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The 12,477th piano to come through the dusty Kluttz Piano shop is a real clunker. My middle finger strikes a key, which should strike the whippen, which should strike the

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The 12,477th piano to come through the dusty Kluttz Piano shop is a real clunker. My middle finger strikes a key, which should strike the whippen, which should strike the

Keys to the Past

The 12,477th piano to come through the dusty Kluttz Piano shop is a real clunker. My middle finger strikes a key, which should strike the whippen, which should strike the jack, which should strike the hammer, which should strike the strings. But at every point along the musical journey, corrosion grips the vital organs, so that the strings don’t vibrate, the hammer doesn’t pivot, the jack doesn’t push, the whippen doesn’t raise, the key doesn’t depress, and my middle finger doesn’t produce a note.

If a piano’s reason for being is to play music, this one — a century-old Kranich and Bach — serves no purpose. A fire left it useless. Of what value is a charred wooden box of strings, flanges, pins, and screws?

That depends. See, that fire burned down a house one night. That house belonged to a person. That person had pictures, letters, and tangible memories of her late mother. Those tangible memories became ashes. But not the piano. Long ago, when the woman was little, her mom put her middle finger on that key, pressed it, and made music. She wants it to happen again.

Piece by piece, the Kluttz family will deconstruct, reconstruct, and save it. Just like they’ve done with the first 12,476 that have come through this dusty shop. (Story continues below the video.)

Video produced for Our State by Jonathan Weaver. To view additional Our State videos, click here.

Well, most of them. Sometimes people forget, or don’t care anymore, or can’t afford to care anymore, and their memories go out back in storage. We’re funny about really old things like that. Sometimes we’ll find the stepstool we once used to reach the cookie jar, romanticize about it, and have to have it. Then we can’t find a place to put it, we stub our toe on it while we grab a cookie that we’re now tall enough to reach on our own, and we give the darn stool away, convincing someone else to take it solely on the basis that it’s really old.

For more than 75 years, the Kluttz family has worked in that area between what’s memorable and what’s just plain old. In two warehouse-sized buildings along U.S. Highway 52 in Granite Quarry, they have pianos. And piano pieces. And pieces of piano pieces. They cover the concrete floor. They press against the brick walls. They stack to the wooden ceiling. Some will be restored. Some should be. Many will just sit, dust covering the fingerprints of forgotten memories left on every key.

• • •

Portraits of preservation

In the main shop, the clock is still. It’s 1:02 now. It was 1:02 a half-hour ago. It’ll be 1:02 a half-hour from now. Jonathan Kluttz rarely stops, though. He’s holding pieces of an organ that came in the other day from Pennsylvania. He’s thinking about how he’ll strip off the wood, place it into tubs of nose-splitting acetone, then refinish it to make the wood skin shine again so they can work on the guts — the parts that play the music. Built in the 1800s, the organ will go into a historical house when it’s refinished.

Looking through glasses that slide down his nose, Jonathan holds a piece of the organ, shakes it, and knocks on it. “You just think about it sometimes,” he says. “In 1887, some old man glued these boards together.”

Reverence and appreciation drip from Jonathan’s words. He’s the third-generation owner of Kluttz Piano Company. He’s a busy man, always up for anything. He and his wife have one adopted son, and they care for two foster children. His schedule is never set, but always full. He worries about the clutter in the shop, but he has trouble letting go of things; in fact, he’ll drag in two more pianos today, even though he doesn’t have anywhere to put them.

A couple days back, he tried to do some housekeeping in the main office. He picked up two pieces of cardboard protecting a picture — a portrait of his grandfather, from World War I, with the words “FRAGILE” and “PICTURE” scribbled on it in black permanent marker — and accidentally threw it all away.

Jonathan’s dad, a soft-spoken 82-year-old man named Ray who owned this dusty shop for years, came in the next day and hunted for the picture under layers of crinkled receipts and business cards. Ray muttered, thought he lost it, thought he was losing his mind, then asked his son if he’d seen it.

“Oh, that?” Jonathan responded. “It’s on the trash. I’ll get it.”

Ray holds up the picture again. “I wrote ‘Fragile’ on it,” he says, running his finger on the cardboard. “You see that, right?”

Jonathan doesn’t have time for this. There’s a delivery to be made. A couple in China Grove bought a new piano and wants their two old ones hauled away to be forgotten. Jonathan searches for his keys and the invoice book, tossed somewhere in the clutter. His cousin Paul, a more subdued Kluttz with a salt-colored beard, shakes his head as Jonathan swirls around the office. Tuner Roy West, a church-going man with magical fingers who’s been with the company so long he may as well be a Kluttz, reminds Jonathan that he has other appointments to make.

