— by Kim Davenport
One of the first Tacoma history stories that drew me in to local history research, leading to hours spent poring over historic photographs and newspaper clippings at the Tacoma Public Library, was that of the Tacoma Theater. With its opening at the corner of 9th and Broadway in 1890, the Tacoma became the core of what we now call the theater district, long before it was joined by the Pantages and Rialto on the 9th street hill in 1918.
It was built on land owned by the railroad, and intended to be a grand theater for what would become a grand city as Tacoma’s population grew. With its huge stage and seating capacity, it would serve as home to performances by innumerable traveling stars of vaudeville, theater, and music, as well as hosting countless community meetings, graduation ceremonies, and much more.
You can read more about the structure and its history in my article for Columbia Magazine, but the story for today is about a music shop which operated out of one of the building’s storefronts along Broadway, A.A. Tayler & Co.
Alfred A. Tayler was born in England in 1863, but likely had few memories of his home country, as his family crossed the Atlantic in 1868, settling first in Philadelphia. This is likely where he met Clara Reuch, who would become his bride in Tacoma in 1891. It is not known exactly why Tayler decided to make the cross-country trip to Tacoma in 1889. But two things are clear: as a relatively young man, he was already prepared to be a successful music merchant, claiming for his shop a prime piece of real estate in the Tacoma Theater building. And, he enjoyed Tacoma enough that he would remain here for the rest of his life.
From the small photographic record we have of the shop, which claimed for its entrance one of the stunning stone arches at the base of the Tacoma Theater, the business was successful in changing with the times. In the early years, its primary business was sheet music and musical instruments, ranging from guitars and banjos to pianos and organs.
Reference on business letterhead and window signage to “fine strings” and specific makers of pianos implies that the business remained focused on selling relatively high-end musical instruments, rather than the turn some Tacoma music shops took in the early decades of the 20th century, towards recordings and the devices on which to play them.
And in these decades before Ted Brown would start his longstanding business just a few blocks south on Broadway, it appears that Tayler’s shop was a central stop for sheet music and music books. Although Tayler appears to have had a variety of partners over the years, with other names appearing on the business, his ‘A.A. Tayler’ was the one constant.
I’ve seen the pictures of Tayler’s business before, and enjoyed studying their details and pondering what it would have been like to walk into that shop in, say, 1893, looking for a new piece of piano sheet music to take home and play. But what prompted me to share this story today was a new discovery – that of what became of the business after Tayler announced his retirement.
As reported in local papers, Tayler, after 35 years of continuous operation of his music shop in Tacoma, sold his business to Sherman, Clay & Co. in March of 1925, and would retire June 1 to “enjoy a summer of outdoor pleasure, planning to spend much of his time at Mount Tacoma and in the National Park.”
Fascinatingly, in addition to the reports in the newspaper, we can also see the actual bill of sale representing the transfer of Tayler’s business to Sherman, Clay & Co., courtesy of Tacoma Historical Society:
Also in 1925, the Tacoma Theater closed for nearly two years for a remodel – the facility would be transformed from a theater primarily used for stage acts into a movie theater. Reopening in 1927 as the Broadway Theater, it would remain in operation (later as the Music Box) until its unfortunate loss to fire in 1963.
As a child, I distinctly remember the Sherman Clay shop occupying the structure that was erected atop the foundation of the Tacoma Theater after the fire. The business operated at a few different locations in the theater district over the years, but anyone who spent time downtown in the 1970s or 1980s may remember this location (at left in the first picture, at right in the second):
Sherman Clay has a long history of its own, from its founding in San Francisco 1870 until the closing of its last retail stores in 2013. Its last outpost in the Pacific Northwest was in Seattle. When that store closed, the victim of both a declining market for pianos and escalating real estate costs in downtown Seattle, it was actually a similar story to that of A.A. Tayler closing his doors: the inventory was purchased by another business, which continues to operate: Classic Pianos in Bellevue.
This story shares two things with many others I’ve found when it comes to the music business. First, with changing technologies and public tastes, stores selling the tools to make or enjoy music must constantly adapt in order to survive. And second, even in that volatile business environment, we can find many great stories of passionate small business owners who manage to pass along their life’s work to the next generation.
Photographs courtesy Tacoma Public Library and Tacoma Historical Society.