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Paul Wilson: Jack does Joplin 0:31

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Paul Wilson: Jack does Brahms 0:27

Downtown’s Lister Block is a wonderful restoration. There is, however, just one original storefront. There the display windows, the wood-and-glass door, the ornate ironwork – it’s all just as it was in the Lister’s salad days.

That James North storefront, which now showcases pictures of Hamilton’s best old buildings, is part of the new Tourism Hamilton space.

But for half-a-century, Hamilton walked through that door and into the Anne Foster Music Shop. Foster was an accomplished pianist and had worked around the corner at King and John, in the sheet music department at the Heintzman piano store.

In 1942 she opened her own shop in the Lister Block. Pianos were found in many homes in those days, before TV, before digital keyboards. The piano didn’t play by itself. You had to practice – and you needed some sheet music.

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The one orginal James North storefront in the Lister Block restoration was home for about 50 years to Anne Foster Music. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

Anne Foster had that, thousands of pieces. She had some instruments too, and phonograph records. But sheet music was the big seller.

Grandma got a piano

Jack Rousseau, 62, knows all about this.

He grew up in the east end, oldest of four. And when he was eight or so, his grandmother got a piano from a neighbour. Grandma lived just a couple of blocks away, and everyone thought it would be a great idea if young Jack learned to play.

Once a week, he went for lessons with Miss Florence Clarke at the east-end Conservatory. "It was a big old house full of pianos," he says. Other days, he practiced at grandma’s.

Then Miss Clarke devised additional plans for Rousseau. "When I was 12, she press-ganged me into joining the boys choir at Christ’s Church Cathedral."

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The Lister Block in the early 1940s, about the time that Anne Foster opened her music store there. (Local History & Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

He enjoyed that, and discovered he had perfect pitch. "I can sing something out of thin air in the right key."

Charge down the street

But what he liked most was when the boys choir practice wrapped up each Thursday evening around 8.30. "I would literally charge out the door and run down James Street," he says.

Destination – Anne Foster’s. They had a Nordheimer upright grand there. You could pick out some sheet music and try playing it to see if you wanted to take that tune home.

That big piano, music everywhere, Rousseau loved the scene.

But he gave up the piano after getting his Grade 8 at the Conservatory, switched to drums. He had hair down to his shoulders, but often got gigs with lounge-jazz groups – who would ask him to put on a bowtie and powder-blue smoking jacket.

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Young Jack Rousseau gave up the piano, grew his hair and sometimes put on a powder-blue smoking jacket. (Family photo)

Along came adulthood, time to make a real living. For a dozen years, he was a metallurgical chemist at Stelco, then got his own sound business going. He married Diana and settled down.

Time to play again

But as he hit his 50s, he decided he’d like to play the piano again. He asked friend Ron James, a pro pianist, where to find one cheap.

That led Rousseau to an apartment on the second floor of an old house off Stinson. The fellow was moving, had a vintage piano that he wanted to go to a good home. No charge.

Rousseau started to play it. "It had exactly the feel I was looking for."

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Those fingers don't fly quite the way they used to, but Jack Rousseau can still give the old Nordheimer a good workout. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

And then he learned the story.

Anne left suddenly

Anne Foster had a heart attack in her store in 1969 and never returned. But a fellow named John Taylor, who been with her for years, took over. And he ran it until 1995, when owners of the Lister kicked everyone out. They wanted to tear the place down.

And the Nordheimer, built well at the Toronto factory in the 1930s, went to that fellow in the second-floor apartment. With a promise to play it and enjoy it, he got it free.

In turn, on the same terms, he turned the piano over to Rousseau. That was about 10 years ago.

Rousseau’s fingers don’t work the way they used to. But there is still joy in making that instrument sing. From Brahms Waltz in A Flat to Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag, he enjoys them all.

He has not visited the restored Lister Block. He doesn’t need to. For him, the magic it held lives right in his living room.

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca@PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.