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

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Overview

Walking his two young children to school every morning, expatriate Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood that seems to hide rather than advertise its wares. One day, intrigued by its simple sign--Desforges Pianos--and the arcane collection of repair tools in its curtained window, he enters, only to have his way barred by the atelier's imperious owner. But, unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction and the doors open to the quartier's most ...
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Overview

Walking his two young children to school every morning, expatriate Thad Carhart passes an unassuming little storefront in his Paris neighborhood that seems to hide rather than advertise its wares. One day, intrigued by its simple sign--Desforges Pianos--and the arcane collection of repair tools in its curtained window, he enters, only to have his way barred by the atelier's imperious owner. But, unable to stifle his curiosity, he finally lands the proper introduction and the doors open to the quartier's most intriguing hangout. On Fridays the hidden back of the shop, crammed full of dismantled pianos, becomes an improbable cafe, where locals--from university professors to car mechanics--gather to discuss music, love, and life over a glass of wine.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble 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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780736686181
  • Publisher: Books on Tape, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/1/2002
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged

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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Read an Excerpt


Chapter One


LUC


Along a narrow street in the Paris neighborhood where I live sits a little store front with a simple sign stencilled 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 facade 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 macadam. 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 ofcarpet 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 store front, 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 inwards 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 towards 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 towards 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 facades 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 piano.'

    `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 upwards 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 his way.'

    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 sanctum.

    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 towards 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 towards 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.

    Towards 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 the fifties.

    `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 handwriting.

    `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 just anyone.'

    `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 atelier.

    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: automobiles 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.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
1. Luc 3
2. Finding My Piano 20
3. The Stingl Arrives 33
4. Madame Gaillard 42
5. The One That Fits 48
6. Miss Pemberton 58
7. Jos 64
8. How It Works 74
9. Fall Boards 85
10. The World Becomes Louder 95
11. Lessons 111
12. Cafe Atelier 120
13. Un Match Amical 129
14. Tuning 142
15. Le Mot Juste 158
16. Schola Cantorum 169
17. Smoking Gun 182
18. The Deal 193
19. Beethoven's Piano 200
20. Master Classes 208
21. Play Is the Soul of the Machine 225
22. Fazioli 235
23. Mathilde 251
24. Another Dream Piano 266
Sources 269
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Reading Group Guide

1. As much as it is a history of the piano, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank also offers a warm account of the author’s friendship with Luc, the atelier’s master. When Carhart first meets Luc, he offers Carhart his right forearm to shake, since his hands were wet. Carhart observes that this is a particularly French custom. What other customs does Carhart encounter that might surprise or startle an American observer? What might be an explanation for the French way of doing things?

2. Carhart admits that, with Luc as a guide, he begins to feel as though he’s looking at pianos for the first time. How would you describe Luc’s attitude towards the piano? What characteristics does Luc find attractive in the pianos that pass through his restorer’s hands?

3. In the chapter entitled “Miss Pemberton, ” Carhart recalls a piano teacher of his who once remarked, “Music isn’t music unless we share it with others.” Would you agree with this statement? Why, or why not? Do you agree with Carhart’s description of a piano recital as a “confidence game”?

4. What, according to Luc, contributes to a piano’s personal character? In what ways do modern production techniques sometimes diminish this character?

5. In describing his evolving friendship with Luc, Carhart writes, “Beyond our conversations about the pianos in the shop, certain things were tacitly understood. Luc and I virtually never asked about each other’s personal lives, although details occasionally came out as we talked.” How does this picture of a friendship compare with how most Americans understand the idea offriendship? Indeed, would you label his relationship with Luc a friendship, or something else?

6. After buying a Stingl baby grand piano for his tiny Paris apartment, Carhart decided to embark on a series of piano lessons (something he hasn’t had since childhood.) How is Carhart’s attitude towards lessons different from when he was a child? What, according to the story, are some of the pleasures that re-discovering childhood passions can offer?

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 15, 2013

    an okay read

    Pleasant, atmospheric, but unless you are really into pianos, it can be a bit tedious in parts.

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  • Posted October 24, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Great Find!

    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?!

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  • Posted July 29, 2011

    Recommended for piano lovers and Francophiles

    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

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2009

    What a wonderful book.

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2008

    I Loved It!!!!!!

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2008

    Splendid read..

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 6, 2007

    A reviewer

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 17, 2005

    Obsession with Paris-Obsession with the Piano

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 2, 2004

    A Book about Obession More Than Just Pianos

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2003

    To be a Lover, and Especially an Eager one¿

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2002

    A pleasure of Music and Musical Instruments

    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.

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    Posted September 20, 2009

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    Posted October 22, 2009

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    Posted February 2, 2010

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2011

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    Posted July 21, 2009

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