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The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier

4.1 16
by Thad Carhart

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Walking his two young children to school every morning, Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood. Intrigued by its simple sign—Desforges Pianos—he enters, only to have his way barred by the shop’s imperious owner. Unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction, and a world previously


Walking his two young children to school every morning, Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood. Intrigued by its simple sign—Desforges Pianos—he enters, only to have his way barred by the shop’s imperious owner. Unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction, and a world previously hidden is brought into view. Luc, the atelier’s master, proves an indispensable guide to the history and art of the piano. Intertwined with the story of a musical friendship are reflections on how pianos work, their glorious history, and stories of the people who care for them, from amateur pianists to the craftsmen who make the mechanism sing. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is at once a beguiling portrait of a Paris not found on any map and a tender account of the awakening of a lost childhood passion.

Praise for The Piano Shop on the Left Bank:

“[Carhart’s] writing is fluid and lovely enough to lure the rustiest plunker back to the piano bench and the most jaded traveler back to Paris.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Captivating . . . [Carhart] joins the tiny company of foreigners who have written of the French as verbs. . . . What he tries to capture is not the sight of them, but what they see.”
The New York Times

“Thoroughly engaging . . . In part it is a book about that most unpredictable and pleasurable of human experiences, serendipity. . . . The book is also about something more difficult to pin down, friendship and community.”
The Washington Post

“Carhart writes with a sensuousness enhanced by patience and grounded by the humble acquisition of new insight into music, his childhood, and his relationship to the city of Paris.”
The New Yorker


Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review from Discover Great New Writers
Thad Carhart's book is a loving portrait of the most complicated of musical instruments, the piano. When Thad, an American expat in Paris, finds himself intrigued by a particular neighborhood atelier, the ashes of his former passion for the piano are stirred. Walking by the curtained shop with the sign "Desforges Pianos," Thad can't understand why the shop doesn't do a better job of merchandising its goods. The only items displayed are the tools for piano repair; does the shop actually sell pianos? Thad bluffs his way inside, only to be rebuffed by the shopkeeper. But after numerous attempts to pass through the heavy gauze curtain (and with the helpful introduction of a neighbor), Thad finally gains entry into the inner sanctum. What he finds there is utterly captivating: a room filled with pianos of all shapes and sizes, in various stages of assembly and repair.

Eventually purchasing his own piano, Thad searches for the proper instructor, and his further explorations into the history of the "great, impractical hulk" lead back to his own childhood memories. But it is Thad's growing relationship with the master builder of the pianos, Luc (who shares Thad's passion and serves as his guide through the strange musical world in Paris) that drives the story, winning newfound affection for the piano. Thad Carhart's beguiling book is a fascinating profile of both the piano and Paris. It is sure to send readers scampering for a peek inside the nearest piano they find. (Spring 2001 Selection)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this engaging memoir, an American writer living in Paris recounts his experiences in a piano shop tucked into an out-of-the way street on the rive gauche. Because the elderly proprietor refuses to admit strangers to the atelier where he repairs, rebuilds and sells used pianos to select customers, Carhart does not at first get in. But with an introduction from another client and the help of the owner's younger assistant and heir apparent, Luc, Carhart is finally welcomed into a magical space crowded with pianos of all makes and vintages. Soon he becomes one of the favored insiders who stop by nearly every day to gossip and talk about pianos with Luc. Luc's love of pianos is so infectious that Carhart's own childhood passion for the instrument is rekindled. He starts to take lessons again and buys a piano for his small apartment, a purchase that takes some time, for Luc, who regards a piano as a member of a family, prides himself on finding instruments compatible with his customers. Caught up in Luc's zeal, Carhart immerses himself in the history and mechanics of the piano, and he includes chapters on the craft of piano making, the instrument's development over the centuries and the fine points of tuning. In his renewed fascination, he reflects on piano teachers, those of his childhood as well as several renowned teachers of today. Carhart conveys his affection for Luc, the atelier and the piano with such enthusiasm that readers might be inspired to return to their own childhood instrument. At the very least, they will enjoy this warmhearted, intelligent insight into a private Paris. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Carhart's life as an American expatriate in Paris provides the setting for this witty and fascinating account of finding a piano to purchase and relearning how to play. His familiarity with French customs aids in his dealings with and subsequent acceptance as a friend by Luc, the proprietor of Desforges Pianos. A piano restoration workshop by day, it turns into an exclusive local hangout Friday nights. Gracefully shifting from the present day to his youth, Carhart, a freelance writer, provides both technical explanations about the workings of the piano and a history of the instrument. This background information helps place his studies and the remarks of various piano teachers, technicians, and aficionados in context. Similar to Noah Adams's fine Piano Lessons with a continental flavor, Carhart's book will be of special interest to patrons with an affection for pianos or experience traveling in France. Warmly recommended for all libraries. Barry Zaslow, Miami Univ. Libs., Oxford, OH Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
History blends seamlessly with memoir in this paean to the piano. As he escorts his children to school in their Paris neighborhood, longtime American expatriate Carhart notices a piano repair shop. His curiosity piqued but his initial advances rebuffed, he finds a friend to vouch for his character and at last gains entry to the inner sanctum of a piano-lovers' paradise. Once inside, Carhart and the reader discover a world dedicated to the piano with all of its multi-faceted joys and complexities. Steinways, Pleyels, Faziolis, Stingls, Bösendorfers, Yamahas, Bechsteins—the famous brands leap forth as the primary characters of Carhart's narrative, and each one has a distinct voice, personality, and story. From a Bechstein mistuned by a drunk to a Viennese model that might have been played by Beethoven, from the Stingl which Carhart almost ruins to the Steinway model D reportedly stolen from the great concert halls of every major metropolis, the pianos have stories that serve as means to ponder music's sway over humanity. In these musings, the simplicity of Carhart's theme emerges as its chief pleasure: listening to tales of music-lovers and their instruments, the reader witnesses music's astounding power to build families and communities. Of course, no piano story would be complete without teachers both sweet and terrifying, and the appearance of instructors Miss Pemberton, Madame Gaillard, and Anna round out Carhart's ode to the piano with rough and tender edges of humanity. Discursive excursuses on the piano's history, tuning, and its other mechanical aspects complement the narrative. Could be dangerous for anyone who doesn't yet own a piano. Apartment dwellers in particular should approach with caution.

