Read an Excerpt
Along a narrow street in the paris neighborhood where i live sits a little
store front with a simple sign stenciled on the window: “Desforges Pianos:
outillage, fournitures.” On a small, red felt-covered shelf in the window
are displayed the tools and instruments of piano repair: tightening
wrenches, tuning pins, piano wire, several swatches of felt, and various
small pieces of hardware from the innards of a piano. Behind the shelf the
interior of the shop is hidden by a curtain of heavy white gauze. The
entire façade has a sleepy, nineteenth-century charm about it, the window
frame and the narrow door painted a dark green.
Not so many years ago, when our children were in kindergarten, this shop
lay along their route to school, and I passed it on foot several times on
the days when it was my turn to take them to school and to pick them up.
On the way to their classes in the morning there was never time to stop.
The way back was another matter. After exchanging a few words with other
parents, I would often take an extra ten minutes to retrace my steps,
savoring the sense of promise and early morning calm that at this hour
The quiet street was still out of the way and narrow enough to be paved
with the cobblestones that on larger avenues in the city have been covered
with asphalt. In the early morning a fresh stream of water invariably ran
high in the gutters, the daily tide set forth by the street sweepers who,
rain or shine, open special valves set into the curb and then channel the
flow of jetsam with rolled-up scraps of carpet as they swish it along with
green plastic brooms. The smell from la boulangerie du coin, the local
bakery, always greeted me as I turned the corner, the essence of freshly
baked bread never failing to fill me with desire and expectation. I would
buy a baguette for lunch and, if I could spare ten minutes before getting
to work, treat myself to a second cup of coffee at the café across the
street from the piano shop.
In these moments, stopping in front of the strange little storefront, I
would consider the assortment of objects haphazardly displayed there.
Something seemed out of place about this specialty store in our quiet
quartier, far from the conservatories or concert halls and their related
music stores that sprinkle a select few neighborhoods. Was it possible
that an entire business was maintained selling piano parts and repair
tools? Often a small truck was pulled up at the curb with pianos being
loaded or unloaded and trundled into the shop on a handcart. Did pianos
need to be brought to the shop to be repaired? Elsewhere I had always
known repairs to be done on site; the bother and expense of moving pianos
was prohibitive, to say nothing of the problem of storing them.
Once I saw it as a riddle, it filled the few minutes left to me on those
quiet mornings when I would walk past the shop, alone and wondering. After
all, this was but one more highly specialized store in a city known for
its specialties and refinements. Surely there were enough pianos in Paris
to sustain a trade in their parts. But still my doubt edged into
curiosity; I saw myself opening the door to the shop and finding something
new and unexpected each time, like a band of smugglers or an eccentric
music school. And then I decided to find out for myself.
I had avoided going into the shop for many weeks for the simple reason
that I did not have a piano. What pretext could I have in a piano
furnisher’s when I didn’t even own the instrument they repaired? Should I
tell them of my lifelong love of pianos, of how I hoped to play again
after many vagabond years when owning a piano was as impractical as
keeping a large dog or a collection of orchids? That’s where I saw my
opening: more settled now, I had been toying with the idea of buying a
piano. What better source for suggestions as to where I might find a good
used instrument than this dusty little neighborhood parts store? It was at
least a plausible reason for knocking.
And so I found myself in front of Desforges one sunny morning in late
April, after dropping off the children down the street. I knocked and
waited; finally I tried the old wooden handle and found that the latch was
not secured. As I pushed the door inward it shook a small bell secured to
the top of the jamb; a delicate chime rang out unevenly, breaking the
silence as I swung the door closed behind me. Before me lay a long, narrow
room, a counter running its length on one side, and along the facing wall
a row of shelves laden with bolts of crimson and bone-white felt. Between
the counter and the shelves a cramped aisle led back through the
windowless dark to a small glass door; through it a suffused light shone
dimly into the front of the shop. As the bell stopped ringing and I
blinked to adjust my eyes, the door at the back opened narrowly and a man
appeared, taking care to move sideways around the partly opened door so
that the view to the back room was blocked.
