The Squeezebox Surgeon
By COREY KILGANNON JAN. 11, 2018
Guenadiy Lazarov left his physics career to follow his passion: selling and repairing accordions. Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
As a child growing up in Bulgaria, Guenadiy Lazarov was mesmerized by great accordionists tearing off serpentine melodies over uneven Balkan rhythms, as they played for tips at weddings and parties.
“The accordion was king — there was a special respect for the instrument in our culture,” said Mr. Lazarov, who runs one of the last accordion repair shops in the New York City area.
The Accordion Gallery, his small showroom and repair shop in a nondescript house in New Jersey, is where many of today’s accordion kings — from polka stars to Charlie Giordano, an accordionist who plays with Bruce Springsteen — go to have their instruments maintained and repaired.
Mr. Lazarov began playing the accordion when he was 10 and continued to play professionally on the side even while pursuing a career in physics.
In his hands, the accordion seems like some magical music box, but inside it is a complex network of mechanical rods and reeds that can sometimes confound even a trained physicist.
“The more I learn about it, even with my technical background, the more I wonder how it even works,” said Mr. Lazarov, who can spend up to three weeks overhauling a single instrument.
A row of accordion buttons after they have been removed from an instrument. Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Full size accordions can contain up to 500 steel reeds, and a complete tuning can involve filing and shaving each one and then resetting them.
“There are maybe three of us left in the country who really know the art of tuning,” Mr. Lazarov said. “It’s where craft meets art.’’
Mr. Lazarov attaches a row of steel reeds to a wooden block with the help of a sealing mixture of beeswax and resin that he applies with a solder iron.
His wife, Krassi Lazarova, who teaches college physics at Centenary University in New Jersey, has begun keeping bees in their backyard and hopes to begin contributing wax for this process.
The couple met in Sofia, Bulgaria, as students. Soon, Ms. Lazarova was singing in Mr. Lazarov’s band. They moved to Philadelphia and both earned doctoral degrees in physics there.
Mr. Lazarov’s career involved developing and maintaining technology that employed lasers to measure the thickness of microchips.
“I was a physicist by trade and an accordionist by heart,” said Mr. Lazarov, who on the side “followed a dream scenario” to meet and learn from the old Italian masters of accordion repair, including Benny Cintioli in Philadelphia and Charles Nunzio, of Basking Ridge, N.J.
In Mr. Lazarov’s hands, the accordion seems like some magical music box, but inside it is a complex network of mechanical rods and reeds that can sometimes confound even a trained physicist. Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
“There’s a saying in my country: You don’t just pick up and learn this craft — you have to steal it,” said, Mr. Lazarov, who used part of his stipend for doctoral research to buy “my dream accordion,” an old Scandalli Super 6.
He took it to a shop in West Nyack, N.Y., run by another Italian master, Aldo Mencaccini, who agreed to fix it, but was leery about letting Mr. Lazarov hang around.
“He said, ‘It took me a lifetime to learn this and you think you can pick it up by watching me,’” Mr. Lazarov recalled. “Italians are very secretive about this. It’s almost like a tribal knowledge.”
Mr. Mencaccini finally decided to mentor Mr. Lazarov and wound up bequeathing him the toolbox of instruments he had hand-fashioned for specific accordion work.
In 2007, Mr. Lazarov left his physics career and opened his repair shop.
“And now I’m in a unique niche — not that I planned it that way,” said Mr. Lazarov, whose physics background comes in handy, especially when working on the smallest accordion reeds, which are made of steel and can be thinner than a human hair.
Being a musician also helps. Each player favors a different setting. He may adjust a player’s reeds to withstand more air flow, “if they attack the accordion the way I play, the way we play from the Balkans.”
With classical players, the priority is on precise tonality, while jazz musicians want a warm tone above all else. Many polka players want a bright sharp tone.
An Italian master who mentored Mr. Lazarov bequeathed him the toolbox of instruments he had hand-fashioned for specific accordion work. Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
Before repairing an accordion, Mr. Lazarov said he troubleshoots the instrument by playing it for a couple of days.
“I have to get to know the instrument — it’s an intense relationship,” he said, adding that after a repair is complete, he may test the instrument and get lost in the music for hours in his shop, which is decorated with autographed photos of accordion legends such as Guy Klucevsek, Ivan Milev, Bruce Gassman and Alex Meixner.
Mr. Giordano, the musician who plays with Springsteen, said he had difficulty finding a technician who could adequately tune his accordions before meeting Mr. Lazarov.
“Guenadiy immediately related to me as a musician and understood what I wanted, and was able to do it,” he said. “He sees it from the musician’s point of view and also has the skills to really get it right.”
A full tuning and overhaul can cost up to $2,400, he said, “but if I do a small repair for them for free, they’ll sit down and play something,” he said. “For me, that’s priceless.”
Mr. Lazarov also sells accordions, top instruments that are priced from $4,500 to $9,000.
As more accordion shops close, Mr. Lazarov gets busier. His repair schedule is currently booked three moths in advance, he said, but he still agrees to do quick repairs if they are urgent.
“You need to be a little crazy to do this,” he said, to which Ms. Lazarova fully agreed.
“During Oktoberfest,” Ms. Lazarova said, “it really gets crazy around here.”