-year old was taking the screws out for 7 cents an hour, and we hauled them off to the dump. If I had one of those instruments now, it would be worth $100,000!"
At another time, a basement full of nickelodeons from a Main Street store was consigned to the dump. Joseph and his brother, Howard, each begged for one to keep and so salvaged a couple of the novelties, now of great value.
Beesley's was one of the few businesses that stayed alive on Main Street during the Depression but not without a price. "I remember my father walking the floor night after night, wondering how to make the payroll," Joseph Beesley recalled.
Raised on the city's west side and still an avid booster of West High School, Joseph Beesley worked from 1933-37 as janitor at the store, for $17 a month, while attending the University of Utah.
"Trolley fares were only 4 cents, but I couldn't afford to ride both ways, so I would ride up to school, then walk down to the store, and on home to Third North and Fifth West," he said. During this time he became a champion wrestler, winning regional and western championships for the U.
One of Fredric A.'s coups was bringing some pianos to Utah during World War II, when piano factories were diverted to the war effort. "He found some used pianos in a warehouse in Chicago and shipped them to Salt Lake City," said Joseph Beesley. "Cousin Roach Beesley (who started with the company in 1917 and is still alive) and Father were expert technicians and tuners, and they would take three pianos and use the parts to make two. They sold them as fast as they could rebuild them."
In its heyday, Beesley's sold a full line of instruments - string, wind, piano and organ. It was once the state's leading outlet for the Martin guitar. "But sheet music was our bread and butter," said Joseph Beesley, and the slump in its sales was a major factor in the company's decline.
Among the Beesleys who have worked with Joseph were Gordon and Margaret Beesley, his brother Bob, who ran the shop, and sister Ruth, who ran the sheet music department. "My brother James has been a faithful booster of the company," said Joseph Beesley.
From 1967-82 the company was located on West Temple, where the Marriott Hotel now stands. "When we took a lease on that old building, it was still heated by a pot belly stove," Joseph Beesley recalled with glee. "It had been a livery stable, and there was still manure in the back! We had just 30 days to remodel it and reopen." Beesley, an avid antique collector, loaded the historic old brick building with collectibles, musical and otherwise, from all over the world.
Typical of Joseph Beesley's entrepreneurial style were his dealings in 1966 with the giant Aeolian Corp., whose Mason-Hamlin piano Beesley's represented from 1911 until Aeolian went out of business. Threatened with loss of the franchise, "I asked their representative into my office and ordered $50,000 worth of pianos," he said. "It was the biggest order they had ever had. And we sold them, too!"
In 1982, Beesley's moved to the Irving Commons in Sugar House to anchor an embryonic arts center. When that did not materialize, the company moved to the Southeast Furniture building, before making its final home in the spacious building Beesley built for it at 1760 S. 11th East. Not least of this building's attractions is an ambient little recital space, which Beesley hopes new tenants will still make available to Salt Lake musicians.
"I want you to print that Beesley Music is closing its doors in an honorable fashion," said Joseph Beesley. "We do not want our name to be used or perverted by anyone. Over the years Beesley's has traded nationally and internationally; and believe it or not, almost anywhere in the world you can find someone who knows about Beesley Music."