For decades, a small, family-run business has been defying modern standards by staying true to its tradition of hand-made quality and attention to detail. This year, Kolstein & Son of Baldwin, a world-renowned maker and seller of violins, basses, cellos and other stringed instruments, will celebrate its 75th anniversary.
“I kind of grew up in the business, and I took over this business right around 1980,” said Barrie Kolstein, the shop’s owner. “We specialize in restoration, selling and making violins, violas, cellos and basses. We do everything. We deal with student-level in-struments up to the ultra-professionals.”
Founded in 1943, the Samuel Kolstein Violin Shop was originally established in Brooklyn before relocating to Merrick in 1958. The business moved one more time, to its current location at 795 Foxhurst Road in Baldwin, in 1980.
“I think what sets this place apart is the diversification,” said Jake Cradilas, a shop foreman who has worked at Kolstein’s for nearly 25 years. “We do manufacturing of accessories exclusive to the bass, [and] we have an extensive repair facility here, both of instruments and bows.”
Samuel Kolstein, Barrie’s father, died in 1999, leaving him the business and the legacy he had spent years building. “I’ve been blessed,” Barrie said. “It’s been a good business, and we’ve had a good run.”
All repairs are done by hand. “We do it the way it was done in the 1700s and 1800s,” Kolstein said. “You can go into commercial violin-making establishments and they have computerized pentagraphs, with copying equipment that will rough out the tops [of the instruments] in a matter of minutes, but that’s not what we do. Everything we do is done by hand, even down to the varnishing. We don’t even use spray here. Everything is hand-brushed.”
Some shops order pieces needed for repairs, but Kolstein’s makes them in-house. The shop also supplies instrument rentals for school districts across Long Island, including Baldwin.
“We have a school rental program, which is very big and services a lot of communities here on the Island,” Cradilas said. “Not to mention, we’re one of the largest bass houses in the world, if not the largest.”
Over the last decade, Kolstein’s has expanded its Baldwin location, buying up neighboring buildings and connecting them to make a single facility. The result is a shop that looks like any other small storefront from outside, but when you take a step inside, it feels like you’ve entered another world.
“Through the years [I’ve seen] kids that were in junior high school, and they’re professionals now. It’s so amazing,” said Barbara Hakim, who has worked at Kolstein’s for 35 years.
Her title is office manager, but she takes care of everything from bookkeeping to customer relations. “It started as a part-time job, while my kids were in school,” she said, “and I never left.”
“We’ve branched out over the years into different things, but primarily it [attracts] a higher-end clientele,” Hakim said. “Sometimes people will complain, ‘Your prices are a little high,’ compared to, like, a Sam Ash or a regular music store, but that’s because we’re a specialty shop.
“Once you’re a customer, you never leave,” she continued. “Once you’re a customer, we take care of you.”
Kolstein’s also does restoration and maintenance, and it houses an impressive collection of instruments, from violins once played by famous musicians to basses that are older than the United States. The shop has rooms filled with dozens of instruments of various size and quality, many of which were created in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The instruments are treated with great care and attention. Many are stored in climate-controlled rooms to help keep them in pristine condition.
“You’re dealing with functional art in this business, as opposed to, say, a fine painting that hangs on the wall and has value,” Kolstein said.
An instrument, he noted, must “produce the livelihood of the musician who’s using it. So that’s a challenge, particularly in restoration, because, unfortunately, a lot of people in my business don’t understand sound . . . We have to not only protect the structural integrity of these instruments while we’re restoring them, and bring them back to life, but we also have to maintain the sound of these instruments — and ideally improve the sound.”
To view more photos of the shop click here