Standing in line to vote on Tuesday here in DC (took me about and hour and a half, DC went 93% for Obama) I noticed the woman in front of me reading one of my favorite books. Thad Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank. This memoir tells the story of Carhart’s life in Paris and his quest for the used piano that would be perfect for him. As he tells the story of an invitation-only piano shop he also gives a bit of a history of the piano and piano manufacturing. Although I am not much of a fan of non-fiction–I feel like I got enough of that in college and graduate school–this book is the perfect combination of Paris, music, gossipy details, and a nod to a more interesting, more romantic past.
One of the more fascinating things described in the book is the diversity of piano manufacturers that used to exist when home pianos were as commonplace as TVs (at least among those who could afford them). Carhart also describes how manufacture differed from country to country and company to company, evident in design, finish, size, and sound.
Since reading the book, I can’t pass a piano without checking it out to see who made it. Of course the usual suspects show up a lot (Steinway, Yamaha, etc.). But I am also amazed at the variety of names I have come across. The dustier the piano the more likely it is to be some long-forgotten manufacturer. I love to think about the history of these instruments. Who made it, where it came from, where it lived through the years, who has played it. I love the variety in the same way I love regional differences in language, food, customs, aesthetic sensibilities, etc.
In some ways the global, and now Internet-connected, market offers us access to a seemingly infinite world of choices in information, services and goods. Yet it also brings with it a cycle of consolidation that threatens regional diversity and ultimately limits choice. I’ll never forget the first time I bought Baci chocolate in Italy thinking it would make a unique gift for friends and family back home only to find it for sale in the Marketplace section of the Dayton’s Department Store in Minneapolis. (Now that I think of it, that example has an added layer of consolidation—Dayton’s become Dayton-Hudson, became Marshall Fields, became Macy’s.)
There are certainly still industries that buck the trend—or at least support a dual track with mass market on one rail and niche market on the other. Wine production comes readily to mind. In addition to the big guys that you find everywhere, there are so many smaller wineries that you never seem to see more than once or in more than one restaurant or shop unless you really try and hunt them down. Perhaps this is what makes a trip to Napa or Chianti or the Yarra Valley so fabulous.
Morals of the story:
1. Diversity is good (pianos, wine, Presidential candidates, etc.).
2. Paris is fabulous.
3. (Red) Wine is good (special shout out to New World Pinot Noir).
4. I like to read.
5. I like to live in the past.
6. I don’t always know how to end my blogposts.