The Piano Mover
Chau-Giang Thi Nguyen, a concert pianist and artist who goes by “Coco,” moved into a new Soho duplex this spring that offers a dream layout for any New York City musician. At the front of the apartment, a row of double-length bay windows stretches the height of both stories, pouring light into a hardwood-floor alcove just wide enough to accommodate Nguyen’s sleek black Steinway Model B grand piano—the perfect spot to sit and practice for her Carnegie Hall solo debut this fall.
However, as in so many seemingly perfect New York City apartments, there was one rather daunting hurdle standing in the way of her grand vision: stairs.
Many moving companies refuse to handle pianos altogether, afraid of being blamed for damaging an expensive instrument as it twists and turns through doors and across hallways, up and down creaky stairways, its hundreds of tiny, ancient parts jumping and jiggling around inside. Instead, movers will often decline to even touch a piano, simply instructing clients to “call the piano guy.”
The piano guy is Carl Demler, a 76-year-old German immigrant who is one of the last remaining New Yorkers practicing a once common trade: the delicate, and perhaps unenviable, craft of piano moving. At Nguyen’s home last spring, Demler amounted to an unlikely sight—a thin, white-haired chief quietly but firmly directing his crew of burly men as they struggled to coax the Steinway into cooperation.
“Two inches by two inches” whispered Demler, guiding his team of four up the staircase at a snail’s pace, eyeing each corner of the hefty instrument as it just barely squeezed through. This was no surprise to Demler, who had closely measured both the staircase and the instrument, and knew exactly how much room he needed at every juncture.
“In my 39 years of experience, I have been wrong twice,” Demler asserts proudly, speaking in the Midtown office overlooking his store, Beethoven Pianos. “And we have moved more than 50,000 pianos.”
Born in Munich in 1936, Demler has the air of an old world businessman: composed, direct, polite-to-a-fault and exquisitely suited. He speaks slowly and softly, but always confidently, with just a wisp of a German accent. Demler played the piano himself as a child, but was never particularly serious, opting instead to train as a gymnast. After university, stints as a chef and high-end hotel manager took him around the world, from Switzerland to the Philippines to the U.S. In a rather surprising twist—especially if you know him today—Demler took up “a little bit of the hippie thing, with long hair and everything, not really doing too much” after leaving the hospitality industry in the 1970s. But happenstance led to a career that would last the next half-century.
“I inherited two pianos, which I was foolish to take because they were in terrible shape,” recalls Demler. “I rented a truck to move them, and it was the guy who helped me out who said I should be a mover.”
“In those days I was pretty strong,” he says. “I remember I went to the Y once and lifted close to 1,000 pounds. I’m an ex-gymnast, so balancing for me is very easy. [The mover] saw that I was both strong and balanced, so he said to me, ‘Why don’t you become a piano mover?”
At that time, “piano moving was a busy, busy business,” Demler continues. “There were a number of companies that were pretty good at moving pianos, but there was lots of business to go around. He was just a regular mover but also pretty good at pianos, so I started helping him, and he taught me the basics.” A few years later, Demler founded a company of his own, receiving a contract from the City of New York to move all of the pianos in Board of Education buildings. “In those days,” he says wistfully, “each school had at least one, two or three, maybe even ten pianos.”
(Piano ownership has since plummeted. According to the Bluebook of Pianos, sales of new pianos in the U.S. have declined almost every year of the last three decades, falling from 282,000 in 1978 to just 62,500 in 2007.)
As the business grew, Demler rented a storefront near his Upper West Side home and expanded into selling the instruments as well. Gradually, he began stocking the most expensive brands and moved into a larger location on 58th Street’s “Piano Row.” Today, Demler’s Beethoven Pianos is one of the city’s preeminent piano purveyors, stocking instruments that retail for tens of thousands of dollars, and filling a 34,000-square-foot warehouse in the Bronx. His music-world clientele—who have ranged from Leonard Bernstein to Bono and Bjork—are largely unaware that Demler got his start not as a musician, but as a mover.
“Everyone in the New York music world loves Carl,” says Nguyen, the concert pianist. “Any musician is picky about who touches their instrument, but I would always trust Carl.”
That move was hardly the most finagling that Demler has had to exact over the course of a four-decade career in a city infamous for its mouse-like abodes. He has knocked down walls and lifted pianos by cranes and through windows. He has carried a grand up ten flights at the Ansonia Hotel. Demler has even transported a piano by boat to Liberty Island for a Bicentennial concert.
“Once we were called to move a concert piano out of a 17th-floor apartment building, but it wouldn’t fit in the elevator,” Demler remembers. “We considered hoisting it out the window, but that costs a lot of money, because you have to close down the street and rent a crane.”
Instead, Demler opted to strap the piano to the top of the elevator car, bringing it down through the shaft, which gave him a few more inches to work with than inside the elevator itself.
“We did that quite a few times back when we started, but now buildings won’t let you do that,” he says with equal parts nostalgia and outrage.
On another occasion he hoisted a piano onto an apartment building’s roof, then carried it across to the adjacent property so as to take advantage of a wider staircase.
Recently, Beethoven Pianos received a call from a Park Avenue psychiatrist who was moving out a Mason & Hamlin BB—one of the heaviest pianos made. After two unsuccessful tries by his crew, Demler himself arrived to take a look.
“My guys weren’t able to figure it out, because they didn’t have the right angle,” says Demler, who remembered that he had actually moved the same piano into the building ten years earlier. He pointed out the proper angle at which to tilt it, succeeding on his first try.
These days, piano moving makes up a much smaller segment of Demler’s business than it once did. As interest in playing the once ubiquitous instrument dwindles—and many pianos end up at the dump—there simply aren’t enough pianos in the city to support an entire business.
“A generation or two ago piano lessons were a must,” laments Demler. “The kids have so much more to say about how they spend their time now. They can’t be persuaded by their parents to take piano lessons, so people don’t keep pianos.”
Still, Beethoven receives calls at least once a week about piano moves, which start at $250, and Demler insists on retaining that part of the business. Even as he nears his 80s, retirement is not exactly at the front of his mind. He hopes to soon buy a crane, which would ease some of those thorny upper-level moves.
A few weeks ago, as the slow summer season neared its end, Demler said he had no moving jobs on the horizon. But he was keeping busy formulating one plan to escort a piano to his daughter in Pittsburgh, and another to deliver a baby grand to a goddaughter in Chicago.
“We just sold a piano for $38,000, so piano moving is not really essential to us anymore,” Demler said. “But most other movers, they won’t touch a piano. If I don’t do it, who will?”
* * *
Brendan Spiegel is Narratively’s managing editor. He has written about food, travel, politics, and life in New York City for The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, The Village Voice and Wired, among other publications.
Senait Debesu is a recent Tufts University graduate whose photography has appeared in GlobalPost, among other publications. She is a Narratively intern.