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Ottawa Pianos Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary

Ottawa Pianos, a family-run institution in the capital city’s music community, celebrated its 50th anniversary throughout 2018.

Though the piano became the central instrument in his family’s legacy over the past five decades, it was originally another keyboard instrument, the accordion, that got Diego “Dick” Papalia into the music retail business. Having immigrated from Italy to Canada in 1952, Dick left to study accordion in New York City before returning to Ottawa and selling accordions and teaching lessons in the 1960s. But, as the instrument’s popularity waned, he transitioned to selling pianos in 1966 with the Heintzman Piano Company. Just two years later, the Baldwin Piano Company asked if he would open a dealership. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

The piano showroom and music school, originally called Baldwin Piano and Organ Studio, opened on Feb. 17, 1968. It remained in the rented location until moving into its own building at 1412 Bank St. in 1989, where it remains today. In 1991, the company became a Yamaha dealer and changed its name Ottawa Pianos and Organs, which eventually got shortened to Ottawa Pianos.

The move to a new location in ’89 marked an additional milestone: Papalia’s daughter, Carmen Papalia, joined the business and Ottawa Pianos became a multi-generational family enterprise. Carmen had recently completed her undergraduate degree and was planning to go to graduate school. “My dad said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take a year off and help me out?’… I said ‘sure’ and I’m still here,” she tells CMT with a laugh. Her brothers, sister, and even her own kids have all spent time in and around the business, though she is now the only full-time family member in the store; however, her father is still a regular fixture, tuning pianos and helping customers.

"You can’t do this without a very supportive family," says Carmen. And as an example of how central the store is in the family's life, she adds this charming anecdote: "I used to bring my daughter in when she was around two-years-old and – remember those red plastic phones? – my daughter was picking up the phone and going, ‘Ottawa Pianos,’ and then hanging it up and picking it up again and going, ‘Ottawa Pianos.’ Like wow, this is how she thinks she needs to answer the phone!"

But it's the unpredictablity and variety of running a community-focused retail operation that keeps Carmen loving it. “There are so many different things you do as a small business. One day you might be teaching a five-year-old and the next day you might be greeting an artist or supplying a concert grand and the next time you might be dealing with a family or a senior who wants to get back into lessons. It’s so varied and you have no idea who’s coming through the door, and that totally appeals to me."

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[Photo: Ottawa Pianos' 50th Ann. open house. (L-R) City Councillor Jean Clouthier, Carmen Papalia, Mayor Jim Watson, Diego Papalia, MPP John Fraser, Italian Ambassador Claudio Taffuri, Japanese Ambassador Kimihiro Ishikane & Yamaha Music Canada Pres. Kenichi Matsushiro]

Over the course of five decades, the store has had its brushes with history, whether supplying a warm-up piano for Liberace or the time Papalia introduced Dave Brubeck to Pierre Trudeau backstage at the National Arts Centre.

“The community has given so much to us and I want to continue to give to the community. We support things like the children’s hospital and we’re much more than just a piano store. We’re part of the community and part of the city and all those people who have supported us, we will do the same,” says Carmen. “That’s the goal, and, of course, when people are thinking of getting a piano, to always think of Ottawa Pianos.”

But as 2019 gets underway, the anniversary celebrations aren’t done at Ottawa Pianos. Its Yamaha Music School, which employs 15 teachers and serves nearly 400 students, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

"If we’re going to talk about family and a business that goes from one generation to the next, it’s tough. It’s not an easy transition. When I came in here I thought I knew it all. I’m now in my fifties and am like, ‘Oh my gosh, my dad did know what he was talking about!’" Carmen laughs.

Just recently, Carmen and her team, which includes store manager Mitchell Wright, decided to release their official values statement. "You can’t be a business for this long and not have core principles and values," Carmen notes.

And so, we leave you with this:

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For more information, go to www.ottawapianos.com.

[Banner photo: Dick Papalia & his children - (L-R) Carmen Papalia, Domenic Papalia, Dick Papalia, Serafina Trudel & Giuseppe Papalia]

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Michael Raine is the Senior Editor at Canadian Music Trade. He is also a co-host of the popular Canadian Musician Radio weekly podcast.