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

by Thad Carhart

Paperback(Reprint)

$15.76 $17.00 Save 7% Current price is $15.76, Original price is $17. You Save 7%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, June 24

Overview

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

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375758621
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/12/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 108,610
Product dimensions: 5.12(w) x 8.01(h) x 0.63(d)

About 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.

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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsvii
1.Luc3
2.Finding My Piano20
3.The Stingl Arrives33
4.Madame Gaillard42
5.The One That Fits48
6.Miss Pemberton58
7.Jos64
8.How It Works74
9.Fall Boards85
10.The World Becomes Louder95
11.Lessons111
12.Cafe Atelier120
13.Un Match Amical129
14.Tuning142
15.Le Mot Juste158
16.Schola Cantorum169
17.Smoking Gun182
18.The Deal193
19.Beethoven's Piano200
20.Master Classes208
21.Play Is the Soul of the Machine225
22.Fazioli235
23.Mathilde251
24.Another Dream Piano266
Sources269

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 of friendship? 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?

Foreword

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?

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Margaret-J. on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Thad Carhart is an adult American, returned to Paris where he had learned to play the piano as a child. He is married to a French woman and lives with her and their 2 children in a traditional Parisian neighborhood or quartier. But he is a outsider, in a way, even though the children attend a near-by school, and he shops in the local market and he has business dealings throughout the neighborhood.. It is his quest to find a piano and resume his love of playing that makes him a part of his neighborhood....for American ways are different from French ways and as he learns about the French point-of-view, so does the reader. He does find a piano, but so much more. A delightful read....
JMBLibrary on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I loved this book and did not stop reading it!
SqueakyChu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
While strolling to take his children to school in Paris, an American gentleman becomes intrigued with a small shop that displays piano parts in its window. The story of how he discovers that there is more to this small shop than of what he was first aware is what brings this book alive. It's a tale of piano history, piano mechanics, piano care, life in Paris, and friendship. Luc, the new owner of this shop, welcomes the American into the back of his store and helps him become more accepted by his French neighbors through a reawakening interest in playing a piano. A lovely book!
samfsmith on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very enjoyable memoir that chronicles the author's relationship with the piano, a particular piano that he purchased, and the the owner of the Paris shop where he purchased it. Along the way we learn about piano history and construction, piano performance, and the quirks of the residents of Paris. A lot of fun to read for anyone with an interest in pianos or Paris.
CarolynSchroeder on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had the wonderful fortune of popping this book in my suitcase before a quick trip to Paris. What a great little book that says so many things about so many things! At its core, it is the author's "re" discovery of his love of piano, both playing the instrument and the its origins and history. He begins his journey towards this passion by meeting a really interesting gentleman, Luc, who runs an "atelier" or open studio that at first blush, is about repairs of same. But it is so much more. I think this is a discovery for the reader, so describing too much would take away the beauty. However, the story touches on what it feels like to reconnect with a passion (it could be any one really, painting, drawing, other instruments) as an adult, both the hurdles and the wisdom therein. Also, it's about finding joy with others in something you just really love to do. I took a LOT away from this little book and I thank the author for sharing his path through this quiet, rather reclusive world of deep-feeling music/piano lovers in his neighborhood, and a bit beyond.
baswood on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A memoir of an American resident in Paris during a two year period in the 1990's.A memoir writer who has no celebrity status and who has not lived through newsworthy world events, must either have an interesting story to tell or must bring something else to the table. Thad Carhart's story is not particularly exciting: he discovers an old piano shop near where he lives in Paris and then negotiates his way around the peculiarly french way of doing things to buy a piano, have it installed, and arrange for lessons for himself and his daughters. Not enough to sustain a 268 page book. The extra things that Carhart brings to the table are: a snapshot of an outsiders struggle to come to terms with the french way of life, a rekindling of a partially forgotten passion to own and play a piano and a sort of potted history and description of how a piano works and is manufactured. These together with some childhood memories are interwoven to fill the required number of pages. This sounds a little negative and although I did enjoy the book I felt it outstayed its welcome by a few chapters.Carhart is at his most interesting when he is describing the "intricate world of mutual trust and obligation" that exists amongst the artisans who live and work in the quartier where he lives. As an outsider he must break through some of the barriers to achieve his aims. For example he must get an introduction from a former client of the piano shop before they will even consider his request to buy a piano. There are so many books on the market about the experiences of English speakers living and working in Europe that it requires something a bit special to stand out from the crowd. Carhart scores here by limiting his canvas to a relatively small area of Paris and by his ability to gain acceptance into the hidden world of the artisans and musicians. His observations ring true and he brings his characters to life on the page: Luc the young patron of the piano shop who steers a course between his love of an unusual piano and the need to sell them to make a living, Jos the eccentric piano tuner living with his alcoholism ticking underneath him like a time bomb and Anna his sympathetic piano teacher.Carhart writes well about the rekindling of his passion to own and play the piano. He comes across as an enthusiastic amateur with a good ear who wants to feel the music. He wants to discover for himself the qualities needed for a great piano player and a great piano. He learns all he can from his repeated visits to the piano shop, his lessons with Anna and his attendance at some master classes. He explains in loving detail how a piano works and relates many anecdotes from the artisans on how they should be made and restored. Some technical details are necessary for the reader to understand some of the conversations with the artisans and on the whole Cathcart makes a decent fist of explaining these for the general reader. He is not so good at an attempted potted history of the instrument and his attempts made my eyes glaze over at times. The frequent discussions of the various piano makes/brands and their relative worth were also a little dull.Carhart writes well enough in an easy flowing style, but when he needs to move into another gear to demonstrate his passion and enthusiasm, it is not quite there. There is no poetry in his prose. He lacks the ability to raise the quality of his writing to turn a good read into an exceptional one. He comes across as a regular likeable guy, but seems to lack a sense of humour. perhaps he takes himself too seriously. I can just imagine the patron of the piano shop when he is together with his cronies spotting Thad about to pop in saying "here comes that American again whose writing that book, nice enough guy, a bit intense and no joie de vivre
Pool_Boy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A great, quick, interesting and enjoyable read. It really lured me in with the descriptions of Paris and the pianos. Well written and recommended.
jwhenderson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A delightful and even captivating book especially for those who enjoy playing or listening to the piano. The author has an engaging style and a beautiful story about the spirit of a place that seems almost like a fairy tale in the telling. The book certainly rekindled and expanded my own love for all things pianistic.
asphaltjunkie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was a pleasant surprise. I started taking lessons at 6 and grew up playing the piano and not having one in the house has made me a little lazy in my practice, but reading this book renewed my passion, not only for the piano, but for music in general. It's a quick read and definitely one worth checking out...particularly if you already love music and appreciate a well-made instrument!
willoughby on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book is a gift to anyone who treasures good writing. I have never played the piano in my life, but even the chapters dedicated solely to the instrument (as opposed to those on life in Paris) were still interesting to me due to the quality of the writing.This book would make an excellent gift for anyone you know who likes music, travel, or just good writing.
safetygirl on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
i always avoided practicing piano as a child and never really developed a love for playing the instrument, but i love hearing it played - especially in jazz. this book helps you develop a love for the craftsmanship that goes into making pianos.
clothingoptional on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I don't know a thing about music, but I loved this book. Carhart is a writer who rekindles a love for the piano in Paris. However, the book is about more than just playing piano or the atelier of the title. It's about friendship that extends beyond the casual, everyday feelings people have for one another and dives into the cosmic bonds that form between old souls.Ok, perhaps that's a little deep, but this book works on several levels.
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago