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A History of Service: The Pepper Catalog

For the generations of Pepper customers past, one of the defining features of our company has always been the Pepper Catalog. From very early on, the Catalog was a way to reach our customers when they could not make it into the store. It was a different world then, and the idea of a national music retailer was still in its infancy.

James Welsh Pepper, however, knew the value of serving the customer and did his best to reach anyone in need of instruments, accessories, and sheet music and provide the same service they would receive in-store. Take, for example, this excerpt from the 1897 edition of the Pepper Catalog:

“We are anxious to have your order for these instruments, but don’t ask you to run any risk. As we cannot expect customers out of the city to visit our warerooms, therefore, we offer to bring the store to you, or what is practically the same thing, will send any instrument by express, C.O.D., subject to examination and six days’ trial. If it is not fully up to the claim we make, and does not give entire satisfaction, return it and we will pay express charges both ways. You are not asked to purchase unless thoroughly satisfied.”

Far from just a list of products and prices, the Pepper Catalog was born out of a desire to extend the service experience our local customers received to musicians across the country. Customers responded to that mission, and the Pepper Catalog has become a staple of most music classrooms in America. In 2016 alone, Pepper sent out nearly 850,000 individual catalogs comprising 30 different specialized genres.

Over the years, while the Pepper Catalog has remained the chief reference for our customers, the way we take orders has undergone a dramatic shift. In the mid 20th century, the telephone took its place alongside mail order as a prominent method for obtaining goods. Slowly but surely, telephone ordering began to overtake the mail and, in response, Pepper established a nationwide toll-free line in 1981. The reason for this was best stated in the ’81-’82 catalog:

“For over a hundred years, J.W. Pepper has spared no expense in providing our customers with the best service possible, and this new nationwide line is just one more example of that continuing commitment to your success. With it, you can connect instantaneously with the world’s most complete inventory of educational sheet music. Order processing and tracking will be faster and more efficient than ever. Questions can be answered in a moment’s notice. All accounting and billing information will be no more than a phone call away. And the complete services of J.W. Pepper’s music experts are now conveniently close at hand and available to you at absolutely no cost whatsoever.”

-Bill Rohloff, Branch Manager

The Pepper Call Center remains to this day a major channel for customer orders. However, as time progresses, new technologies have appeared to change the way we work and think. The advent of the Internet caused a new revolution that continues to expand. Internet ordering has been growing quickly since the late 1990s and now has outpaced telephone orders. Meanwhile, our Customer Service Representatives are hard at work on both, continuing Pepper’s dedication to service.

Today, the Pepper Catalog continues to inform and assist our customers in their search for the best music, no matter their ensemble or musical tastes. Where we go from here no one can say for certain, but for 140 years the Pepper Catalog and our dedication to service have endured. Come what may, we can say with conviction that that dedication will never fade away.

See more of Pepper’s history on our interactive timeline!

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Brendan Lyons
Brendan started at Pepper in 2012 and currently works in the Marketing department as a copywriter. A graduate of Villanova University, Brendan has been a musician for over twenty years. He is also an author, using his talents at Pepper to bring the knowledge of our experienced staff to our customers.


  1. Iam interested in music for B flat Clarinet. I play for hospice populations and would enjoy reviewing the multiple amount of music that you offer for my instrument. Music like The Clarinet Polka, Take Me Out To the Ballgame,Marie,.Happy birthday, etc. You get the idea. Please contact me. From one Big Five(LaSalle) member to another, I look forward to hearing from EWPepper. Thanks again. Tom B.

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