Jonathan Schofield and the remarkable story of one of the oldest family owned music stores in Europe

“We’ve had loads of musicians buying pianos here,” says Emma Loat (née Forsyth). “There's been Peter Gabriel, Jimmy Page, Gary Barlow, Billy Bragg, Manic Street Preachers, Johnny Marr, Mani and John Squire from the Stone Roses. Victoria Wood too. There have been footballers who want pianos such as David Beckham. One of those footballers was slightly different in approach. He didn’t want a piano."

We’ve diverse qualities. These include our experience, our depth of knowledge, our stock, our history and our integrity.

“Who was that and what did he want?” I ask, intrigued.

“Eric Cantona - and he wanted a trumpet,” says Emma. “It was a bit curious all round. After he was sent off for that 'Kung Fu' incident at Crystal Palace, he had to make court appearances. During one such appearance, he was a no-show. Instead, he was in one of our practice rooms with my dad learning the trumpet. You might have seen him playing it in films.”

This was the case with Ken Loach’s feel-good movie Looking for Eric in 2009.

Cantona Trumpet
Eric Cantona playing the trumpet with "Looking for Eric"
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The piano party on the first floor of Forsyth
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Fixing, polishing, repairing - backstage at Forsyth music store, Manchester

Emma, and her brother Simon, are the fifth generation of Forsyths running the store. This is remarkable in the fickle world of retail. The store has been open since 1857 and is now one of the oldest family-run music stores in Europe. It majors in pianos but has a whole range of instruments on sale too, guitars, brass, woodwind and percussion, plus music scores, CDs and so on.

Forsyth - A Manchester institution

The place is a Manchester institution, a Manchester asset. This was underlined with a viral Youtube clip. Forsyth posts a piano outside the shop for anybody to play. Amateur pianist Christopher Scamp had a go and the clip has been viewed 2m times and counting. The talented Scouser had no instrument of his own so Forsyth rewarded him with an electronic piano.

That's part of the tradition of the store.

“We like to be part of the music community," says Emma. "We have lovely customers, many of whom come in to chew the fat and talk about business or about a concert they saw the night before at the Bridgewater or maybe the RNCM (Royal Northern College of Music).”  

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Heath Robinson art in a room behind the scenes at Forsyth, Deansgate, Manchester
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Emma Loat in front of some of the art admires a window display trophy from the 1920s

We are in a remarkable room. If pianos were sentient, this is what their AGM would look like. The pianos hail from all over the world and come in all shapes and sizes, grand, upright and electronic. The customer base is cosmopolitan too.

Who goes to Forsyth Music Shop?

To a question about where customers come from Emma says: “It’s from across the country, all over the UK. We get a lot of people coming up from London to see the pianos.”

“London?” I say, taken aback. “Surely there are several stores down?”

“Yes, you can go to a Yamaha store, a Bechstein store and so on but we are about much more than pushing one brand. Here you can compare and contrast all the different brands under one roof.”

Forsyth boasts of “the finest selection of new and second-hand pianos for sale in the UK”. This is evident on a backstage tour of the building from Emma. Forsyth fixes pianos, polishes pianos and tunes pianos. As you walk through the workshop there are disembowelled instruments awaiting repair, odd keyboards hanging around, it's a Willy Wonka scene themed on music. 

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The famous Forsyth facade on Deansgate in central Manchester
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A 1752 clavichord lurks in the basement of Forsyth, Manchester

There’s also art and memorabilia. 

The founders, two Forsyth brothers, began the shop in Manchester on St Ann Street. They had come north from London with Charles Hallé assisting the great man as he set up his eponymous orchestra. For decades they were at the heart of how the Hallé Orchestra organised itself and were the ticketing agents until the interwar years. The shop moved to the present site in the 1890s and Emma and Simon’s forbears had the presence of mind to buy the building in the 1930s.

A legacy in Manchester music

As you wander through the back areas you pass portraits and prints of Hallé and other conductors. There's a framed first programme of the very first Hallé concert series of January 1858. Nearby are Heath Robinson designed pen and ink catalogues stacked in one place, oils and watercolours stacked in another.  

“The Forsyth family lived in Sale. Great uncle Algy had five sisters and only one married so when they died most of the pictures came back here and that’s why we have stacks of them. It’s evolved and it's a bit scruffy and a bit real,” says Emma.

There's even a sterling silver trophy from a 1920s Manchester Civic Week for the best window display. 

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The very first programme for the Hallé Orchestra at the Free Trade Hall in January 1858
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John Logie Baird's odd portrait-shaped TV screen in the basement of Manchester's Forsyth

Down in the basement, there’s more treasure including a historic keyboard section with clavichords from the seventeenth century, the first keyboard instruments. One of these dates from 1752 by Haas, a revered craftsman at the time. It’s delightfully decorated in chinoiserie. There’s another upright piano which has recently been on hire to a film company making a movie about Emily Bronte.

Nearby is a real non-musical curiosity. John Logie Baird invented the TV and Forsyth has a first-generation example. Baird’s TVs never took off as he couldn’t effectively commercialise them. Part of the problem was the screens which were, bizarrely, portrait rather than landscape. 

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Scenes in the backrooms of the Deansgate store
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The busy interior of the venerable store on Deansgate
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Charles Hallé pictured in the museum-like warren of backrooms at Forsyth's

There is a cloud on the horizon for Forsyth and its bread and butter income of pianos. 

Bechstein, the German piano company, is due to open a large store on Tib Street in Manchester. It’s a curious decision in some respects. In Germany, Bechstein has been rolling out shops. Aside from those there’s just one more in Paris. Then the Manchester store will open, the only other one in the world outside of Germany. Perhaps Birmingham would have been more obvious where there’s no piano shop but there’s a conservatoire and a large musical community. It feels like Bechstein are targeting Forsyth.

164 years of music - and looking to the future

That’s by the by though, if a rival store is opening here in Manchester, Forsyth has to be fighting fit. Sentimentality over 164 years of existence is ok, but that might not be enough. Emma is aware interior store fittings need some refreshing, being more than four decades old. The website could do with a shake-up too.

“We need to keep innovating,” Emma says, “so we’ve reintroduced the popular fortnightly Friday concert series which is free of charge. People can see the finest up and coming stars here. We’re encouraging more people to come in to use the practice rooms too, take lessons. And of course, as I said before, people can come here and try a range of products not just those from a single manufacturer.”

Emma Loat pauses and considers for a moment.

“We’re more than just a music shop,” she says, “we’ve diverse qualities. These include our experience, our depth of knowledge, that range of stock, pianos, guitars, woodwind, brass, our history and our integrity. We've got to emphasise these qualities, reinforce our position.” 

Forsyth Music Shop, 126 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 2GR, 0161 834 3281. 

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