Local music store owners closing down shop on sour note after Christmas burglary

Scott Swanson

Gary Stainthorp is clearly fatigued.

Standing in front of what once was a well-stocked display, he eyes the empty shelves with dejection.

“They took them all,” he says, gesturing at empty hooks where violins once hung neatly in rows and brass instruments stood proudly.

Stainthorp is referring to a Christmas Day burglary that occurred at his store, Stainthorp’s Music, at the corner of Main and Grant streets in Lebanon, while his wife Shirlee was in the hospital with the flu and pneumonia.

Shirlee, back in the shop for the first time in more than a month, rummages behind the counter.

“It’s gone!” she exclaims.

“David?” Gary questions.

“Yes, they took it.”

“It” was a bust of David, a copy of the famous statue of the biblical king by Michelangelo. It weighed 50 or 60 pounds and was one of Shirlee’s prized possessions.

“It was perfect,” Gary said. “She had it all her life.”

The burglary is the latest in a series of difficulties experienced by the Stainthorps, whose name has been familiar to area musicians for two decades since they opened a small shop in Sweet Home, then later moved it to Lebanon.

Gary and Shirlee, both experienced piano technicians, have operated the current store since 2001, though they’ve lived in the Foster area since 1994.

Stainthorp, 83, said this is the end of their retailing days – for him a career that started in his late teens. Although he still has plans to restore and sell several dozen pianos he’s collected over the years, in addition to some finished models still in his shop, the store is closed.

The burglary, he said, is the last straw, after a lengthy but successful effort to sell their building.

That occurred before the break-in, which he discovered on the way home from Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, where, he said, the medical staff saved Shirlee’s life.

“She couldn’t even stand up on the Thursday before Christmas,” he said. “Her oxygen count was supposed to be 92. It was 62. Dr. (Tim) Hindmarsh saved her life.”

“We spent Christmas together at the hospital. We had a cat at the music store that everybody loves. I went to the store to take care of the cat and found the side door open.”

He said he thought the new owners might be inside or had left the door open, so he hollered, “Anybody here?”

“I went in and saw what happened and called police.”

The burglars, he said, had thoughtfully placed a box in front of the door to keep the cat inside.

“I want to thank them for that – sincerely,” Stainthorp said.

But the thieves had cleaned out nearly everything they could carry that was valuable – 19 violins, “five of my three-quarter size and the rest full-sized.”

“An antique, wonderful case that I was working on for my granddaughter.

“A Sears electric guitar in a case – the case was the amp. It came out in the 1940s in that. They stole that. It was in pristine condition.”

Three accordions.

“A double-neck Fender guitar played in 1952 in Grand Ol’ Opry. I have a VHS of the original program.

That was the first time June Carter Cash was on the program.”

Stainthorp displays a nearly encyclopedic memory of names and details about his instruments, as well as his colorful life – usually recounted with plenty of humor.

Born July 25, 1933 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, he is the youngest of five children in a family inclined toward artistic endeavor. His father ran a garage, but Gary said they didn’t have a very close relationship. His mother was musical and it was she who introduced her son to that world.

“She was from Wales,” he said. “She sang to me all the time.

“Mother took me to hear a violinist when I was about 7. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. I couldn’t believe the music coming out of this little piece of wood.”

One day, when he was about 9, “a German guy knocked on our door and asked if anybody wanted violin lessons. Mother called me off the street. She told me this guy would give me lessons.”

He started in a class of six of students, but soon his teacher, Guenther Nickelwitz, started giving him private instruction.

Stainthorp said he was “painfully shy,” but he enjoyed playing.

“I played in church when I was 10 or 11 and I played for Youth for Christ. I didn’t have the vibrato down, but I was so scared I was shaking, so it didn’t matter.”

He and Nickelwitz, who had “long, black hair,” became close, “almost closer than my dad,” he said. “He had a sense of humor. He would write jokes on my music. He was really, really jolly. He made me come out of my shyness.”

His teacher also taught him to play the mandolin and various styles of guitar. His chief love, though, was the violin.

“I would take my violin with me everywhere. It was my pal all my life.”

Stainthorp started working as an office boy when he was 16, but he continued to pursue music – or rather, it came to him. When he was 18, NIckelwitz helped him get a job teaching violin through the provincial Department of Cultural Activities. Stainthorp did that in his free time when he wasn’t working his regular job.

“I went to eight different towns along the Saskatchewan River in Alberta,” he recalled. “I had over 70 students, most of them Ukrainian farmers. I still have a list of my students.”

NIckelwitz had worked with him to train his ear musically, and Stainthorp found himself one day with a recital scheduled and a piano that was badly out of tune, which was needed for the performance.

“I’d tuned my violin, so I did it. I’d never wanted to be a piano tuner or repairer.”

He got interested in pianos and eventually wound up learning to tune and repair them from an Australian immigrant, T.M. “Hal” Lyne of Calgary.

“He was the best teacher I ever had. His father-in-law was one of the finest piano technicians in America.”

Lyne had Stainthorp help him rebuild a 9-foot Baldwin grand piano for the city of Red Deer that was so old the strings were popping.

“I learned a lot of wonderful stuff from him,” Stainthorp said.

He had the opportunity to take over the Calgary Piano House, “which is still in business,” but he was too much of a “gypsy,” he said.

Instead, he started dealing in pianos on the side, while working in other fields. He also got married, in 1953.

