Henry is a third-generation violin maker. Both his father and grandfather were violin makers in Switzerland. His father brought the business to Seattle in the late 1950s after Henry was born. Henry studied at the Swiss School of Violin Making in Brienz, Switzerland and later in San Francisco, under master violin and bow maker, Frank Passa. He returned to Seattle and ran the family violin business on Capitol Hill for 12 years. While Henry was in school in Switzerland, Debbie worked as a bookkeeper for his father at the shop. Henry and Debbie met when he returned home and have been together since 1975.
Now married nearly 40 years, Henry and Debbie Bischofberger run their own business, Henry Bischofberger Violins, LLC, out of their home in Kirkland. They specialize in violin, viola, cello and bow sales, as well as instrument rentals, appraisals, restoration and repair. They are dynamic world travelers, friends to all, and partners both at home and in the workplace.
“My grandfather was a Violin Maker. My father was a Violin Maker. And I became a Violin Maker. I’ve been in the business ever since.”
Learning a Craft and a Business
When my grandfather started, there were more opportunities to live solely off the income of making and selling instruments. It takes about 250 hours to make a violin. There are a lot of different aspects to it: the setup, the carving, choosing the wood, the varnishing. If you want to make them perfect and do the best you can, then you have to spend that kind of time. As a result, you can make only a few a year. These days, you’d have to charge too much to be successful, so in order to make a living at this we do a lot of other things like rentals, repairs and restorations.
What was it like growing up in the environment of a family business?
Henry: It was unusual. We knew a lot of the musicians who would come in, and families and kids who were starting to learn. I had the opportunity to work in the violin shop, sweeping the floors and doing minor things. That was fun. I had a job even though it didn’t really pay very well. My other friends were parking cars and making more money, but I was learning something.
What made you decide to start your own business?
Henry: Debbie and I started this business seven years ago after I was asked to leave the family business. Family businesses can work really well and sometimes they just don’t. It was kind of rough. I was barely in my fifties, so I was too young to retire. We thought about it and then decided to do the same work I’d been doing. In the last couple of years, our business has grown a great deal. We have 900 instruments out for rental, so in seven years, we’ve added more than 100 instruments a year.
How do you grow your business? Who are your customers?
Henry: The main thing for us is to let everybody who wants to, especially kids, have the opportunity to touch the instruments. We go out to the schools and do what we call “petting zoos.” We bring a little violin, a little cello and a little viola their size so the kids can try them.
Debbie: We also demonstrate violin-making at the schools. The instruments are all hand carved. There are no machines.
Henry: Sometimes kids drag their parents to our place. The kids see someone playing an instrument, and they want to play. They come in here, and I say try each one. Listen to it, and I’ll play it for you so you can see what it’s like. Some of them play for a couple of years; some of them are still playing after 34 years.
Debbie: We are very family-friendly. Our workspace is lined with instruments, and parents are scared that their children are going to break something. But children who come in here halt when they get down the stairs because all of a sudden, they have this respect for the instruments that’s kind of amazing.
Henry: I do get adults coming in to rent instruments who have never played but have always wanted to, or they tried for a year or two in school and want to try it again. Some enjoy it and keep going, and some try it for a few months and say, “Okay, I got that out of my system.”
For repair, it’s usually someone who owns an old one and brings it in. Or they have a new one they’ve damaged. Restorations, of course, would be for mainly older instruments. Generally, a violin stays in pretty good shape if you don’t mistreat it. They can be hundreds of years old and still work perfectly.
Debbie: That’s one of the other things about our shop. Henry is not going to give a kid a beat-up instrument. A child is going to feel comfortable with a used instrument that we have made back to something that looks new. The kids’ eyes just go crazy when they see their instruments without scratches. If Henry gets one that isn’t worth fixing, he’ll say so.
Henry: In some ways it does feel magical because it is unique. It is enjoyable to work on instruments and work with people, and get them instruments that sound good, too.
How do you appraise an instrument?