It wouldn’t be a day with the Kluttzes without taking a juvenile stab at their name: Kluttz. It’s OK to giggle. They don’t mind. Actually, they play it up, to customers, family members, waitresses at restaurants: “We’re Kluttzes. You’ll have to excuse us.” It’s a joke as old as recess.

But that’s only the surface image. A deeper perspective lies beyond their smiles, jokes, and clutter, back in the shop. It’s found in number 12,477, the clunker that should be in a junkyard today, but instead landed here, in this piano rehabilitation warehouse, where the Kluttzes will save it. For all the fun they have, they are experts at restoration. They’re the type of people who can take your broken heirlooms and fix them. They’re the type of people who cling to a family business that depends on people clinging to memories. They’re the type of people who can take a charred wooden box of strings, flanges, pins, and screws and turn it into an instrument that will make your eyes well up if played just right.

They’re the type of people who’ll throw a 90-year-old photo in the trash — and rescue it before it goes to the dump.

• • •

For the family

Whipping around turns on back roads he’s memorized, Jonathan Kluttz dives into his stories. He talks about pianos, furniture, his kids, his family, his granddaddy, the fact that he’s eaten at every restaurant in the state twice, how his daddy likes country cooking on road trips, how business is going, how they once redid a piano for Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, how one of their pianos made it into the movie Lolita, how …

How he missed the turn. Too much talking.

He’s looking for a white house with blue shutters. He drives a white, box-style delivery truck with a tape deck and those old slide-style temperature controls. The windup window handles chirp when he hits bumps. The truck grumbles along on its fourth engine. The odometer only displays five digits, so it resets every 100,000 miles. It’s done that six or seven times already.

It’s an old truck.

Behind him, Roy and Paul follow in a Toyota Prius. It’s a new car.

Often, we assume the past and the present are fixed things, held apart. One may nudge the other, but what’s come before us is gone, and what’s happening now is merely a step toward the future. But these Kluttzes, in their rickety truck and their hybrid car, constantly cross the two.

“I’m stuck between the computer age and my dad’s olden age,” Jonathan says.

Jonathan pulls out the directions, which are scribbled on a wrinkled sheet of paper, and ducks his head to peek at the Prius through his side mirror. He smiles and yanks the truck’s wheel to the right. The handles chirp.

“They’re gonna give it to me, boy,” Jonathan says. “I can’t believe I did that. I should’ve turned back there. Look, they’re laughing.”

These three have worked together for more than 20 years. They act like brothers. Jonathan’s actual brother works for IBM, opting out of the family business. Jonathan, though, will do anything to keep it going. He likes making his own hours, likes being able to take care of the kids, likes not answering to anyone, except his father on occasion. He likes being able to get lost and laugh about it.

He and Paul began working in the shop when they were 10, sweeping floors. Their fathers co-owned the company. Some weeks, they’d repair a dozen pianos. Now, they’re lucky to have more than a couple. Business isn’t great — pianos are luxury items, kids are playing video games, you name the reason. But along these turning back roads is a piece of land that reminds Jonathan why he keeps it going. He brakes as he drives past a cluster of neutral-colored houses crammed on postage-stamp lots.

“There’s the old homeplace. … That’s where Granddaddy and Grandmamma lived.” He turns right, and drives about one-tenth of a mile. “And that’s where Granddaddy died, right on those railroad tracks.”

In 1950, E.W. Kluttz — the man in the portrait from World War I — had been in the piano restoration business about 20 years. He also worked on the railroad. One day, he was on a steam engine coming through the intersection near his house. A state road worker had left a pile of dirt on the tracks inadvertently. The steam engine hit the dirt and turned over.

Ray Kluttz was 23 then. He was walking home from the piano shop when he came upon the overturned train.

“Who was it?” he asked the rescue crews. “E.W. Kluttz,” they told him.

Most of us are pieces of other people — a mother, a father, a brother, a grandfather — all stuffed into one. In reality, Kluttz Piano Company is nothing but two old warehouses stuffed with pieces of piano pieces. But Jonathan holds onto it, because that’s what his father did, and because that’s what the man in the photo did.

“I’ll run the business as long as I can run the business,” Jonathan says.

• • •

Out back, in storage

Back at the dusty shop, Jonathan walks outside and jiggles open the door to storage. A granddaddy longlegs scampers outside, as if he’d been waiting for someone to let him out. Jonathan flicks the switch, and refurbished ceiling fixtures light up a building unlike any other in North Carolina, a 10,000-square-foot musical graveyard.

