Tuesday, May 6, 2008

My first visit with a piano retailer

The Fine Arts Building is one of the ancient structures on south Michigan Avenue. Everything about the building is old, from the mosaics on the walls and floors, to the single working elevator staffed by an actual elevator operator, an elderly Polish gentleman who spoke enough English to know which floor you wanted. There were giant paintings, landscapes mostly, in the lobby and stairwells. There is a ballet studio, yoga studio (I was surprised at how many mats they cramped into a small space… yoga must be a friendly thing), coffee house (natch), full size auditorium, and music shops for every imaginable instrument. Supposedly, the Chicago Aeolian showroom took up the entire main floor back in the day.

Pianoforte Chicago is on the 8th floor of this building. I got off the elevator, ignored the urge to tip the elevator man, and started looking for… Lord knows what I was looking for. I only knew PFC (there, now spell checker will stop heckling me) was on the 8th floor, and they had Faziolis. While I wandered the halls, I heard a very good flutist practicing, and a not-so-good violinist practicing. I noticed the floors, all hardwood, had really skinny (maybe 1 inch?) planks, and figured they had to be original. Then I found it:

Pianoforte Chicago
Business hours: Thursday and Friday, 2 PM to 4 PM
And by appointment

It was Tuesday at 1:26 PM (not business hours, unless my math failed me), and yet the door was open. I walked in, found a guy on the phone, who made that “Just a sec” motion. This gave me a moment to look around. I was in an office that looked and felt like a college professor’s. The next room over, where the guy was on the phone, was a much larger room, about the size of a half volleyball court. In the back of the room were a couple of shiny grand pianos. Then a bunch of chairs (40, I’d guess) arranged in auditorium style, all facing towards a stage in the front of the room. On which sat a shiny… no, that doesn’t do it justice… gleaming Fazioli grand. I’d bet it was about 7 feet or so. For a moment, I wondered what Little Brown Jug would sound like on it, but then I snapped to my senses. I wasn’t going anywhere near that thing.

He got off the phone and asked if he could help me. I told him I would tell him my situation, and he could decide that himself. So I described our situation in brutal, detailed, shameless honesty:

Daughter and I have been playing three months on the grandparents’ ancient upright… younger siblings will begin piano lessons in future years… building a house… upright isn’t going to make the move when we close in July… thinking of a digital… or a used Japanese upright… or a new Chinese upright… been reading the Larry Fine books… In our situation, what would he recommend?

The gentleman’s name is Thomas Zoells, and his outfit is basically a one man show. On the pianoworld.com forums, Thomas has an absolutely sterling reputation. (We seem to be blessed with a number of really good retailers in the Chicago area, now that I think about it.) It’s arguable that this level of transparency isn’t the best way to begin a relationship with a piano retailer. But in this case, I didn’t see the harm. I truly wanted him to give me an opinion about how best to proceed, given our situation. If, in the process of doing so, I got the feeling I was being steered improperly (I think I have good instincts for this sort of thing), I could always push back. As it turned out, this wasn’t an issue.

PFC does indeed sell a Chinese upright, Wendl & Lung. It’s a 48” studio made for (read: voiced and prepped for) the European market. They are not distributed in the US except by him. (Although, curiously, ANRPiano, the folks selling that Astin-Weight on eBay, also claim to sell Wendl & Lung… maybe they get away with this because they aren’t really a retailer? I’ll get back to you on this.) We talked a little bit about the relationship between W&L and Hailun. On the pianoworld forums, I have previously read that W&L and Hailun pianos are identical, made side-by-side in the same factory, and then re-badged depending on the destination. Thomas didn't agree with this, and argued that the W&L uprights have some… how did he put it...? “Bells and whistles” that the standard Hailun doesn’t get. But most importantly, the W&L pianos get voiced in a special way, to make them more agreeable to the Europeans comprising the target market for these pianos. Thomas said that W&L have a much mellower, considerably less bright tone than the regular Hailun uprights. (I think the world “shrill” came up about this point...) “Remember,” he said, “these pianos are not targeted for the American or domestic Chinese market. Hailun is, and they are going for a very different sound." This, in the parlance of my industry, means the voicing is not a bug, but rather a feature.

The price conversation on his W&L uprights starts at $5,000. Then he began talking about upgrading (see! Didn’t I mention this last time?). He has a lineup of European makes at various price points, starting with Vogel, going to Schimmel, and moving on up to a Grotrian that could set me back $35,000. If I had to find a fault with Thomas, it would be how quickly the conversation turned from the entry-level instruments I wanted to see and talk about, and towards the pricier (and, one assumes, more profitable) models. He said something like "There are sounds you can make with those better pianos that you simply can't coax out of these other brands we've been talking about." But I’m picking nits here… I would probably do the same thing, just to be sure it was a feasible option for my prospective customer.

I told him I wanted to try one of these out, but I wanted my daughter to be there with me. I figure if she is part of the process of selecting the next instrument, it increases her sense of ownership, and hence, commitment, not that this is a problem at this point. (Of course, if I end up buying something on eBay, there goes that good idea.) He agreed, and I told him I would get back with him once school was out. Maybe we’ll pay him a visit in June.

Thomas seems like a good guy. He isn’t a lifer in this business… he was a banker before, but opened this shop because he’s always loved music. Given the brands he carries, and the overhead of maintaining retail space in one of the most expensive addresses in town, I don’t have any delusions about scoring the “best” price from him. But he seems trustworthy, which is worth something.

Next probable retail visit: aforementioned ANRPiano. I may stop by there on Friday.

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