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Random House Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

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 envelops Paris.

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.

Meet the Author

Thad Carhart has lives in France for much of his life. He was educated at Yale and Stanford and has worked as an events coordinator in the music industry and as communications head of Apple Compter’s European division. A freelance writer and consultant, he lives in Paris with his wife, Simo, and their two children.

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Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 26 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pleasant, atmospheric, but unless you are really into pianos, it can be a bit tedious in parts.
GinBin More than 1 year ago
This is a delightful and informative book that will please piano lovers. It should be read in small bits, not at once as there is so much to digest. The author has, in addition to the information on pianos, given us a glimpse into the real Paris and the lives of its residents.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved every minute of this book. I have played the piano all my life, and lived in Paris for a couple of years, but this little book opened my eyes to more of both those worlds than I ever thought to look for. Maybe it was too much detail on some things for some readers, but not for me! I found myself absolutely transported.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book. It was entertaining, funny, and was educational as it included a lot of history of the development of the piano forte,and how pianos work. A must read for anyone who plays the piano or tries to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Fantastic and addictive. Almost as good as being there.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
KalieLyn More than 1 year ago
I picked up this book with never having heard of it before and did not know what to expect. Sometimes books captivate you from the beginning and sometimes they take a while to get into. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank hooked me from the moment I read the synopsis on the back cover. While you can find a piano in many homes throughout the world, they are most likely used as "furniture" rather than as an instrument. Yet, the piano has a vast history and many connections to the past and throughout the book, the author, Thad Carhart, dedicates chapters to the workings, antiquity and people behind one of the greatest instruments. Though it was interesting to learn how a piano really works and what each particular piece that makes up the piano inside and out is called, I did feel that the chapters dedicated to these descriptions were a bit long. Maybe it's just because I have a short attention span and always need "book action" to be happening, but while I found it a little boring during these particular chapters, other readers may be extremely captivated by how a piano is built, how it produces sound and who has left their mark on the piano world. Since the book is a memoir - non-fiction - the characters are based off of real people in the real world. The "characters" we are introduced to in The Piano Shop do not disappoint and really make up the entire book. Carhart introduces his readers to a lover of everything piano and the future owner of the piano shop, past piano teachers that were both good and bad, and even a drunken piano tuner. The people Thad befriends throughout his music quest and his encounters with each of them, which he dutifully describes throughout his writing, is what really makes the book so good. The people in the book are so endearing that Thad even says in his acknowledgments, 'Please don't try to find Luc or Mathilde or any of the others; they are not waiting to be discovered'. Finally, the description of his Paris neighborhood, the knowledge he provides for the instrument he loves and the different experiences he shares with us, that's what kept me reading to the end. I finished this book in such a short time because I wanted to keep reading and I wanted to share it with my sister whom has played the piano for many years and is currently studying French. I highly recommend reading The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart. Music, Paris, pianos, a love connection between a man and an instrument.who doesn't love that?!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Swederosa More than 1 year ago
This book starts with such promise but it quickly disappoints. I play piano and also love Paris so I began to read this book with great anticipation. Unfortunately, the author feels the need to explain every detail and then restate it with copious adjectives and it becomes tedious to wade through. There are several chapters that have nothing to do with the story development but outline the history of the piano or how a piano creates sound. The characters, with the exception of Luc and Jos, are briefly introduced and poorly developed. There were so many opportunities to engage the reader in a story, but all I was left with was book that was monotonous and incomplete.
PabloMartin More than 1 year ago
Like Carhart I had resumed piano lessons later in life and discovered a tuner's notes on the inside of the 1920's upright piano I got for free. I visited Paris two years ago for a few days and fell in love with the city of lights. Carhart's story brought together two things that I love: Paris and the piano. I was intrigued with the day to day life a Parisian businessman and the quartier. The piano history blew my mind. Who knew why pianos were always black and they got their start in Italy? A great read. PaBLo
