The Sherman Clay Story
As Sherman Clay enters the 21st century, it stands unique. Few companies have operated continuously for over 135 years.
San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was at its zenith-wide open, bawdy, brawling, brimming with uncivilized humanity. Painted dance hall girls flounced their way to fame and fortune as a rough-and-tumble assortment of miners, sailors and railroaders chugged the rawest whiskey in the West. All that remained of the Gold Rush was the savagery born of disillusionment.
To this primitive, barbaric land in 1861, came a refined young man of gentle breeding, determined to establish his own music business. Only 14 years old when he left his home in Boston, he endured hardships on land and sea with dreams of his quest keeping him going. Undaunted by the limited potential for fine music in the unsettled territory, Leander Sherman took the first job he was able to find-as apprentice in a clock shop. Once a day every day he wound every clock in the shop. Gradually, he was given more responsibilities until finally he became clock repairman. But still he kept his eyes open for that big chance.
It came when A. A. Rosenberg, owner of the music store at the corner of Kearny and Sutter Streets, offered him a post as general clerk. His previous experience in repairing clocks fitted him for the very special task of repairing fine European music boxes, which were then the rage in San Francisco.
In September of 1870, Leander Sherman offered to buy out Rosenberg. The kindly old gentleman agreed, and with great courage and borrowed capital, Leander Sherman set his course for what was to become the greatest retail music chain in the world.
Dates are mileposts of history-they are only important when connected to something of special interest to the observer. To most people 1870 is just another date, but to Sherman Clay 1870 is a vintage year for it marks its beginning.
In 1870, when Sherman Clay & Co. was founded, there were only horse-drawn street cars in San Francisco. Two years later, the world’s first cable car made its trial run in San Francisco. In England, Victoria was Queen and Gladstone, Prime Minister. In France, Napolean III was overthrown and the Third Republic established. The unification of Italy was first completed in 1870. Tsar Alexander II ruled Russia, and Bismark began his rise to power in Germany. U. S. Grant was President here. The population of the United States was just under 40 million people, with 560,247 living in California. It was the year that the Metropolitan Museum was incorporated in New York, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. That summer the first through train from the Pacific Coast reached New York City. Income taxes were reduced to 2.5%, with an exemption of $2,000. It was the age of Liszt, Verdi, Gounod, Grieg and Wagner (among others). It was also the era of Florence Nightingale, Lewis Carroll, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, Dostoevski, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
Life was bustling in San Francisco during the first decade of Sherman Clay’s existence. When Leander Sherman had first arrived, cross country mail came by pony Express. The first electric lights seen in San Francisco were exhibited on the roof of Saint Ignatius College on July 4, 1876. And when electricity was installed in private homes, the cost for one arc light was $10 a week, and the current was turned off at midnight! The telephone, although demonstrated in Philadelphia a few years earlier, did not appear in San Francisco until 1879. The Pacific Bell Telephone Company’s first directory was a one page list of 170 subscribers.
Yes, this was a busy and important era, and it was also a boisterous and turbulent one in San Francisco. The Gold Rush was rapidly forgotten and the new king was wheat. But the spirit of the Gold Rush lingered on. Business was not always distinguishable from buccaneering, and political and business disputes were often settled in the street instead of the ballot box or courtroom.
In 1871, growing business and the ever-present shortage of cash forced Leander Sherman to sell a part interest to F.A. Hyde. The store operated as Sherman and Hyde until 1876 when a retired Army major, C.C.Clay, purchase Hyde’s interest and new partnership papers were signed.
A real shortage of space compelled new action. Fortunately, Sherman Clay was able to acquire land next door instead of abandoning the corner. Perhaps Leander Sherman felt the corner of Kearney and Sutter Streets was lucky. He often repeated a tale told to him by old time residents that a piano was buried somewhere under that corner.
“A piano had been shipped from New York some time during the Gold Rush days. It was never claimed and lay crated in a warehouse for several years. Finally, one rainy winter day when the streets were seas of mud, the greatest, deepest and worst mud hole of all San Francisco was at the corner of Kearny and Sutter Streets. In desperation, San Francisco citizens scavenged the town for anything and everything to pour into that bottomless bog. They chanced upon that piano-it was big and square and heavy-and into the hole it went, along with several hogsheads of old tobacco, and a number of barrels of stale coffee,” he related.
Truth being stranger than fiction, who could guess that several decades later that “planted” piano would branch into what became the great music house of Sherman Clay & Company?
Music was steadily increasing in popularity and quality. While the firm was still young, it was already strongly identified with the musical life of San Francisco. With the efforts of Sherman Clay this number increased dramatically each year. The second decade of Sherman Clay’s existence brought nearly 200 musical celebrities to San Francisco, most of them for the first time.
The first piano handled by Sherman Clay was the Weber, made in New York. Later they imported the Mansfeldt & Notni from Germany, bringing the instruments around the Cape of Good Hope in sailing ships. In 1892 Sherman Clay acquired the agency for Steinway pianos. Every Steinway artist visiting San Francisco brought with him a letter to Sherman Clay & Co.
