Little Rock Violin Shop at home in central Arkansas
February 4-10, 2019
By Becca Bona
If in a hurry, you could likely miss the quaint building tucked on the corner of 11th and Cumberland Streets in Little Rock. After stepping through the door, however, you’ll find yourself in another world entirely.
The space houses a Renaissance feel – with dozens upon dozens of violins old and new hanging from the high-vaulted walls of what once functioned as carriage stables in Little Rock’s earlier days.
“When I started out, it was very small,” says Little Rock Violin Shop Owner Joe Joyner. “I was just doing bow repairs.”
Now nearing twelve years in business, the shop has grown and continues to do so.
Falling in love with music
Joyner, a native of Little Rock, was immersed in music at an early age. “I started playing in the sixth grade,” he remembers, from his office at the shop. He had wonderful teachers along his journey – Ted Vick, a jazz bass player known for his work with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra (ASO) was a key player early on. Joyner also learned from Jim Hatch – principal bass player for the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra for many years.
“When I was a junior in high school I auditioned for the Arkansas Symphony […] and played with them for two years before I went off to college,” he recalls. “It was a pretty great job.”
Joyner wanted to live in a larger city for college, so he chose the University of Houston, where he studied dual performance.
“Texas has some of the best orchestra programs in the country,” he says. “There were lots of performing opportunities and there was just always lots to do, which was great.”
His freshman year of college he was able to secure a job with the Lyle Violin Shop. When he first started, he was responsible for cleaning the 10,000+ violin rentals within the shop, but he was also able to get his feet wet doing sales while in school.
After graduating they offered him a full-time job – all he had to do was chose between sales and repairs.
“I said I was interested in repairs,” he remembers. “At the time they really needed someone to do bow repairs, so they sent me to the Bow Making School of America.”
Learning the trade
Joyner spent four months in Salt Lake City, where the school was housed, learning to repair bows. He went back to Houston and the Lyle Shop before his life took a turn and he decided to move back to Little Rock.
Upon moving back, he came into an inheritance from his grandma, and decided to make a move. “I bought this workbench and a bunch of the power tools that are in there,” he says, motioning through his office. “I also bought pounds of bow hairs so I could rehair bows, which is what I do. That’s kind of where I started. From there, I started acquiring instruments.”
From there, the business began to grow organically. He naturally joined the ASO again, and began doing repairs for his peers. “Then the people in the symphony started sending their students to me,” Joyner says. “It kind of grew from there.”
His business was growing such that he was in need of a luthier – someone who had been trained to repair and make stringed instruments – in this case, violins.
In 2012, Joyner was able to add Wesley Rule to his team. Joyner had met Rule the summer before at the Oberlin Violin Restoration Workshop.
“Wesley had just graduated from violin making school and was there basically looking for a job,” Joyner recalls. “I was there learning new bow repairs and also looking for a luthier because at that point the business had grown to the point where I needed one.”
Stepping into the shop
The main repair Joyner does himself involves rehairing a bow – which utilizes horse hair – specifically of the Mongolian variety. A musician would want to get his or her instrument rehaired depending on the amount they play – but typically a once-a-year model works.
Usually about 150 hairs go into a bow. Perhaps one of the most important parts of the process involves sorting the hair.
“We’ll go through and sort the hair and remove any discolored hairs, any hairs that don’t have an even consistency. Some of the hairs will be kind of spongy or have weak spots, or they’ll have split ends,” Joyner explains. “So we’ll go through and pick out 10 – 15 percent of the hair that we pull and that’s what ends up in the bow.”
Beyond the bows, Joyner has also added his own fleet of rentals over time.
“We have probably around 325 rentals. We started with one and it’s just grown from there. It’s a really nice steady source of income,” he says.
Cash flow in the instrument business can be a bit tricky – as large instrument purchases don’t necessarily happen consistently. Repairs and rentals help keep the shop sailing smoothly.
“We also have step-up instruments,” Joyner explains. “Our rental customers – they rent their student level instrument for awhile, they can build up rental credit through the program and they can use that to purchase an instrument later on.” This model is extremely viable as often times people like to purchase a nicer instrument after reaching a certain level of skill.
Some few years ago, Joyner became interested in antique instruments – a few of which can be seen in the shop.
“I regularly go to auctions and purchase antique instruments,” he says, “and the guys and I will restore [them] and sell them to the shop.” Proper restoration is able to take place, thanks to Rule’s expertise.
Looking toward the future, Joyner sees the trajectory of the shop as one with room to grow.
“We’ve kind of outgrown the space again, so right now we’re considering expanding the building,” he says. Joyner has since purchased the lot directly behind the shop and will be able to expand on the back of the building.
For now, don’t expect Joyner to go anywhere.
“I love living in Little Rock. I grew up here. I’ve been here for the past 12 years. I’m excited to see the changes happening in downtown. I’m really excited about the Art Center Renovations, and I’m very excited to all the new businesses open on SOMA off main street.”
The Violin Shop resides on 316 East 11th Street in Little Rock. Whether looking for rentals, to purchase a violin, or seeking out repairs, the shop has you covered. (Photos by Becca Bona)