KENNEWICK — Allan Willis is keeping alive the legacy of a friend by running his old business in downtown Kennewick.
Willis, 61, recently began operating Von Gogh's Pianos and Organs that had been closed since store owner Fred Von Gogh died in September of an apparent aneurysm after a sudden collapse while delivering a piano to a customer.
Von Gogh's estate administrator asked Willis to man the store. But that was something Von Gogh himself had contemplated, said Willis, a friend and a music lover who ran two music stores selling musical instruments almost 40 years ago.
Von Gogh, who would be 88 on Dec. 30, was in the process of getting the necessary paperwork done for Willis to run the store should something happen to him, Willis said.
He often stood in for Von Gogh to manage the store when he was away. The longest stretch was for about nine days, Willis recalled.
"It's providence," said Willis, who first met Von Gogh by chance more than two years ago. "This is where I'm supposed to be," said Willis who came from Portland to the Tri-Cities to retire in 2007 after a long career with the Bonneville Power Administration. "Life has come back a full circle."
The store has been a Tri-City landmark for more than 30 years. It opened in the Uptown area in Richland in 1976 and moved into downtown Kennewick 20 years later.
Willis said he doesn't know how long the agreement, which is essentially about converting the store inventory into cash for the estate, will last. The store has more than 35 pianos including grand, vertical and digital pianos that range from about $1,500 to $23,000. A percentage of the sales go to the estate. "I've been selling an instrument every four days."
"We don't want people to think just because Mr. Von Gogh isn't here, everything is half price," Willis said.
There's a possibility he may take over the business after the existing merchandise is sold but there are no certainties. So for now, Willis is enjoying getting back to his childhood passion of music.
He said even as a kid, while playing in the sandbox in a church nursery, he felt inspired by music. "I would jump up when the church music began," Willis said. By 12, he was adept at playing music for the complete church services, he said.
It's fun to be back in business, Willis said. "I really don't need the income. So there's no pressure." He said as a young man running retail music stores was far more challenging. "I had to make sales to pay the bills."
But that doesn't mean he's neglecting the business. He's been running ads on Craigslist and even had a TV commercial to promote the store. Customers have come from as far as Ellensburg and Pendleton, he said, adding he's also sold to churches and schools. The store provides free local delivery and tuning for the pianos it sells.
The demand for pianos typically goes up during the holiday season. A lot of parents want their kids to learn the piano, he said. Studies have shown that students taking piano lessons tend to do better academically, he said.