Mr. Sherman entertained most of the major artists who visited the city: Adelina Patti, Lillian Nordica, Moritz Rosenthal, Leopold Godowski, Edward MacDowell, Lillian Russell, Paderewski and others, many of whom gave performances under the sponsorship of Sherman clay in its own concert hall. “My good friend Leander Sherman,” wrote Paderewski, “always makes San Francisco a most delightful place to visit.”
At the end of the 19th century, Sherman Clay was well on its way to becoming one of the outstanding music houses of the nation. In 1902, a store was opened in Fresno, and in 1905 a branch in Tacoma, Washington.
With success came tragedy too. Leander Sherman’s longtime partner and friend, Major C.C.Clay, died in august, 1905. In 1906, less than a year later, came the heaviest blow of all-the San Francisco earthquake and fire.
On the morning of April 18, 1906, at 8:12, all of San Francisco was rocked by a violent earthquake. The tremor itself did comparatively little damage, but the fire it started was a major catastrophe.
Because of the devotion of Treasurer Leonard Georges and his assistant, William J. O’Connor, all of the company records and books were saved. After several exciting moves to escape the creeping flames, the records were finally taken to Sherman Clay’s Oakland store. The books and records proved to be of tremendous value to the company because the Kearny Street building and all of its contents were destroyed.
A makeshift office was set up in the home of Clay’s son because his house was one of the few still standing. Business and shipments were handled in the Oakland office. In fact, business was so good they even sold Phil Clay’s own piano one day when he was in Oakland.
Toward the close of this most exciting and eventful year, a carload of Steinway pianos arrived from New York. No one had ordered them. The next day the mystery was solved when the following letter arrived:
Meanwhile, construction of Sherman Clay’s new fireproof, eight story building (later increased to 10 stories) was under way at the old location-Kearny and Sutter Streets-the first major construction to be started in the downtown area. Sherman Clay was open for business while other buildings in the area were still in early stages of reconstruction. The firm’s return to the original site was commemorated by a three day open house, attended by more than half the people of San Francisco who dropped in to welcome it back.
The years following the great earthquake and the devastating fire were busy and important ones for Sherman Clay, marked by the constant expansion and increased business. Stores were opened in San Jose, Portland and Spokane in 1906, and one in Sacramento less than two years later.
Sherman Clay continued to play a major part in the development of San Francisco’s musical life. In 1916, William Sproule, president of Southern Pacific Railway Company, accepted the presidency of the infant San Francisco Symphony Association. His first act as president of the Association was to ask Leander Sherman to recommend a man who would head the Association and put it on its feets.
Leander Sherman’s answer was the loan of his most able man, Allen Widenham. Instead of one year, Widenham stayed sixteen. By the time he left, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra had grown from 64 musicians under contract, to 86, and the season of 10 concerts had blossomed into a season of 70-all on a self-supporting basis!
The part Sherman Clay played in helping the San Francisco Symphony was paralleled in 1923 when Peter Conley, one of the founders of the San Francisco Opera Association, called on Leander Sherman. He was worried that the opera association would fail due to lack of capital. He asked Sherman Clay to advance $1,000 for one of the associates, Gaetano Merola, to go to New York and Europe to sign opera stars for appearances in San Francisco on a regular basis. Conley said if the venture was successful, he personally would repay the money. Would Sherman Clay take the chance?
Leander Sherman’s answer was a simple ‘yes.’ For more than a century, the company had been encouraging fine music in San Francisco. It had helped the San Francisco Symphony, and would help the burgeoning opera company. The San Francisco Opera, one of the world’s best, would probably not exist today without the early sturdy support of Sherman Clay & Co.
In 1920, Leander Sherman completed fifty years as the head of one of the largest music houses in the Unites States. He had seen San Francisco change from one of the wildest towns in the west to the epitome of all that is gracious, refined and cultured. He assumed the chairmanship of the board and turned over the presidency of the institution he loved so well to Philip T. Clay, son of his old friend and former associate, Major Clay.
Leander Sherman died at his home on April 5, 1926, and the age of 79. Although in failing health in the last year, he maintained an enthusiastic interest in the concern he had founded 56 years earlier-and that he nurtured from a small music shop into one of the greatest music houses in America. In 1972, in recognition of his devotion and vital contributions to San Francisco, his home at 2160 Green Street was designated a historical landmark.
The late 20’s and early 30’s, with the severe depression which struck the nation, were a challenge to all businesses. Sherman Clay retrenched and emerged from the depression stronger than ever. Business boomed for them until World War II, when a shortage of musical instruments forced business to a standstill. However, as part of its war effort, Sherman Clay collected used band instruments and repaired them free of charge for servicemen. Serviceable band instruments, phonographs and records were shipped to every island, atoll and landing in the Pacific.
