Don Vaugeois – Q&A
Tell us about your first kiss.
"It was in junior high at a local dance. A slow intimate dance slipped into a kiss."
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?
"My children – Carmen, Yvette and Steffanie – because I was able go give them a fine education and they turned into three beautiful ladies."
If you could travel back in time, where would you go?
"It would be so cool to be in the pre-World War II era when the big band dances of Glen Miller were so prominent. It must have been fun."
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
"I always had a dream I would have a music store on St. Anne Street. In those days it was a pretty busy street."
What is your favourite TV program?
"The Good Wife and Chicago Fire."
What is your favourite sport and who is your favourite team?
"It's hockey and I'm a die-hard Oilers fan, but it's getting harder and harder to like them. Deep down I'm a Chicago Blackhawks fan – Bobby Hull and all those guys."
If you could be a character in fiction, who would you be?
"The magician Gandalf in Lord of the Rings."
If you won $20 million in a lottery, what would you do with it?
"I'd share it. I'd make sure a lot of people had smiles on their faces."
Who do you admire most and why?
"I admire people like Paul McCartney because he brings a lot of joy to people and I admire Pope John Paul II because he brought people down to earth and had them think about spirituality."
Sitting across from Don Vaugeois, owner of Don's Piano Showroom, you get the feeling he is one of those old-fashioned businessmen who would seal a deal with a handshake.
That's difficult in today's competitive, at times cutthroat world, but there remains a strong sense of integrity about him.
We are at his home in his private music room. Sitting regally by the window is a black Petrof grand piano, the room's focal point.
Annette, Vaugeois' wife, business partner and "right-hand girl" has an artiste's eye and has decorated the home with eclectic art and exotic-styled statuettes from their world travels. The resulting ambiance blends low-key elegance and strong visual appeal with personal warmth and comfort – a direct reflection of its owners.
But Vaugeois is much more than a self-made businessman. He is one of the most generous music promoters in the area, loaning and servicing pianos free of charge to youth music festivals across the province.
In fact, the long-time St. Albert resident will be the recipient of the patron of the arts award at the Mayor's Celebration of the Arts gala on Tuesday, March 19.
Interestingly enough, accolades play only a minor role in why he volunteers time and resources to promote music. He simply enjoys meeting and chatting with people who share a like-minded passion.
He relates the story of a couple who wanted to give their daughter the family piano as a wedding gift. But it needed to be cleaned and rebuilt.
"It was a major project and something I don't normally do. But it was the right circumstance, the right family and all the stars lined up," he said.
There were a few small cost overruns, but the family was unconcerned. They were ecstatic when Vaugeois contacted them to say the instrument was ready.
"To go full circle. That's where I get my bang. To be part of a family for a few days or a few months – there's not many places you can go where you share the particular history of a family. That's a big honour for me and I enjoy participating in it."
Long, winding road
Vaugeois opened his business through a circuitous route. Born in Edmonton, but raised in Legal until the age of three, he was a descendant of early area settlers.
His father's family, originally from Normandy, settled in Quebec. But in 1910 his grandfather moved west, checking out Strathcona and Beaumont before settling in Legal. Grandfather Vaugeois was a meat-cutter and his boys opened up butcher shops in Legal, Morinville and Athabasca. Don Vaugeois' father instead chose carpentry as a line of work.
In 1955, when Vaugeois was three, his parents moved to St. Albert.
"At that time it was still considered cottage country," he said.
A proud alumnus of the Little White Schoolhouse until Grade 4, he also enjoyed a chequered education with Grade 5 at Father Jan and Grade 6 at Vital Grandin. Junior high meant a daily trip to St. John's College, now Faculté St. Jean, and he attended his final years at St. Albert Catholic High.
Sports were never the lanky teen's forte. However, he loved partner dancing and was a favourite of the girls at school dances.
Music had always been a large part of the Vaugeois family and he grew up with a piano in the house.
"My dad had 14 in his family. My mom had 11. In those days there was no theatre. If you wanted entertainment, you made it. I remember all members of my family coming over to our house singing and singing."
He tried playing in garage bands but the vibe was all wrong.
"You were broke all the time and there were drugs. I didn't like being broke. If I wanted to take a girl out for a milkshake or a movie, I wanted money in my pocket."
The winter of 1968-69 was the coldest winter on record. It was also the year he quit school and his father decided to show his son what real labour entailed.
"My dad sent me off to Valleyview. He had a contract for a massive renovation of a hotel. It was bitterly cold and he made sure I worked outside all winter," says Vaugeois with a rueful grin.
Upon his return, Vaugeois found a job giving kids guitar lessons. Soon he was selling music accessories and when an organ showed up, he rebuilt it and sold it. The owner was happy paying him $200 a month plus two per cent commission.
Edmonton's Baldwin Piano was so impressed with his sales ability they wooed him into their dealership.
"It was the best education I ever had. I had two of the best bosses and they taught me everything I needed to know about the business," he said.
But by 1978, the business was sold and a year later Vaugeois, still with Baldwin, moved to balmy Victoria.
"We had a fabulous business and we built it up in a very short period of time."
Unfortunately, by 1983 British Columbia's economy tanked and music dealerships were having a rough time. At the same time Vaugeois' father was becoming increasingly frail.
"It became really important to me for the kids to get to know him. And Annette's mother wasn't doing so well either."
Once Vaugeois returned to Edmonton, he found a partner. Unfortunately they had a differing visions and soon "split the sheets" going their separate ways.
Home was St. Albert and it was here he retreated to recover from borderline burnout. After hopping on a plane to Mazatlan for a rest, the couple touched down in Los Angeles to visit an old friend.
"Next thing I knew I bought 43 pianos and had nowhere to put them. Annette was mad, but my interest was to clean them up and flip them over to other dealers."
He checked out a two-storey building on Riel Drive to store the pianos, now in transit from California.
"The building was half-empty and the tenants were pretty schlocky. The landlord wanted a nice clean business and was pushing to rent it."
The recital aspect was created early in the business. Joan Ritchie, a local music teacher asked to have a Christmas recital at the second-storey showroom.
"People sat on stools and we brought chairs from downstairs."
Vaugeois rented a second bay for an ever-expanding fleet of pianos and used the upstairs as a joint showroom and recital area that at one point could seat 120 patrons.
"It became the local affordable piano recital room. And that was nice, since kids could play a really nice piano, and not just junk."
By the early 2000s Vaugeois rented a third bay. He was now buying containers holding 25 pianos from China.
"It was just crazy," he said.
He took the top half of one bay and built a recital area. He painted it, built a stage complete with spotlights, put cedar on the 12-foot high ceiling and left the hard carpet on the floor.
The Chamber Music Recital Series, underwritten by St. Albert's two Rotary clubs, has had major success in the hall.
"Every single concert this year is a sell-out. I'm happy to play a small part in having professional musicians and kids play on world class pianos in front of an audience and that we are able to nurture that."
Vaugeois was the first St. Albert businessman to use a website to market his business and as a result has outfitted numerous churches, festivals and concert halls across the province.
Today, Don's Piano Showroom displays 75 to 130 pianos at any given time. But it is his personal support of music programs and festivals that has endeared him to music teachers far and wide. There's a strong streak of volunteerism in the Vaugeois family, and he's been swept along with the tide.
"We come by it honestly," he says.