“Entrez! Entrez, Monsieur!” He greeted me loudly, as if he had been
expecting my visit; he looked me up and down as he made his way slowly to
the front of his shop. He was a squarely built older man, probably in his
sixties, with a broad forehead and a massive jaw that was fixed in a wide
grin; the eyes, however, did not correspond to the mouth. His regard was
intense, curious, and wholly without emotion. I realized that the smile
was no more than his face in repose, a somewhat disquieting rictus that
spoke of neither joy nor social convention. Over his white shirt and tie
he was wearing a long-sleeved black smock that hung loosely to his knees
and gave him a formal yet almost jaunty appearance, like an undertaker on
vacation. This was clearly the chef d’atelier, wearing a more sober
version of the deep-blue cotton smocks that are the staple of craftsmen
and manual laborers throughout the country.
We shook hands, the obligatory prelude to any dealings with another human
being in France, and he asked how he could be of help. I explained that I
was looking to buy a used piano and wondered if he ever came across such
things. A slight wrinkling of his brow suggested that my question
surprised him; the smile never varied, but I thought I detected a glint in
his eyes. No, he was sorry, it was not as common as one might think; of
course, once in a great while there was something, and if I wanted to
check back no one could say that with a stroke of luck a client might not
have a used piano for sale. Both disappointed and puzzled, I couldn’t
think of how to keep the conversation going. I thanked him for his
consideration and turned to leave, casting a last glance at the
ceiling-high shelves behind the counter stuffed with wooden dowels,
wrenches, and coils of wire. As I pulled the door behind me he turned and
headed toward the back room once again.
I returned two, perhaps three times in the next month and always the
reaction was the same: a look of perplexity that I might consider his
business a source of used pianos, followed by murmured assurances that if
ever anything were to present itself he would be delighted to let me know.
I was familiar enough with the banality of formal closure in French
rhetoric to recognize this for what it was: the brush-off. Still I
persisted, stopping by every few weeks out of sheer doggedness and
curiosity. I was just about to give up hope when a development changed the
equation, however slightly.
On this occasion, as before, my entry set off the little bell and the door
at the back of the shop opened a few moments later. But instead of the
black-smocked patron there appeared a younger man—in his late thirties, I
guessed—wearing jeans and a sweat-soaked T-shirt. His face was open and
smiling, and ringed by a slightly scruffy beard that gave him the look of
a French architect. More surprising than the new face was the fact that he
left open the door to the back room; as he walked toward me I peered over
his shoulder for a glimpse of what had so long intrigued me.
The room beyond was quite long and wider than the
shop, and it was swimming in light pouring down from a glass roof. It had
the peculiar but magical air of being larger on the inside than the
outside. This was one of the classic nineteenth-century workshops that are
still to be found throughout Paris behind even the most bourgeois façades
of carved stone. Very often the backs of buildings were extended to cover
part of the inner courtyard and the space roofed over with panels of
glass, like a giant greenhouse. I took this in at a glance and then, in
the few seconds left to me as he made his way along the counter, I
realized that the entire atelier was covered with pianos and their parts.
Uprights, spinets, grands of all sizes: a mass of cabinetry in various
tones presented itself in a confusion of lacquered black, mahogany, and
rich blond marquetry.
The man gestured with his two dirty hands to excuse himself and then, as
is the French custom when hands are wet or grimy, he offered his right
forearm for me to shake. I grasped his arm awkwardly as he moved it up and
down in a parody of a shake. I explained that I had stopped in before and
was looking for a good used piano. His face broke out in a smile of what
seemed like recognition. “So you’re the American whose children go to the
school around the corner.”
I accepted this description equably and asked how he had known. It didn’t
surprise me that in the close-knit neighborhood he was aware of a
foreigner who daily walked down his street even though we had never met.
“My colleague told me you had been here a few times looking to buy a
“Actually, I was asking for a suggestion as to where I might find one. I
didn’t, in fact, expect to find one here.”
I couldn’t stop my eye from wandering over his shoulder to the gold mine
in the atelier, and the look in his eyes told me he noticed my puzzlement.