Sherman clay continued throughout the fifties under the management of the founder’s descendants until 1960, when the Company was purchased by Parker Pace Corporation. At the time of purchase, there were twenty-one stores in the Sherman Clay chain, and the electronic organ, invented in 1934, was gathering popularity.
Under the direction of new officers, Bernard Lee Schwartz, Chairman of the Board, and Donald Ravitch, President, innovative merchandising policies were instituted to take advantage of the changing west coast market. Recognizing that most potential keyboard owners frequent shopping centers in suburban areas, Sherman Clay introduced the concept of marketing organs in stores located in regional shopping centers. This move has been widely followed by others in the industry.
In 1969 Sherman Clay & Co. purchased the Penny Owsley Music Company of Los Angeles, founded in 1944 and consisting of five stores. With the addition of stores in Long Beach, Torrance and San Bernardino, the Company’s territory extended from the Canadian border in the north down through Southern California.
Elsewhere in California during the first decade under Donald Ravitch’s leadership, locations were changed and new stores added in Modesto, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Concord and Sacramento. Older stores were remodeled to meet Sherman Clay’s modern merchandising standards.
In the early 1970’s mall stores, in newly developed regional shopping centers were opened in California, Washington and Oregon. During this period, Sherman Clay extended its market coverage to include Phoenix and Oklahoma City.
Since its founding, Sherman Clay’s merchandising policy has always been to offer the best value to its customers by carrying the highest quality brand in each price category. In addition to the world renown Steinway pianos that are available in select Sherman Clay locations, they also represents the number one selling piano in the world, Yamaha, in some of their stores as well. These two brands combined with the finely build Henry F. Miller and Fischer pianos allow Sherman Clay to offer a quality built piano at any investment level. With player pianos being so popular, Sherman Clay also offers the Yamaha Disklavier and QRS Pianomation systems.
In 1977, the company began to open more freestanding stores to accommodate the steadily increasing market for pianos. A total of seven of these stores were opened by 1979. Over the years, Sherman Clay has acquired ownership of many of these buildings.
The Sherman Clay Real Estate Division was formed in 1977 as a natural outgrowth of owning and leasing stores. The Division owns and manages seventeen shopping centers as well as several commercial buildings. Michael L. Schwartz is Chief Operating Officer of the Division and its growth is expected to keep pace with the continuing expansion of the music store chain.
In late 1978, the Company mourned the untimely death of Bernard L. Schwartz, Board Chairman and inspiration since 1960. The Company responded with a smooth transition of management. Donald Ravitch, President since 1960, succeeded Mr. Schwartz as Chairman of the Board. Fred Concklin, who served the Company for over eight years in various capacities, including Vice President, was named President of Sherman Clay & Company. Eric Schwartz, who has been associated with the Retail Division for over seven years is now its Chief Operating Officer.
Extending credit is an important factor in the sake of keyboard instruments. Over the years Sherman Clay has provided convenient financing for hundreds of thousands of its customers. This practice led to the formation of its own finance subsidiary, Music Acceptance Corporation.
This youthful team, firmly guided by the rich traditions of successful merchandising, brings a new zestful aggressive leadership to Sherman Clay.
In 1980 and early 1981 a total of ten new mall store locations were opened in existing mall markets. In addition, the Company opened eight stores in the new market areas of Houston and San Diego. In 1982 the Company will enter the Dallas market with several new stores.
More than a century has passed since young Leander Sherman started Westward from Boston with his dream. Undaunted by the turbulence of burgeoning San Francisco, he had the insight to see beneath its rough exterior and envision its potential refinement.
Today, San Francisco is recognized as one of the nation’s foremost centers of the arts-and no small part of that is due to the influence of Leander Sherman and the firm he founded in 1870. Similarly, other major western markets have felt the influence of Sherman Clay and its cultural contributions.
Sherman Clay has weathered wars, a depression, and the most serious earthquake to take place in this country, never faltering from its original goal: bringing culture to the American home by providing the finest in musical keyboard instruments.
More people have purchased pianos from Sherman Clay stores than from any other retailer-over a million instruments of all types.
Sherman Clay was purchased almost 50 years ago (only the second owner in our history) by Bern Schwartz. He continued the legacy of providing the communities where we have stores with outstanding piano concerts and the finest quality new and pre-owned pianos. After many years of building upon Sherman Clay's fine reputation and growing the business, Bern Schwartz began a new career as a professional photographer and received accolades of praise from critics in the U.S. and abroad. http://www.bernschwartz.org/
Today, Bern's sons, Eric and Michael, carry on the Sherman Clay tradition. Whether you are a studio professional looking for a concert ready grand piano to fall in love with, a parent choosing a quality baby grand piano for a budding virtuoso, or simply in need of a quality upright piano for lessons, Sherman Clay has a knowledgeable staff dedicated to finding you the right new or used piano.
The story of Sherman Clay and its success cannot end on this page, for already the Company plans further expansion to bring the rich legacies of Leander Sherman to more people and places.