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Venerable Craft Plays to a Larger Clientele : Small business: Violin repair has changed little in 300 years. But a Glendale shop is seeing increasing demand, reflecting a nationwide trend.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Thomas Metzler sits in his repair shop, an 1857 Vincenzo Postiglione violin balanced on his knee. He twists an ebony peg on the $60,000 instrument and plucks a string, sending a sour E-flat through the warren of nine rooms that make up his Glendale shop.

“Needs more work,” said Metzler, wiping a dusting of rosin off the violin’s fingerboard.

Violin repair hasn’t changed much during the past 300 years, as evidenced by his company, Thomas Metzler Violin Maker, a full service shop that sells and repairs about 700 bowed string instruments each year. Varnishes are mixed by hand, basses still require the most extensive repair and hundreds of violins hang from the rafters in tidy rows like so much fringe.

Metzler, 43, who attended the Bavarian State Trade School for Violin Making in Mittenwald, Germany, in the mid-1970s, launched his business in 1979 with former partner David Rivinus. Repairing instruments soon took up most of their time, replacing what Metzler calls “the more romantic notion” of building violins, a labor-intensive task.

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Thomas Metzler Violin Maker is one of half a dozen violin shops in Los Angeles. Metzler’s nearest competitor, Studio City Music, builds about 10 stringed instruments each year in addition to doing repair work. Other makers, like Studio City resident Ivan Zgradic who builds $12,000 violins that are sold at Metzler’s shop, work at home.

Metzler’s customers vary from students who are studying violins to members of local orchestras. Besides selling and repairing instruments, Metzler also sells music stands, tuning forks and books. His revenues have grown steadily--from $9,000 in his first year to $750,000 last year, he said.

About 80% of Metzler’s profits come from the sale of instruments, although his five-person staff devotes only 20% of its time to instrument sales.

“I know this sounds really backward, but 80% of our time is spent repairing and maintaining instruments,” said Metzler, who took 12 years of violin lessons as a child in Ames, Iowa. “We should really hire a full-time salesperson, but if I hired anyone, it would be someone to do more repairs. There are a whole lot of things that can go wrong with an instrument. Repairing them has to be the focal point of what we do.”

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Professional musicians spend up to $2,000 each year to maintain their bowed string instruments in concert form, said Metzler, who services about one-third of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s string section, as well as most of the Pasadena Symphony’s violinists.

Violin making and repair has seen an upsurge in the past 15 years, according to Costa Mesa-based American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers.

Twenty years ago, there were no violin making schools in the United States. Now four exist--in Pennsylvania, Boston, Chicago and Salt Lake City.

Last year, in response to the sluggish economy, Metzler and his wife, Barbara Don, altered the shop’s image from a traditional dusty violin shop that seems stuck at the turn-of-the-century to an efficient emporium. An inventory management system now links together three Macintosh computers, a credit card machine and a laser printer. Recessed ceiling and track lighting replaced a bulky central chandelier in the shop’s lobby.

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“It’s been a bit slow since 1989, but we felt some pickup this past year,” said Metzler. Musicians usually spot Metzler’s advertisements in trade publications. In a recession, he said, “more people are having their older instruments repaired, instead of investing in new ones.

“People drop in three or four times a week wanting to know what their grandfather’s Stradivarius--which usually turns out to be a German reproduction--is worth. That sort of thing has picked up from three years ago when we got about one customer a week asking that.”

About half of Metzler’s inventory, which includes violins, cellos and basses, is bought and sold on consignment, netting Metzler a fee of 15% to 33% of the sale price. Most of the instruments are European and are priced from $2,000 to $20,000 or more. Lower-priced student models from Korea, Japan and China sell for $350 to $500.

The shop usually stocks one violin dating to the late 1600s priced at $60,000 or more, depending on its condition. His largest stock, from Germany, dates to the late 1800s and from around 1920.

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Bows can also be expensive, sometimes more so than violins. Those made by Francois Tourte, who worked on his tortoise shell mounted, gold-accented bows in the late 1700s, sell for up to $100,000. Metzler, however, has only sold $20,000 bows made by his son, Louis. Most professionals settle for other quality antique bows that cost from $4,000 to $10,000.

Metzler developed an eye for appraising instruments while apprenticing at the Weisshaar violin shop in Hollywood, where in 1976 he met his future business partner, Rivinus.

After three years at Weisshaar, the pair pooled their funds--in Metzler’s case, $4,000 charged on two new credit cards. Their business nearly collapsed the first year from lack of customers. “It was definitely scary. We began to see steady growth during those next five years,” Metzler said.

In 1984, the men moved from their original Broadway location to the current 2,300-square foot building on Central Avenue. Rivinus left that same year to pursue a maple syrup business in Vermont.

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One of Metzler’s first customers was his future wife, Don, who plays violin for the Pasadena Symphony and handles sales. Don rented a teaching studio across the hall from the shop, but gave that up after her two daughters were born.

Metzler got his start in violin repair at a summer job in Cleveland, Ohio. “I had read some romantic novel about Stradivari that got me going,” Metzler said.

“Then I met three young Germans who worked at the shop. They had just graduated from Mittenwald. They showed me pictures and told stories about cycling around the Alps with cellos strapped to their handlebars. It was then that I fell in love with the idea of making violins.”

In 1972, Metzler quit the University of Iowa where he was studying music and traveled to Mittenwald with $200 in his pocket. Four years and 10 handcrafted string instruments later, Metzler was graduated with a journeyman certificate from the 120-year-old school, famous for turning out quality craftsmen.

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“Violin making is exciting and would be my preference,” Metzler said.

“But it takes six or seven weeks of full-time work to make one. In the shop’s early days, we set aside each Wednesday to build instruments. That’s not possible today. But someday, maybe when I retire, I’ll go back to making violins.”


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