“Of course, we only repair other people’s pianos here,” he said
cryptically. At this point he paused, turned his head slightly to one side
and raised his eyes slowly, as if some enormously improbable and entirely
original thought had just occurred to him. He continued slowly, gazing
upward as if he were a companionable schoolmaster seeking to capture the
one phrase that would make things clear to a particularly problematic
student. “Now, if you were to have an introduction from someone who has
done business with us, it might make it easier to find the piano you’re
looking for.” On this last phrase he lowered his gaze and looked me
straight in the eyes.
I didn’t know what the game was, but I sensed that this was not the time
to ask a direct question. He had made it as clear as possible that he
could not be clear, that an unguessable exchange had to be played out in
this oblique and baffling way.
“Someone who has done business with you,” I repeated mechanically.
“That’s right, one of our customers. There are many right here in the
quartier,” he added.
I thanked him for his help, as if everything were now perfectly clear. As
I turned to go I was presented once more with the magical image of the
atelier bathed in a golden light, an El Dorado of used pianos that glowed
tantalizingly at the end of a close and musty little cave of stacked felt.
I was puzzled by the odd necessity of finding a customer before I could
become one and I didn’t know how to go about it. I no longer believed that
this out-of-the-way shop was merely what it proclaimed on its sign, a
piano parts store. Fueled by the younger man’s air of intrigue, my
curiosity took on a different aspect, as if I had been unwittingly sucked
into some subterranean drug deal or obscure quest with enigmatic
personalities, cryptic directions, uncertain rewards.
For the next few weeks, whenever I had dealings in the quartier, I made a
point of asking as offhandedly as possible if anyone had done business
with the piano repair shop on our street. Most often people had not even
noticed it or, if they had, they had never gone in. I began to resign
myself to failure, to remaining an outsider in this closed world.
One afternoon I was picking up our daughter at the house of a classmate
whose parents I knew only slightly from hurried conversations at the
school door. When the unfamiliar door was opened to me, the rich polyphony
of an early liturgical piece for chorus, perhaps a Palestrina mass,
spilled out from an interior room. From another part of the apartment I
could hear the laughter of the girls at play.
The mother offered me tea and showed me into the salon, where a beautiful
baby grand piano immediately captured my attention. A rich walnut cabinet
with clean, flowing lines showed just enough carved detail to suggest art
nouveau. Its music stand bore the legend “Pleyel,” subtly worked into the
wooden lacework. When my hostess returned from the kitchen with our pot of
tea I pounced: “Véronique, do you play piano?”
“Not as much as I’d like, but it has always been a part of my life.”
“And has this beautiful instrument always been a part of your life?”
“No, actually, Marc and I bought that years ago when we first moved to the
quartier. There’s a wonderful little shop near your street that is full of
such treasures. They’re called Desforges.”
I looked up excitedly, nearly spilling my cup of tea. Véronique looked
puzzled by my broad smile. “It’s a very nice piano, don’t you think? It’s
French, you know.”
“It’s absolutely exquisite.” I then described the false starts of the past
month and my awkward attempts to get into the back room of the little shop
on our street.
“But of course you need an introduction. You could be anybody at all
unless they know you’ve been referred by a client.”
“And what difference does that make?” I was still baffled, but Véronique
talked as if this were the most self-evident thing imaginable.
“Well, they sell used pianos, of course. Lots and lots of them. They’re
very well known for that. But their main business is in parts and
refurbishing, and the old man, Desforges, doesn’t like to sell a used
piano to someone who hasn’t come recommended. He says it’s more trouble
than it’s worth and he’s got plenty of customers for the pianos that come
I understood and yet I didn’t. This sounded more like a hobby than a
business, a kind of retail trade for a very limited public. I was still
wholly ignorant as to the mechanics of the business, but at least I had
found out the essential point. And I still wanted a piano. “Véronique, can
I use your name as a reference the next time I stop by?”
“Of course, they know me well.”
The next day I hurried to the shop as soon as I had dropped off the
children. No morning daydreams down the narrow street, no leisurely walk
home; I felt like a character in a fairy tale who has performed the
difficult task and has returned to the palace to claim his reward. I
paused in front of the old green door, armed with Véronique’s
introduction, excited at the prospect of being welcomed into the inner
Once again the small glass door at the rear opened slowly. This time,
however, it was not swung wide but only enough to let the patron scoot
around it before he closed it firmly. I masked my disappointment with a
greeting, telling him that I had come with the introduction of a former
client of his and was still interested in finding a used piano. His
perpetual smile firmly in place, he had the patient and patronizing tone
one would use to a child more dull than naughty who had made some annoying
mistake. “Monsieur is still looking for a used piano?”
