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New violin shop in Tampa hits the right note

TAMPA

f or new business owners Dereck Coons and Ethan Morency, success is something they can hear.

On most afternoons, their violin shop in Tampa bustles with musicians tinkering with instruments, diagnosing problems and testing out ones they someday hope to have.

The busier the day, the louder it gets — and the more confident Coons and Morency feel about their decision to open a store specializing in string instruments.

"At first we thought we'd be twiddling our thumbs, but we haven't had time for that," said Coons, a professionally trained violin maker. "We've been so busy."

The business partners opened Violin Shop Tampa in August, ignoring family members who warned: "Do you really want to open a business now?" They knew the Tampa Bay area hadn't had a full-service strings store for years and were passionate about helping musicians raise the level of their playing.

Even in an on-demand world, they hoped there was a market for their old-school craft.

They chose a tiny storefront along Henderson Boulevard near Dale Mabry Highway and Blake High School, a performing arts magnet school with a large orchestra program. They hung rows of violins on the wall and lined the front window with big string basses.

Word spread quickly. Musicians started inquiring about repairing their violins or buying new ones. Students and schools called about rentals. Unexpected were the many locals who saw the store sign and brought in instruments that had been stuffed in closets for years.

"There were a lot of people who had been holding on to violins for a long time and didn't know what to do with them," said Morency, 24.

In its first five months, Violin Shop Tampa has sold more than 40 instruments, double what the owners expected, and has been inundated with repairs. About 30 members of the Florida Orchestra have been by to check out the buzz and see what might be done with their instruments.

"String players in the Tampa Bay area have been missing having a shop like this for a long time," said Alison Heydt, a viola player with the Florida Orchestra who teaches violin and viola. "I've been here over 20 years and there has been nothing like this since I've been here. It's great to have them. It saves me a lot of hassle."

David Dillingham, a freelance musician who has been playing on and off with the orchestra since the 1980s, said he used to drive to Gainesville to get his violin adjusted and bows rehaired. Now, he can stay close to home in Tampa.

"Sometimes, I'll drop by just to play the instruments if I'm bored," he said. "They usually have time to address whatever issue I have with my instrument. I'm kind of a violin nerd, and Dereck has a really good eye at seeing different details of the instrument."

• • •

Coons and Morency met in 2005 at Atlantic Strings in Melbourne, one of the largest violin shops in the Southeast. Morency was a longtime apprentice who started sweeping floors at the store at age 13. Coons, a graduate of the renowned violin-making program at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, was the shop manager.

Morency left Melbourne to attend the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he studied finance. Although violins were his passion growing up — he has been playing since he was 8 — he decided a job in banking would be more steady.

Coons, now 39, was looking to open his own violin shop and reached out to Morency to help scout a site in Tampa, a market he knew was underserved. The Tampa Bay area had music stores that sold violins but didn't have a shop devoted to strings with trained violin makers, also known as luthiers. Teaming up seemed like a risk worth taking.

Violin Shop Tampa sells, repairs and appraises violins, as well as violas, cellos and basses — other instruments in the viol family. The owners do "setups" on new instruments to custom-attach the chin rest, bridge, strings, sound post and other pieces. They also do appraisals, sound adjustments and rehair bows.

Most of the store's violins are made in Romania and China and sell for $200 to $12,000 apiece. A few of the most expensive ones are on consignment from John Bean, a violin maker who studied under Coons when Coons was an associate instructor at IU. Coons builds violins on commission for about $4,000, but has been so busy running the shop, his first one won't be finished until April.

The shop stays clear of inexpensive, factory-made violins sold on the Internet that they jokingly refer to as VSOs — violin-shaped objects that often come in pink, green and purple.

Most of the inventory was provided on credit by their former boss and mentor at Atlantic Strings, Allen Gatchell, who also runs a wholesale business. He believed in Coons and Morency and wanted to see the craft of violin-making grow in Florida, which doesn't have a formal luthier school.

"There are a lot of music stores that sell violins but most don't have trained luthiers," said Gatchell, who has owned Atlantic Strings since 2001. "The failure rate is high for any new business but, in this case, they both have good skills and the work is there. I think they are going to do well."

• • •

For violin shops, success revolves around building trust. Like parents of your children, most violinists won't leave their instruments with just anyone, Coons said. Mess with it, and they won't be back.

Nick Ewing, a 19-year-old violin player with the indy rock-pop band Dropin Pickup, heard about the Tampa shop through word of mouth and brought in his violin to see if they could enhance the sound and make his playing more comfortable. The overly high bridge made pressing down on the strings painful.

A few adjustments by Coons, and Ewing is playing at his highest level ever.

"I learn something new every time I walk in there. They really know what they're talking about," he said. "They care about music and they are willing to do everything they can do to make you the best musician you can be."

Violins and the craft of violin-making are enjoying somewhat of a resurgence. Although funding for professional orchestras has declined, the violin remains one of the most beloved and mysterious instruments. Making them by hand is considered an art. The good ones take about 200 hours to build.

"It's an old craft, but it's definitely having a renaissance," Morency said. "With all the computers and TV-watching, working with your hands is something very different these days."

The recession hurt violin sales slightly but boosted the repair business, Gatchell said. People went back to the basics and focused on their priorities.

"When the economy goes down, people like to take a look at what's important to them and what they like to do," he said. ''Playing the violin, like making and restoring them, is something you can't truly master. There's so much there. You're just limited by your imagination."

Buying a high-end violin isn't usually done on a whim. For many professionals on a tight budget, their violin costs more than their car. Upgrading can be expensive but necessary. The difference between a $6,000 and $12,000 violin, while barely noticeable to the untrained ear, can make the difference between second and first chair for an orchestra player, Morency said.

Mark Ramey and his 16-year-old daughter, Cameron, were looking to upgrade her violin when he drove by and saw the new violin shop. They went in to inquire about a violin and bow Cameron had found in her grandmother's closet. It had belonged to her late great-grandmother and probably hadn't been played for more than half a century.

Coons wasn't too impressed by the violin, but the bow made his jaw drop. It appeared to be from Victor Fetique, a prominent French bow maker in the early 1900s. Even better, it was in near perfect playing condition and had a gold mount, typical to the best work of a bow maker.

Estimated value: $20,000, if not more.

The family plans to keep the bow as a heirloom and is grateful to Coons and the violin shop for uncovering a treasure.

"We had no idea," Ramey said, noting that they thought the bow had been appraised previously. "Not being musically inclined, it's eye-opening when you go to talk to him. It's really fascinating."

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston on Twitter.

New violin shop in Tampa hits the right note 12/20/13 [Last modified: Friday, December 20, 2013 6:11pm]

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