Henry: I liken it to studying art. If you are an expert who knows Renoir or Gauguin – the colors they use, how they paint their strokes, etc., you are going to know if it’s a fake or not. It’s the same with violins. You learn the schools of violin making. You look at the workmanship. You look at the wood, the color of the varnish; the type of varnish. You see enough to identify individual makers.
Debbie: We do free appraisals because people get taken advantage of all the time. I’ve been with Henry nearly 40 years now, and I don’t know if something is a good instrument. It could be a $100,000 instrument or it could be a $200 instrument, and I wouldn’t know.
The best is when someone will come in to get a verbal appraisal. I will be in the other room with Julie, our office manager. We know the timing. Henry opens up the case and we hear, “Oh, I’m so sorry. This violin is really not worth anything.” But – if a minute goes by and he doesn’t say anything – then we know there is something different.
Like this one time, he asked a brother and sister who had inherited a violin to stay for a while. In fact, he said, “I need some time to look at this,” and had them go out for coffee. He comes and sits down and says, “Debbie, this is worth $75,000.” And I’m saying, “Don’t you dare keep this overnight.” And he did. But how easily he could have said it’s not worth anything.
What’s the best part of having your own business?
Henry: We have the freedom to come and go when we want. We can run the business by appointment, so we don’t have to be here 9-to-5.
Debbie: People stop by in the afternoon when kids are out of school. The parents really like that. If we’re here in the evening, we let them come by then as well.
People don’t like the idea of intruding on us. I’m Italian. If you’re here at dinnertime, you’re going to have a drink and something to eat. Many of the vendors come with their trucks from L.A. or Brazil. We have them come at dinner. They spread their stuff out, Henry makes his purchases, and then we eat. A home is a terrible thing to waste.
How does your business philosophy influence your life philosophy?
Debbie: We have two mission statements for our business. The first one, which is really important, is, “If we weren’t so ethical, we’d make money.” The other one is, “Make lots of money, and go on vacation.”
We’ve created a situation where we don’t have to wait until we retire to do things. We make sure we understand the investment part of it, and we’re very responsible about that. We’re not waiting, and we’re not depleting a supply that would harm our future. There are a lot of people we know who think they need to wait until a certain time to spend their money. I say, you’re going to be dead before then!
We’ve gone to Turkey, Thailand, Croatia and on safari in Kenya and Tanzania. We do a lot of cruising. We’ll go to Hawaii in a couple of months. We go to Mexico and Canada a lot. Just this morning we booked a one-day cruise from Seattle to Vancouver. We love America, too. We took an RV trip across the U.S. last year. We’ve been all over. Whether we’re going to Turkey or just going away for three days in our motor home, we just love it.
If we died today, there isn’t anything we haven’t done. We get this wild hair and we say, “Wouldn’t it be cool to go there?” I have to be careful because if I say, “Do you want to go here?” Henry will say, “Let’s go tomorrow.”
You also make giving back to your community a priority.
Debbie: Yes. We made a decision that we are going to donate to non-profit organizations that are in our field, like choirs or community orchestras, where the players do not get paid.
If there are children who want to play but can’t afford it, we’ll give them a rental for the school year. It takes away our money a bit, but we wouldn’t do it any other way. If the children want to play, we want them to play.
Some married couples could not work together. What’s your secret?
Debbie: We do great together. We have a lot in common. My family were Italian immigrants, and we had bakeries. I am the oldest of five. Henry’s family is European. They came here and ran a business. And he’s also the oldest.
The other thing for Henry and me is, we can’t do each other’s job. I can’t do his job and he can’t do mine. Plus, we have fun together. We talk about everything. I enjoy the business a lot, but I enjoy Henry more.
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Article by Stacey Sanner, photographer and writer. She published her first book of interviews and photographs, "Keeping a Blue Light On: A Citizen's Tribute to the Seattle Police Department," in 2010. You can learn more at www.keepingabluelighton.com.
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