“Yes, I was hoping that you might have come across something.”
“I am afraid that we have not had that good fortune, Monsieur.” As he had
on each of my previous visits, he told me that they rarely had such
instruments but he would keep me in mind if ever he had the good luck to
come across one that was available for sale.
At this I feigned confusion, insisting that his colleague had suggested
that a recommendation from a former client might facilitate matters. His
expression did not change, but his eyebrows twitched furiously as he
looked me straight in the eyes and asked me to wait. He then disappeared
into the back room and I heard his sharp voice bark “Luc!” as he stood
behind the door, visible to me only in profile through the glass.
There ensued a lively discussion between the two men, whose silhouettes
bobbed and weaved before me like some bizarre shadow play, the leonine
head of the patron inclining toward his younger assistant, whose arms
waved wildly as he argued. For it was clear that it was an argument and,
although I couldn’t make out the phrases, I knew that I was the subject.
This went on for two or three minutes until the assistant yelled, “Enough!
Trust me on this one!” The two shadows faced each other for a long moment,
utterly motionless and silent. Then the massive head of the patron moved
slowly away as he muttered something in his gravelly voice. There was
another pause, this one briefer; the hands of the remaining figure moved
up and stroked the beard, and then smoothed the head of scraggly hair as
the open mouth let out a deep sigh. An instant later the door opened wide
and the young man beckoned me: “Entrez, Monsieur. Entrez.”
I moved uncertainly from the darkness of the shop toward the brightness of
the back room, unsure whether I dared to venture into this forbidden
territory, but the assistant motioned me in through the narrow door.
Before me were arrayed forty, perhaps fifty pianos of every make and
model, and in various stages of dismantling. On my left, legless grand
pianos, of which there were at least fifteen, lay in a row on their flat
side, the undulating curves of their cabinets a series of receding waves.
Uprights clustered on the other side of the workshop, pushed up against
one another as one would store two dozen chests of drawers in a spacious
attic. At the back stood a group of very old instruments, delicate little
nineteenth-century square pianos with complicated marquetry worked into
their cabinets. Nearby, on top of a well-organized work bench, sprawled
the insides of several instruments: disassembled keyboards, hammers and
dampers, pedal mechanisms.
Around the edges of the room, behind and around and even under the pianos,
in every available corner, lay scattered parts and pieces that had been
removed from them. The legs of the grand pianos lay alongside, an
anthology of furniture styles stacked high in a pile. Music stands, pedal
housings, fall boards were all similarly grouped together, each one
reflecting a different era and style. The tops of the grand pianos leaned
precariously against the adjacent wall, a kind of two-dimensional
hillscape of sensuous curves and precious woods. Pairs of candelabra were
heaped in the corner, gleams of brass and silver catching the light.
Around the upper edge of the atelier ran a narrow gallery and upon this
were massed more pieces still: music stands with delicate scroll work
spelling “Gaveau,” benches and stools, tuning pins and strings, even a
pile of old metronomes, their blunt little pyramids a mass of wooden
stalagmites. And at the center of the cluttered room, partly obscured from
my view, lay a clearing, a magic glade hidden in a forest. In it stood
three pianos in a loose circle, polished, completely assembled and ready
to be played, their keyboards open and benches drawn up.
The silence was broken by the assistant, Luc, who now introduced himself
to me by name and invited me to have a look around. I explained that I was
a friend of Véronique and he nodded in approval. Without a trace of irony
or embarrassment he told me that all of the pianos were indeed for sale
and that I was free to roam about and ask any questions I liked. Together
we wandered around the room and looked at six or seven pianos.
Occasionally Luc would roll back the fall board of a piano and play a few
chords. The grand pianos were impressive, even when stored on their sides,
but they were unplayable, like ships in dry dock that have temporarily
lost the essential element that is their raison d’être. I saw several
Steinways, a number of Pleyels, many makes I had never heard of, and even
a magnificent Bechstein concert grand whose gleaming black mass of
cabinetry was fully twice as long as the Gaveau baby grand alongside which
it was stored.