In his early 20s, he borrowed money from Beneficial Finance, ordered a train car-load of used pianos from the Atlas piano of New York Atlas piano company and had them shipped to Red Deer.

“They had 28 pianos – $65 for so-so quality to $85 for better.”

Suddenly he had a problem: storage.

“I only had a double garage.”

A friend had a barn and they put some of the pianos there.

“I started fixing them up and selling them. People brought me old pianos to fix. I’d come from work at 5 o’clock, eat a sandwich and then work on pianos until 11 p.m.”

He rigged up a spray booth, using wet sheets. He redesigned pianos, putting a mirror in the back of one.

“It was on-the-job training.”

Still not convinced he wanted to get into the music business full-time, he took a job as prison guard in Chilliwack, B.C. After eight months he saw an advertisement seeking a piano tuner in Sacramento, Calif.

Since he was Canadian, Stainthorp had to prove that he was one-of-a-kind, so to speak, to emigrate in the U.S.

“I’d rebuilt pianos that had gone through fires and floods.”

Fortuitously, in 1959 he’d been at a tuner’s convention in Calgary where he’d been tested by a Victor Jackson.

“Victor Jackson passed my tuning and someone told me I could put a feather in my cap.”

Stainthorp responded, “Victor Jackson? Who’s he?”

“You don’t know who Victor Jackson is? He’s Liberace’s tuner.”

“That gave me a lot of confidence.”

“I didn’t have to pass an exam to join the piano technicians guild, thanks to my teacher, who wouldn’t let me get by without a sour note,” he added, referring to NIckelwitz, his violin teacher.

Later, Stainthorp moved to Fresno, Calif., where he ran a music store that his son Greg, also a piano technician, still operates.

“He’s booked six months in advance,” Gary Stainthorp said, noting that two others of his seven children, five boys and two girls, have worked in the music business as well.

In addition to owning music stores, over the years Stainthorp has performed in light opera, fiddled, directed choirs and orchestras in the 1970s for the Worldwide Church of God, been a songwriter, carved totem poles and owned two restaurants.

His wife, he said, is similarly accomplished. She was a chef for Holiday Inn when they met 36 years ago in Fresno, after his first marriage ended.

“She’s been 60 to 70 percent of the business,” he said, noting that Shirlee is a consummate multi-tasker.

“I was the helpmate for most of it. She did everything. I just worked.”

Shirlee Stainthorp’s parents lived in east Linn County and after visiting the area during family reunions, the Stainthorps decided they wanted to move to Sweet Home. They arrived in 1994.

“We rented a little corner of Epps Furniture, before it was Subway in Sweet Home,” Stainthorp said.

He initially planned to sell 12 pianos he’d brought along from California, then focus on tuning. But Jim Jeppsen closed down his JJ’s Music shop shortly thereafter and Stainthorp started carrying “strings, cheap little guitars – things he said might sell.”

Later, he rebuilt a piano for Mel and Shirley Harrington, who owned the Kuhn Theater.

“I did a pretty complete job on his grand piano.”

When Epps shut down in Sweet Home, the Harringtons leased space in the theater to set up shop for three years.

In 2001, the Stainthorps bought the building at Grant and Main, where they’ve been since. Over the years, he said, they’ve “kept going and going,” improving the quality of their stock over the years.

“I did a lot of tuning for teachers. I had most of them in the area, in Albany, some as far as Salem, a lot in Corvallis.”

He also has continued rebuilding pianos – the results fill his showroom – and repairing violins.

“If I fall in love with a case, I can fix what’s inside. If the case was beautiful, I bought the piano. If it wasn’t a piece of junk, I knew I could fix it.”

With Shirlee’s health declining in recent years, Stainthorp said he has greatly reduced his tuning activity.

“We’re just getting tired,” he said.

They’d just sold the building – after various efforts to sell the business, which they now plan to liquidate – when the burglary occurred.

“Some of those violins, I’d had them a long time. Some of the collection dates back to the 1600s,” Stainthorp said.

Many of the instruments were from local families.

“I’d ask how long they had it. If I thought it was worth more money, I’d tell them that. I’d give them what I thought it was worth. I like to treat people like I‘d like to be treated. I’ve tried to treat people fairly.”

The losses were devastating, though there is insurance. “State Farm has been really good,” he said.

“We haven’t even been able to get a list together of what we lost. We don’t have an estimate,” Stainthorp said, wearily. Friends have photos of some of the instruments, which he hopes he can get copies of for police.

“They took a lot of personal stuff that we can’t replace. They took all of my violin bows.

“They didn’t hurt my pianos. I thank them for that. I spent a lot of hours and hours making them as good as I can. I’m very proud of what I sell.”

Though the store is closed, customers can visit by appointment by writing him at P.O. Box 269, Foster, OR 97345, he said.

About a dozen restored pianos, nearly all of them well-known, quality brands, remain, along with music, assorted instruments and musical accessories the thieves didn’t steal.

Stainthorp said he will probably auction off what’s left. He plans to keep rebuilding pianos because he loves it, and he might build some violins.

That prompted another story.

He built one when he played in the Sacramento Symphony Orchestra for three years, he said.

Orchestra members “tried my violin against a Stradivarius and a Guarnarius in a blind test.

“They all picked my violin.”

But that was then. Now, most of all, he just wants to relax, he said.

“It’s been a hellish two or three years.”