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In employing pianists, Mariano's picks up where Nordstrom left off

James Callen and other in-house piano players jazz up the grocery shopping experience.

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In the wake of the Dominick's shutdown, the Mariano's grocery empire expansion of 2014 has been a boon not just to hungry shoppers and out-of-work clerks. It's also benefiting a more niche segment of the population: working pianists. Inspired by a shopping experience at Nordstrom's Oak Brook location, which once employed people to tickle the ivories, founder Bob Mariano has had a piano installed in each of his store's more than two dozen locations, and a Wisconsin firm called the Entertainment Company sends a pro player, drawn from a pool of about 150, to entertain customers.

James Callen has been playing at Mariano's stores around Chicago for a year and a half. You'll often find him at the Ravenswood location, at 1800 W. Lawrence, pounding away at the baby grand that's next to the in-house wine bar. "If you play on the weekend, you get to have a trio," Callen says. "It's a lot of fun."

A pianist from the age of seven, the Evanston native has been performing for more than 40 years with groups around town, including his own jazz trio. At Mariano's, his repertoire consists mainly of standards and pop tunes, but he considers the demographic of the store's neighborhood when making his song choices. At the Lakeshore East location, for instance, the customer base is largely middle-aged, he says, so Callen breaks out selections from 60s musicals. "The crowd really digs on that," he says. "People go by you all day, telling you how good you are. It's a nice ego boost."

Callen feels his supermarket jams are a good investment—the music seems to make customers want to stay a while, he says, and maybe have a postshopping meal or glass of wine at the location. While some of his colleagues have been let go from Nordstrom in recent years, Callen is confident that his future at Mariano's will be bright. "Mr. Mariano likes music," he says, "and God bless him."

Have an unusual observation or favorite oddity about a neighborhood? zoomin@chicagoreader.com.

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