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Work

Aged to perfection

He's a real piano man with the hands, stories and graceful beauties to prove it

George Michalski: A fixer, not a player.
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Published 10/1/2008

The main streets of the city are home to scores of little businesses with plain facades and no telling signage — so there's often no way of knowing what's inside.

One such storefront on Detroit's west side hides a sea of grand pianos, some hand-carved, all finely tuned, and each polished to a shimmer.

The place is Forte Pianos. It has sat on Greenfield just north of Joy Road for four decades since founded by Polish-born George Michalski, 76, who rebuilds, refinishes and resells old grands.

Michalski, who's trim, gray-haired and well-dressed, still speaks in a thick Polish accent, delivered with the endearingly quirky phrasing of someone still converting thoughts in their head from their first language.

He chooses to keep the store's identity secret to passersby. "I don't like to open to the public," he says. "For one thing, if you have traffic you have all kinds of stuff — people who wants to buy, people for looking at it, people just looking for problems, especially in this area." In other words, either you already know it's here or you don't.

For years, the piano specialist had a showroom in Orchard Lake and used the Detroit location solely as a repair workshop, but now there's just the little store on Greenfield. He's usually its only employee, though sometimes his wife and a son help out.

He talks of the neighborhood, how it was stable when he moved in but slid downhill as residents fled for the suburbs and businesses hunkered down.

"I had a nice glass window," he says, pointing to the plain front wall. "They started to shoot it." The window was filled in with cinderblocks in the early '80s. Now, when the overhead lights aren't on, it's black as night inside.

Dozens of grand pianos are packed into the stark showroom, a fortune's worth of beautiful instruments. A workshop's in the back, where parts of pianos lie on old wood benches, surrounded by little tools arranged on tables and shelves.

Forte is not for the financially faint-of-heart. Prices on pianos range between extravagantly expensive and utterly unaffordable for the average person, with most priced between $20,000 and $30,000. One piano he carried retailed for a quarter of a million dollars. His store is specifically for connoisseurs, people whose love of fine instruments transcends financial concerns.

Most stocked here are at least a century old, the majority of which are Steinways and Baldwins. One model, a Steinway, stopped production in 1905; Michalski gazes at it with reverence and suggests it might be the oldest in the store.

He says he's been fascinated by pianos since he was a boy in Poland and though he was trained in classical piano, years without practice left him with just enough ability to know whether the piano's tuned properly. "I start to do pianos right when I go to music school," he says. "I spent three years for my first degree. After that I spent another three years for my master's degree, and after that I opened my business. They give me permission to do that kind of work." He started his own piano store in 1954, in the thick of Soviet domination of Poland.

One day, the Communist authorities suddenly appeared at his door and announced that they were taking his enterprise, this after he had just been given permission to start. "When I opened they come to confiscate my business, and they take me to be in charge for government business," he says. "The same kind of music repair shop, but this is government."

Suddenly Michalski was an involuntary state employee, doing the exact same thing as before, but now for someone else. "It was very difficult," he says.

He decided to escape the country. And in a surprising twist of fate, the piano man somehow got mislabeled in government records as Jewish, during a period in 1950s Poland when authorities made it clear that Jewish residents were welcome to leave.

"I'm not Jewish; I'm Pole, and I was surprised," he says. "It was totally legally, without any problems."

He even managed to slip in and out of his home country again. "After about three or four years I go back to Poland to visit my father, but my friend, when he go, they never let him come back out. I was lucky."

He was so well-known in Europe as a piano expert at the time that Steinway & Sons acted as his sponsor in bringing him to New York in the late '50s.

"After that, I transferred to Detroit and I work for Smiley Brothers, maybe you know! If you go close to museum ... there's this castle, 5510 Woodward Ave.," he says, referring to the Hecker-Smiley House on Woodward and Ferry, a French Chateauesque jumble of turrets and gables that's now home to law offices.

"It's some kind of castle," he says. "It was beautiful." After a stint there, he opened his own store on Greenfield Road.

Michalski's not merely a repairman, he considers himself a craftsman and an artist, working with slow hands on century-old pianos so well-taken-care-of that they look new, except that few companies produce such graceful instruments anymore. He points to an elaborately hand-carved, 120-year-old piano as proof. It might be the oldest here, he says.

"Most now are Chinese and Japanese pianos, they're much, much less expensive. But this stuff is expensive. I ordered through Europe and they did this all by hand." He prefers the old pianos, and says they have a purer tone, more elegant veneer and intricately handcrafted engravings, with keys made of ivory.

"This is the oldest piano I have," he says, the third time he's shown off a different piano that he's called the oldest in stock. The pianos surrounding him are all antiques, and in his excitement about this, he can't decide which dates the furthest back. This time it's a 155-year-old square piano made in Austria. His devotion to his cherished instruments is obvious, as is his pride in the restorations he's done.

"I always dreamed to do piano work," he says, "to build pianos and after that to rebuild pianos. Maybe because my father have some knowledge building violins and music instruments. He used to do this too. This has come through my blood."

Forte Pianos is located at 8924 Greenfield Rd., Detroit; 313-835-2540. 4tepiano.com

Detroitblogger John regularly uncovers the city's gems. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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