The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier, by Thad Carhart. New York: Random House, 2001. xii + 268 pages + 11-page 'Reader's Guide.' ISBN 0-375-75862-3. Trade Paper, $13.95
Have you ever heard of a Fazioli piano? A Stingl? Neither had I, but you will know all about them, and numerous other makes, when you have finished reading this charming memoir. The author, born in France to a father in the US military, returned stateside for the bulk of his schooling. He attended Yale and Stanford, worked as a consultant in the entertainment industry in northern California, and then left in 1989 to return to France to live and work as a free-lance writer. He resides with his Italian photographer wife Simo Neri and their two children Sara and Nicolas in an apartment on Paris' Left Bank.
Carhart passes a shop daily, when walking his children to school, that rouses his curiosity, to which he eventually succumbs by opening the door. He eventually enters the mysterious world of used piano recovery, restoration and resale by earning the confidence of the shopkeeper Luc, who, in due time, becomes his good friend. Through Luc and by virtue of being out and about, he encounters numerous eccentric people, some neighbors and others in further-flung districts or suburbs with connections to the shop or to the piano, and he deals with other craftsmen in related trades. One introduction leads to another to another, and to the discovery that there are interconnections amongst them all. The reader is introduced to a fascinating and entertaining world and to a milieu where fine craftsmanship still exists and matters.
Carhart decides to take up the piano again, relating in flashback chapters his initial happy experience as a child in France and his unhappy one in the US where competition was too highly emphasized for his taste. He allows himself to be talked into buying a baby grand-the aforementioned Stingl-by Luc although he felt an upright would fit better in his apartment. He recounts the amazing delivery, the tuning, and the acclimation of the instrument. He finds, through a friend, a suitable teacher who later invites him to some most interesting master classes. His children also become interested in playing, and teachers are found in the renowned and legendary Schola Cantorum.
The tuner Jos, who loves his " ballon de rouge ," sleeps in empty trains in the yards (and occasionally wakes up elsewhere!), and rides the metro without paying, is the most colorful character. The Hungarian immigrant teacher Anna is one of the wisest and most charming. Carhart writes: "As we sat in the kitchen she described how, ever since childhood, the world of her piano and her music had always been a place to which she could escape merely by playing the notes. 'Family, politics, adolescent worries, illness-anything at all could be left behind when I entered that special place.' She assured me that the piano still has that strange power for her to transform and to transcend the ordinary world that fills our days. 'Now I perhaps have to be a bit more conscious of the change, to will it to happen, to want to go elsewhere. But I can still do that readily, and once I decide to leave, I'm gone. It's like a train-it leaves the station and you' re already somewhere else.'" Reading the book can have the same effect, as can listening to the piano-or any other music, for that matter.
The Piano Shop. is an easy, delightful, yet informative read, not one you will soon forget, though you may want to reread to recall some of the myriad details. It offers a plethora of trivia about the history, mechanical operation, and manufacture of the instrument, of which we encounter numerous examples of various makes and nationalities, including one from Beethoven's Vienna, some of them in various and sundry states of decay or disrepair. It provides a glimpse of the international nature of the population that inhabits the city of Paris (of the main characters, only a small minority are natives), an insight into the way of life in one of its quartiers, and into the way the French relate to and interact with one another and conduct business. It includes precise, vivid, sometimes dryly humorous descriptions of people, places, and pianos, and countless happenings, by chance or by design. For example, seeing a Fazioli on a rotating display in a shop window, Carhart asks questions, does some research, takes a trip to visit the factory in Sacile, north of Venice, learns that it is arguably the finest, and certainly the most expensive piano made today, plays some arpeggios and chords on one, and listens to its designer play some Chopin. The barely-20-year-old company was founded by Paolo Fazioli, a scion of an office-furniture-making family who, like the author, had a love of the instrument but no desire, for lack of major talent, to attempt a professional career playing it. Combining the knowledge and skills acquired in obtaining his conservatory diploma in piano and his university degree in mechanical engineering, he set out to improve on the instruments with which he was dissatisfied by starting from scratch. There are only some one thousand total of its six models in existence.
Thus, the attempt to satisfy an idle curiosity led the author serendipitously to an entry into a heretofore unknown world, several unexpected circles of interesting acquaintances and friends, and numerous enlightening and rewarding experiences that he would not otherwise have had-not to mention the book itself that resulted from the adventures. This book has something to offer to a broad range of readers including pianists, both professional and amateur, piano dealers and maintenance craftsmen, lovers of piano music, ... and Francophiles. In addition to a pleasant, engrossing read, I can't imagine anyone not also gleaning from its pages something s/he didn't already know.