We walked among the uprights: European makes, both well known and obscure,
American and Japanese pianos, even
a nearly new Chinese instrument, almost comical in the brassy shine that
glared off every square inch of its black lacquered surface, like a
miniature hearse in a quirky used-car lot. I looked at Luc with what must
have been an air of surprise on my face and I asked how a Chinese piano
had come to his shop.
“I had to take it; it was a favor for a friend.” He paused and then added,
almost apologetically, “It’s actually well made, but this one is a
mediocre piano.” It was clear from his manner that being well made was
only a part of the whole for this man whose passion was pianos, but what
were the other elements? Their design? Materials, finish, reputation? What
makes one piano good and another mediocre, even if well made? The answer
hinged on more than their physical attributes, that much seemed clear, as
if a piano could have a temperament of its own that draws us to it. Luc’s
attitude made me feel as if I were looking at pianos for the first time.
Toward the end of the row of uprights we approached a piano quite a bit
larger than the others, with a strange blond cabinet worked in what looked
like stripes of shiny wood grain. On its cabinet was a name in Cyrillic
script, done in a streamlined chrome typeface, as if it were a car from
“Russian?” I asked doubtfully.
“Worse: Ukrainian.” Luc’s tone was doleful. “Let’s just say that they
learned half the craft from the Germans and for the rest”—he trilled on an
imaginary keyboard—“they improvised.”
Throughout our tour I had eagerly anticipated a visit to the back of the
room where I had spied the oldest pianos standing daintily, curious little
boxes on slender legs inset with half-keyboards almost as if their
potential for making music were an afterthought to their appearance as
symmetrical pieces of furniture. When we reached them, I ran my hand over
their cabinets. The precious woods showed deep whorls and burls, their
keyboards yellowed ivory with worn edges set in a slightly uneven line.
“Paris,” “Amsterdam,” “Vienna”: the gold script on their fall boards was
an elaborate suite of serifs
and curves, the masterful and self-assured flow of nineteenth-century
“These are exquisite,” I said to Luc.
“Yes, they’re very beautiful. The oldest was built in 1837.” He looked at
them with a mix of tenderness and disdain. “But they belong in a museum,
not here. They’re part of the history of the instrument; in some sense
they’re dead. What interests me is pianos that live.” He smiled at his own
sudden enthusiasm and motioned me to the small clearing in the middle
of the maze we had just negotiated. “Now, these pianos are very definitely
alive.” Luc sat on the bench of a Steinway grand with its top open. He
paused for a moment, immobile and pensive, then his hands descended on the
keyboard and a Bach three-part invention filled the space, its delicate
melodies and counterpoint enveloping and somehow expanding the sunny
volume beneath the glass roof. He stopped abruptly in the middle of a
trill and the notes lingered in a lasting resonance. The sharp thrill of
music in the quiet workshop changed the atmosphere entirely, as if a
carillon of bells had suddenly rung out in a sleepy town square. These
instruments did have a kind of life, and their breath was a music that
still sounded in the air around us.
“This is a magnificent instrument, built in Hamburg in the twenties. It
belonged to a conductor who brought it with him to Paris.” Luc rose from
the keyboard and ran his hand delicately along the curved side. “I
completely rebuilt it; and now, of course, I don’t want to see it go to
“No, of course not.” I was quick to agree because I had already forgotten
what I had come for, a piano for myself. The sheer number of pianos, their
beauty, the suggestiveness of their various origins had cast a spell on
me; it was only a conscious effort that brought me back to the dusty
And yet there was something in Luc’s attitude that told me that this was
not a business like any other. He had drawn the distinction between pianos
that were alive and were to be played, and those that were museum pieces.
This made immediate sense in his workshop, surrounded as we were by
examples of both. I sensed that he was not a sentimentalist, but I also
saw an abiding respect for all these complex, ungainly, and gloriously
impractical instruments, as well as a fascination with what came forth
when the ones in good condition were played.
