In the late 90’s when I quit working as an English teacher and enrolled in the Chicago School of Violin Making, there were only three big shops downtown in the Loop. Two of the higher level firms, Kenneth Warren & Son and Bein & Fushi, had dissolved their in-house workshops, creating small satellite businesses that mainly saw to the needs of their former employers. William Harris Lee specialized in hand crafted violins made by its in-house luthiers and student grade items imported from overseas.
Some 15 years later the landscape of downtown Chicago has completely changed. The number of full service shops and craftsmen serving dealers as well as individual musicians has multiplied. There are at least eight larger firms, a few smaller ones, and approximately half a dozen luthiers specializing in repair, adjustment and restoration. With this larger number comes an increased choice of instruments, services, and styles of doing business. The Fine Arts Building, where my shop is located, may be the single largest concentration of people working in the violin business in the United States, if not the entire world with a least four shops, several smaller dealers and luthiers, and a handful of bow and instrument specialists. The building is also home to the last real sheet music shop in the city of Chicago and many music teachers.
There are positives and negatives to this concentration of people working in the same business, in the same place. Musicians can benefit from the convenience of having so many choices so conveniently grouped together while dealers, employees, and luthiers see an increased flow of customers. Personally I like the healthy competition and collegiality that this unique situation can create, but there are inherent hazards as well.
This brings me to the main point of this essay. I’ve noticed some musicians and families seem to regard the conglomeration of shops in downtown Chicago as simply locations where their dream instrument or bow may be stored. The theory seems to be that if they just try out enough instruments and bows, regardless of who is selling them, they will find the one that suits them.
Downtown Chicago is not a violin mall and the different shops and luthiers located in the Loop are not all created equal. There is a wide range of quality, customer service, honesty, expertise and pricing. Please refer to my other essays about the violin business for further guidance, but the message is simple: be discerning and be careful.
The first thing to consider is what you are looking for and what is your economic theory. Are you looking for an expensive, high-quality investment-grade item or something that functions extremely well, is priced fairly and will help you with your playing? Maybe your child needs a student level instrument. Which shops are most likely to carry the items you seek? Next, consider long-term and short-term issues when choosing a shop to purchase something from. Do some research online and ask your colleagues, teacher or other families. Important immediate considerations are function, condition, price and attribution. Long-term issues like trade-ins, warranties and repairs must be considered too. Finally, it is essential that you trust the people you are dealing with and feel like they are treating you fairly.
Purchasing the wrong item from the wrong person can be a devastating experience. Having your instrument or bow worked on by an incompetent craftsman can permanently damage and devalue it as well as cost you tons of money. The violin business is basically completely unregulated, so it is up to you as the consumer to carefully consider your needs, figure out how you plan on meeting them, and to decide on who you would like to deal with. Avoid the mall mentality.