The Art of the Deal
Today Victor Tibaldeo Sr. sits above Miami’s lush Upper East Side in his high-rise condo, watching a Fox News bit about Donald Trump, perched amid a grove of medical equipment. I ask him about the view, spectacular as it is, and it’s as though I’ve put a coin in a jukebox and selected the track where Victor tells the building’s story. “There was a lady named Dinkler, I believe. She built this place, it was a hotel back then. She said she did it because every-thing was always done for the poor and nothing was ever done for the rich.” His ol’ blue eyes gleam with a reverence for her irony.
That lady was Connie Dinkler of the Palm Bay Yacht Club, just one of a cast of well-known characters who has come in and out of Victor’s crowd over the course of his ninety-two years. Other names you might know, like Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jackie Gleason.
But you probably don’t recognize Victor’s name. Like a jukebox, he is a relic. An industrialist the likes of Ford and Flagler, but on a different scale. His business, Victor Pianos and Organs, remains at 310 NW 54th Street in Little Haiti, the last of a seven-building family.
“There was a beautiful house on the lot where I am now,” Victor said. “I tore it down to build what’s there today.” The house must not have been beautiful enough. Victor is like the Trump on the TV. For him it’s still all about the Art of the Deal. Even as he sits today, immobile. His fingers, bloated with age, haven’t touched a piano in years. He used to play accordion on TV three times a day. Once in the morning on the children’s television show Howdy Doody, at lunchtime for an Italian cooking show, and in the eve-ning he played for the fledgling Channel 10 News out of their first home, an abandoned slaughterhouse.
“I can’t play anymore. I just listen. I got a free Sinatra station on my Direct TV,” he says, seemingly unfazed by his inability to do the thing that formed the basis of his livelihood—unfazed by anything at all really. Victor is just happy to be alive and to have Direct TV.
I stick another coin in the jukebox, and his eyes light up at the prospect of playing me a song, a diddy of his deals past. And when a businessman like Victor—who’s been doing it for seventy-five years strong—plays, you listen. The tune goes like this:
Kosher supermarket: “On Washington Avenue they had these Kosher supermarkets. The best deal in town. They would advertise Romanian Steaks. No such thing as those, of course. It’s just steak! I ate there all the time.”
Italy: “My favorite country is Italy. Because I’m Italian. My parents were born in Piedmont. In every province the food is different. And it’s cheap! Now you got Armani and Gucci and all that. Too expensive.”
Reader’s Digest: “When I was a kid in the thirties, Reader’s Digest had a deal where if you paid twenty-five dollars, you got it for life. I still get it today.”
National Geographic: “Same with National Geographic. I paid them two-hun-dred dollars and have gotten them for life.”
Eastern Airlines: “Eastern Airlines had a deal. If you paid three thousand dollars, they gave you a booklet with coupons for unlimited first class flights. I traveled to all the Caribbean Islands, Stockholm, Norway. All over the world.”
Jackie Gleason: “I used to advertise that you could play the organ with one finger. Jackie Gleason came in one day to see what that was all about. I showed him. He bought a ten-thousand-dollar organ right there on the spot. He would come in regularly. He’d park his pink limousine right out front and get one piano, ten pianos, twenty pianos, all for his show.”
Francis Ford Coppola: “He looked like a street person. I sold him a piano for his resort in Belize. The hotel was doing badly, so he bought it. Coppola was like that. He took opportunities. He invited me out to his estate in Rutherford, in California, and I sat with him on the day of his daughter’s wedding.” (I made a joke about the irony of Victor seeing Coppola on the day of his daughter’s wedding. But Victor has bad ears, and didn’t seem to hear.)
THE BIGGEST DEAL OF ALL
Victor Pianos and Organs: “I used to come down to Miami every year. In 1958, I met a guy with a piano shop. Somebody came in looking to buy an organ, but the guy didn’t even know how to play. I did. The customer bought the organ. So the guy turns to me and asks me why I don’t buy the place. I says to him, ‘I will and I’ll pay cash.’ I go back to New Haven and tell my family that we’re moving to Miami in ninety days. I had two brand new ‘57 Cadillacs with the big fins on the back. We got in the cars and came down.”
When the deals are off the table, Victor’s tune becomes one of family business. In his marketing package (tear-away sheets so dense with words the page looks gray, crowded with piano-shaped borders containing spaceless paragraphs), he advertises that at least two of the six Victor family members are on duty seven days a week.
One son, Alan T., is a nightlife fixture in places like Club Space, carrying on the family’s musical legacy in his own way. A grand-daughter successfully prosecuted the conspirators of an illegal horse meat trade. One daughter made an appearance alongside Harrison Ford in Regarding Henry. His son-in-law, Louis, is the former Hot Dog King of America and will be making his come-back in a year when his non-compete agreement is up. Another daughter, Lisa, minds the store occasionally.
“The business is not as big as it used to be,” Victor said. “None of ‘em are. Pianos will never die, though. My children can have a business for life if they want. Small, quiet, but profitable. Pianos increase in value. A better investment than a condo.” Always selling.
I wandered into the store a few weeks ago, as many have before, looking to buy a piano. The walls are covered in accolades and photos with celebrities. Victor’s first accordion, handmade in 1934 by his father with wood from the family dining table. A photo of the Yale graduate alongside a photo of classmate George H. W. Bush. A plastic Fleetwood Mac tambourine.
Lisa directed me to some of her favorite models, taking digs at others for their loud tone. After finding one I liked, she asked if I wanted to put down a deposit to hold it. Not because she was hard-selling, but because she thought I’d regret not doing it. I thought I’d try being a dealmaker myself and wait it out a little bit. Let the price drop. A few days later, the piano sold to an over-seas buyer. Statistics show that my experience was a unique one.
According to the Blue Book of Pianos, sales of all piano types decreased 10 percent each year since 1978, when the number of pianos sold was nearly 300,000 across the United States. The only other period of time when pianos sold more was during the industrial revolution.
Acoustic guitar sales revenue has grown in the last ten years by 20 percent, while piano sales revenue has decreased by 42 per-cent, according to the National Association of Music Merchants.
But don’t feel bad for Victor and his family. A Google search of piano stores in Miami shows only Victor Pianos and Organs and a misnomer, the Loro Piana store in Bal Harbour—a luxury clothing retailer. In one day, a piano sale can net the family ten thousand dollars. That’d be a couple of Loro Piana sweaters.
“I had one competitor,” Victor said. “A guy named Bill. Don’t remember his last name. He got run over while riding his bicycle.”
Victor is a deal maker. A good deal maker identifies a niche in the market, and plays it until it’s over. That’s the Art of the Deal.
Jason Katz is neither an attorney nor a cardiologist.