Pianos are stacked on top of each other. Benches and chairs are clumped in wooden mounds, their legs pointed upward. Parts of the guts — actions, pedals, dampers — are spread in boxes and dangling from the ceiling. The Kluttzes number every piano that comes through here. The most recent is 12,477. Some of these are in the 5,000s. They’ve been here awhile.

Some came from auctions, bought only for parts. Others have been taken away, fixed up, played roles in movies, and returned. Pitched among other people’s forgotten memories are remnants of the Kluttz family story. There are mattresses from Jonathan’s grandparents, a pew from the family’s beach house, some old space heaters, all mixed with the family business.

“I need to clean this place out,” Jonathan says, unconvincingly.

He steps over a board, turns sideways to squeeze through a row of junk, and reaches toward a weathered piano. Frayed and warped wood bends off the side.

“Look at this one,” Jonathan says. “Pianos like this are restored and put in the Smithsonian. I’m not kidding. This is a very unique instrument here. It shouldn’t be stored over here with all this stuff on it.”

Fixed up, it could fetch more than $20,000. There are 400 pianos like that in here. They might be worth millions in all, if people hadn’t forgotten them, and they hadn’t gotten old. Instead, they’re just sitting in a storage building with the granddaddy longlegs.

• • •

Piece by piece

There are 88 keys on a piano — 52 white, 36 black. There are about 250 strings, with sometimes two or three to a key. Back inside the shop, Paul Kluttz tests all of them on a 1921 Story and Clark upright. Paul’s sister’s cat, named Miss Kitty, prowls around, looking for attention. The air system, which keeps them from breathing too much acetone, hisses. The Cheerwine machine, which has a bottle opener but only dispenses cans, hums.

Paul holds a wrench to the pins that hold the strings. One by one, he strikes the keys. He tightens the pins based on the tone. With only his ears, he can get it pretty close to tuned.

Paul is the only employee of the five full-timers who can perform every step of the piano repair process. He spends most of his days back here, with the cat and the Cheerwine, away from the showroom. “We just grew up around it, so you just learn it that way,” Paul says. “Plus, it’s just one of those things. If something’s broke, you take it apart and fix it.”

Once Paul is done with a piano, Roy West tunes it. Roy began taking music lessons in the third grade. He’s in his 70s now. In the dynamic of the Kluttz Piano Company, Paul is the mechanic, and Roy is the romantic. As the tuner, the person who first plays a piano for customers when it lands in their living room, Roy hears most of the praise. Paul stands in the back.

“The combinations of audio frequencies play on the emotions,” Roy says. “I’ve lost count of the number of times I sit down in someone’s home to start playing, and they’ll cry.”

• • •

Making music

Back in the chirping truck, Jonathan has found it, the white house with the blue shutters. It’s a one-story home, with a stoop on the front.

Jonathan backs the old box truck to the stoop. Roy and Paul pull the Prius into the driveway. Eager for the Kluttzes’ arrival are Max and Shirley Vanderburg. They’ve had two pianos cluttering up their living room for years. They bought a new one from the Kluttz showroom, on the condition the Kluttzes take the other two away.

Jonathan, Roy, and Paul load the first onto a cart and roll it toward the door. Jonathan smashes his hand against the door frame. He laughs.
Max Vanderburg does, too: “That first Kluttz must have been something to have a whole personality trait named after him.” Paul Kluttz protests with a joke: “You’ve got us confused. The Klutzes with the one T, they’re the clumsy ones. The side with two Ts is the handsome side.” It’s a joke as old as recess.

They take the second piano out and bring in the new one. When the cover comes off, Roy makes another joke: “I tuned it this morning, and it only plays Baptist hymns.”

“Good,” laughs Max Vanderburg. He’s a retired Baptist minister. The Kluttzes know their customers.

With the new piano in the living room, and the old ones in the truck bound for the granddaddy longlegs, Roy sits down and prepares to make the first fingerprints.

All joking stops. Standing on Roy’s left, Shirley puts her fingers over her mouth as her jaw falls open. On the right, Jonathan catches his breath and checks his smashed finger. Max softly steps toward his wife. Behind them all, Paul looks down at the floor and smiles.

And Roy strikes the key, which strikes the whippen.

This story was published on Feb 01, 2010

Michael Graff

Graff is a freelance writer in North Carolina. He was the executive editor of Charlotte magazine from April 2013 to August 2017, where he remains a monthly columnist. His writing work has appeared in Our State, Washingtonian magazine, Politico, and on SB Nation Longform, along with many others.