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Took up paino as an adult only months ago and found this book to be not only inspiring but a fun read. Makes a great gift to any player at any level.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I'm not a pianist, but I am a music loving francophile - not only did I learn much about the piano which fascinated me, but I loved the way the author captured the parisians! I felt as if I were participating in each and every one of his conversations -- and when I closed the book, felt as if I had just returned from paris!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Clearly a work of non-fiction this book is a refreshing look at the enigmatic piano shops that some of us pass during our daily lives. Could have easily jumped into a mystery-lead fiction tale but I think it says just that much more about the story. A choice weekend read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Not entertaining at all for the general public. Read this book only if you play or love pianos. This book is very informative, if you want to know about pianos, their maintainance, history, structure and some history, read it but if you are looking for a good story or novel skip it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I read this wonderful book upon return from my 1st trip to Paris. It prompted me to search for a piano with soul. My piano had provided 40 years of service, but it never sounded like the baby grand I grew up with. Thanks to MR Carhart's enchanting love affair with the piano, I'm now the proud owner of a mature, sleek black 6' grand purchased from a piano shop in CA with its' own sense of mission.
Guest More than 1 year ago
You don't need to know how to play the piano in order to love this book. You just need to want to play the piano. This is a book about an American who wanders into an atelier in Paris out of casual curiosity, then gets gradually drawn into a cult of piano lovers,surely a dwindling breed in a world of passive entertainment devices. This book likely tells you more than you ever really wanted to know about pianos, but the author convinces you that these details are necessary knowledge and that is what draws you into this chronicle. This is a book about obsession, a constructive kind, more than it is just a book about pianos.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In the 'Straightforward Instruction' to his Inventions Bach addresses the 'amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones.' In today¿s music world the amateur is basically a dilettante and concerts of classical music are becoming increasingly events of specialists playing a specialized repertoire for specialists. Yet, historically, it was always the amateur who stood at the center of musical culture in Europe. An amateur, an 'amator,' is a lover¿and true love is an art. Thad Carhart¿s relationship with the piano evolves very much like a good solid love story, from his being seduced by a mysterious Parisian piano shop, from his first coy attempts to outsmart the reclusive owners, from the way he succeeds in gaining entry into a magical world of piano lovers, to his buying of an instrument, taking piano lessons, maintaining the instrument, and participating in piano related events such as house concerts, master classes, etc. With genuine charm and ingenious simplicity the author describes how the nurturing of this love enriches his daily life, how it builds strong personal rituals, generates growing enthusiasm, knowledge and meaning. This cult of affection is not just a short-lived entertainment for Carhart but the enthusiasm slowly pervades all aspects of his life. The author gradually derives more pleasure from his sojourn in Paris. His observations become more adventurous and under the busy surface of modern Paris he discovers a quaint yet very substantial reclusive culture, a secret circle of enthusiasts, a part of society which would always remain hidden from the eyes of a tourist. The persons he meets¿piano dealers, piano builders, technicians, professional musicians, teachers¿are described as enthusiastic idealists who have preserved and developed the quality, the integrity and the dignity of their respective profession. Through the help and influence of these inspired professionals the author quickly advances from amateur to piano connoisseur and learns to appreciate the unique place of the piano in European culture: It may be an elegant piece of furniture, a rare antique, a collector¿s item or an exquisitely crafted mechanical instrument. But the piano is also a vital link to the past, and the hands of an experienced pianist can instantaneously revive 300 years of history. Last not least a piano can be seen as a living being itself, complete with birthplace, with an individual history, a time of maturation and finally death. Carhart¿s 'gumption' and his strong emphasis on quality remind me of Robert Persig¿s 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,' but Carhart in his narration never acts as a philosopher or teacher. He never fails to inspire and, while reading The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, I somehow regretted being a professional pianist myself. Otherwise I surely would have fallen in love with the piano all over again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Music is an international language. And Piano also. Piano taught us lots of beauties of Music and setbacks at the same time. But can you forget the complicated attractions? I can't. This book has everyone's memories at our deep minds.