To be in a workshop where the mechanics of such witchcraft were attended
to was, I realized, infinitely more exciting than to be in a dealer’s
showroom surrounded by fifty brand-new pianos, however great and costly
they might be. I felt I was looking at the physical evidence of a
demographic ebb and flow that had coursed through Europe for the better
part of this century, a flux that had Paris as a point of departure, a
destination, and a way station for all these people with their beloved
pianos so inconveniently in tow.
I had in mind to buy a small upright that I could tuck away in a corner of
our small apartment. Like most Parisians, I was concerned with the amount
of floor space, “the footprint,” of any sizeable object that I introduced
into our home. While
our apartment was not dark and cramped like so many of the
nineteenth-century spaces that make up the majority of Paris’s housing—we
had converted an old workshop—the total surface area was still minuscule
by American standards. I calculated that even a baby grand would require
four square meters, while an upright would take less than two. But after
looking at the splendor of these instruments the last thing I wanted to do
was to “tuck away” a piano. I wanted it to be visible, useful, beautiful
as an object in itself, placed so it would be played daily. Practicality
and reasonableness had deserted me; perhaps thrift, too.
Luc gently interrupted my reverie by asking what I thought of the pianos
and whether I saw something that might suit my needs. I blurted out that I
wanted them all and he answered wryly, “You’re welcome to the whole
business.” I asked the prices of some of the instruments that sat before
us and immediately his manner changed: he wasn’t the tough businessman
moving in for the sale, but neither was he the smiling repairman he had at
first seemed. This was clearly an area that concerned him deeply and he
proceeded to talk about the “value” of particular pianos with price
mentioned almost as an afterthought. He shared with me his personal feel
for this landscape of pianos and his evaluations were original, sometimes
quirky, and fascinating. I learned much that morning about used pianos,
about the market in Paris, and—not least—about Luc himself.
The French have a preference for things French: auto-
mobiles and wine, clothes and bicycles, food and movies. So, too, with
pianos. This attitude had been considerably complicated in recent years by
the fact that the once great French makers, Erard and Pleyel, were no
longer independent companies and their new pianos were generally
recognized as inferior to the very finest makes or, for that matter, to
their own predecessors. So new Erards and Pleyels were not prized, but
this only made their antecedents, refurbished and gleaming, all the more
desirable and costly.
Steinways were felt to be very fine pianos, but they were not necessarily
revered as they were outside France. Old Steinways were sought after for
the quality of the craftsmanship and their renowned singing tone; Luc
allowed that the biggest competition for brand-new Steinways from the
fancy dealers, at least for those of means who were buying an instrument
and not a bauble, was a reconditioned Steinway from the twenties and
thirties, the “Golden Age.” German-made Bechsteins, with their clear,
bright attack in the upper registers, were at least equally respected by
many of his customers, and Luc described Bösendorfers as “the aristocrat
of pianos.” It wasn’t clear whether he considered this to be altogether a
good thing, but it was a trait, with its overtones of the Vienna of Mozart
and the Hapsburgs, that seemed to have a particular resonance with the
French. A long tradition of fine workmanship is still accorded a special
status in France.
But of all the things that I learned on that brief morning visit, there
was one practical detail I would never have suspected. Because of the
relatively small size of most Paris apartments, Luc said, uprights were in
far greater demand than grands, and they commanded a corresponding
premium. This surprised me greatly. Put another way, a used grand
piano—with the exception of the very top-of-the-line models whose prices
were no lower than new Bechsteins or Steinways—was not likely to be
snapped up the way uprights were. They could, with some questionable
logic, be regarded as bargains, a new and tempting idea for me.
We talked a bit about what kind of piano I was interested in and what
might be affordable. I reluctantly came back to the idea of an upright,
small and unobtrusive, but in truth my eye and my mind were constantly
drawn to the big pianos arrayed along the floor like enormous suitcases
ready for a voyage. A niggling voice began to introduce itself into my
mind—“Why not?”—and I should have recognized then that the shape of my
desires and the place of music in my life were changing rapidly. But I was
still unaware of the powerful seduction conjured by this workshop. It had
pulled me in. When I thought I was merely a browser delighting in the
improbable number and variety of old pianos, in fact I had succumbed to a
voluptuous fantasy before I could guard against it.
From the Hardcover edition.