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Cleworth stakes claim as only standalone piano dealer in Alaska

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Posted: Saturday, October 20, 2012 11:23 pm

FAIRBANKS — Plenty of businesses tout their hard-to-find products, but not many can make the claim quite like Kit Cleworth. His store, Fairbanks Piano Center, is the only stand-alone piano dealer in Alaska.

Despite that fact, there’s no bustling atmosphere in the showroom at Cleworth’s Adams Drive home. In fact, the vibe in the sunny space is warm and laid-back. Jazz piano plays in the background, and a friendly cat wanders to the front door to greet visitors. Showings are by appointment only, and Cleworth said some visitors simply come in to play a few songs.

It’s pretty much what Cleworth envisioned when he purchased the business from its previous owner, Barney McClure, in 2010 — a continuation of a relaxing career surrounded by pianos.

“It just seemed like a nice low-anxiety, low-stress job,” said Cleworth, whose brother is Fairbanks city mayor Jerry Cleworth.

After more than a quarter-century as a local piano tuner and technician, Kit Cleworth decided a few years ago that he was ready to take the next step in the business. He talked to McClure, and found the longtime Fairbanks musician was looking to leave the state and sell the business.

“As he was ready to move on, I was ready to take something over,” Cleworth said.

It’s part of a continuing career evolution for Cleworth, who spent two decades as a local journalist and television executive. He spent 20 years at KTVF Channel 11, working jobs ranging from photographer to program director. He also had a brief run as a News-Miner photographer in the late 1960s.

But in 1985, Cleworth decided it was time for something different. He’d played the piano since he was a boy, and always thought the life of a piano tuner looked good. In Alaska, the profession sometimes includes meandering down the road to rural areas, stopping in small towns along the way to bring an old piano back to life.

Cleworth took a year-long course in Ohio, learning how to tune pianos and do basic repairs. He’s spent the years since then refining his craft, and today tunes or fixes two or three pianos during a typical workday.

“I’m always hoping there’s something I haven’t seen before, because then it’s a challenge,” he said. “But that doesn’t happen much anymore.”

During the summer months, Cleworth also hones his musical skills as the pianist at the Palace Theatre, playing ragtime tunes during the nightly revue.

Cleworth doesn’t want to disclose the number of pianos he sells in a year, but said it’s too small a number to keep the store open on its own.

But Cleworth said he’s happy with his profession. The piano showroom is attached to his home, so overhead costs are minimal. And tuning pianos makes up the bulk of his income, so he doesn’t need to rely on many sales to stay afloat.

His new pianos are from Kawai, a Japanese company that he said is known for good, reliable models. He also has a few used pianos in his showroom, including one that he’s slowly returning to working condition. The pianos on the floor now range from a $1,000 used upright to a new $22,000 grand.

If there’s a problem with his job, Cleworth said, it’s he sometimes has more work than he needs. He advertised for a second piano tuner a few years ago, but only got responses from two international applicants looking for green cards.

“Neither of them knew anything about pianos,” he said with a smile. “So it’s just me.”

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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