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Music

What’s it Like to Be a Menards Pianist?

A uniquely Midwestern classical music experience.

Nathan Barclay at his piano.
Jay Boller

Menards is a weird place.

The regional hardware giant with 300+ locations has an aesthetic and culture unto itself, a random yet sneaky-smart way of doing business. Need a 128-ounce tub of ice cream, bargain-bin DVDs, and new athletic socks with your belt sander? Doable. What if we kissed in the secret garden between the birdseed and the pet stuff? A question people are asking. Wanna unionize the Wisconsin company’s 45,000 workers? Uhh, stop asking questions!

Another unmistakable Menards quirk can be heard while ascending the cart-locking escalator on the weekends. That’s where you’ll find a pianist, usually in formal or semi-formal attire, tinkling away at a baby grand piano.

The tradition began in 2005 when Menards opened its first double-decker store inside St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood, spokesman Jeff Abbott tells us. “Because it was a different kind of store, we bought a baby grand piano,” he adds matter-of-factly. The practice soon spread to similar shops at Richfield, Eden Prairie, Golden Valley, and Brooklyn Park.

“It’s all positive,” says Justin Marsters, general manager of the Midway location. “Usually, [shoppers] hear the piano and it’s like, ‘Wow, I thought I was going to buy a roof for my house, and now someone’s playing a baby grand’—it gives you a classy kinda of feeling.”

Pianist Nathan Barclay has helped summon that classy feeling since 2015. “They were looking for piano players, and they hired me the day after I applied,” says the self-taught St. Paul native, noting that there was no audition.

Barclay, whose biz card dubs him “The Master of Keys,” plays gigs at nonprofit events, private parties, and nursing homes, but says his three-hour shifts every other week at Menards are especially satisfying. “I remember a crowd of four people surrounding me as I played, and they just stood there for 10 minutes enjoying it,” he says.

Some customers drop tips into the jumbo coffee mug that rests on the store’s baby grand. On a recent Sunday, one customer deeply thanked him as she exited the escalator.

Spanning classical to jazz to contemporary, Barclay’s playlists are self-curated; there’s no corporate interference when it comes to his craft. You might hear Chopin one moment, the theme from Super Mario Bros. the next. The Master of Keys has also mastered pop hits like “A Thousand Miles” by Vanessa Carlton, “Alone” by Heart, and “The Writing on the Wall” by Iron Maiden.

Performing from a cavernous warehouse means acoustics aren’t on par with the Ordway, Barclay admits, plus his skillful playing has to compete with the overhead PA soundtrack on the first level. That doesn’t detract from his enjoyment, or that of his big-box audience; Barclay even hypes his upcoming Menards gigs from his professional Facebook page.

“It’s a really fun job,” he says with a genuine smile.