Retail tonic: Hardware jazz


In a tough retail environment, one hardware store springs for live music. Steve Blake plays jazz piano at the Midway Menards.

Steve Blake has an impressive jazz career going. There was his decade long engagement at Nikki’s in the Minneapolis Warehouse District. Now, his main venue is a bit less hip. On Saturday mornings Steve puts on his tux and bikes the three miles to the store.

Yet, he considers Menards a great gig. “I saw the piano there one time when I went into the store to buy drywall. That’s great, I think. So when I saw someone playing there a while later, I ask him, who’s booking this gig? I called up the booking agent; I had to talk to him a couple times. Tell him hey, this is who I know, this is where I’ve played. You know, so he’d know I was for real. I never thought I’d grow up to play jazz music at the hardware store.”

Steve gets different payoffs. “One time, some old guy from, like Alexandria, was snapping pictures of me with his cell phone,” he said. “He’s shaking his head saying ‘My dad never would have believed it. He had a hardware store up in Alexandria. A guy wearing a tux and playing the piano at a hardware store? Unbelievable.’

“The neighbors tell me, ‘I saw you drive by in your tux, on your bike, when you were going to Menards. Most excellent!’ Yeah, we get an employee discount. But the best thing about playing Menards is when you get people who recognize the music. They’ll come up to me saying, ‘Was that Thelonious Monk?’ Or, ‘Did you just play Miles Davis? Was that John Coltrane? Wow I never thought I’d hear that at a hardware store.’ “

Steve’s not the only piano player at the Midway Menards. There’s Big Glasses Bob, a vibrant guy, who’s topping 80 but still styling. He’s been known to show up wearing a white tux, There’s another guy who played there for a while. Now, Steve says, he does deliveries. “You know, washing machines and 2 X 4s. There are also a couple of good Lutheran church girls who play a Lawrence Welk style.”

“People really, really like it,” Steve says, sporting a grin as good as payday. “In these economic times I guarantee it pays for itself. I’ve had people come up multiple times. In fact, just about every time I play, someone comes up to say, ‘I stayed to shop because I wanted to hear you play longer.’ Every 15 or so times I’ll get really lucky,” says Steve, a gleam flashing in his eye, “I get lucky and someone will say to me ‘you played my favorite song,’ how lucky is that? To happen to play someone’s favorite song in a hardware store?”

“My wife and I were in this little hole-in-the-wall Turkish place a couple of months ago and the guy behind the counter looks at me real close, ‘Aren’t you the piano player at Menards?’ Now that is cool, to be recognized as the Menards piano player.” That kind of renown only gets you so far. Steve says he still had to pay for the food.

A writer and activist, Mary Jane LaVigne lives in White Bear Lake but is often found hanging-out at the House of Balls in Minneapolis.