Taylor Harnois and Genevieve Swift of Lashof Violins talk about the history and tradition of running a violin shop with decades of presence in Maryland.
Genevieve tells the story of how she and her business partner met and decided to pursue the manufacturing of fine string instruments. They talk about the importance of accumulating expertise in your organization and communicating that to your clientele to help them understand the value of your craftsmanship.
- Be passionate about the industry.
- Know your business.
- Find tools that enable you to do more with your staff.
- Demonstrate your expertise.
- Be open to change.
- We want everybody to be able to speak confidently about all of the products that we have and also to be up to date on all the goings on.
- This is actually one of the things that I really like about the Music Shop 360 is the ability to put notes on customers profiles, because that allows us to have a continuity of care for them and also being able to just, Search all of their transaction histories and readily access, you know, the rental module, if that’s necessary.
- I really love that we have experts available, so we try to stay up to date on things. We want to be learning all the time, and we want to be available here for people to ask questions and for them to get answered proficiently.
- We are trying to get as much of our expertise as we can up online because that’s the place that everybody’s going to look and to find out information.
- It’s really hard when you start becoming an expert in something and then you have to be a rookie again and feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, you know? Shortly after we got our point of sale system and we were not using paper anymore, we had made this transition, I had made some sort of silly mistake. I had already been there for like a decade. But I apologized to the customer and I was like, “I’m sorry, it’s my first day.” And she’s like, “oh, that’s okay. Tomorrow will be better.”
Genevieve Swift is one of the co-owners and master luthiers of Lashof Violins. Genevieve has been a luthier at Lashof Violins for almost 20 years and helps direct all aspects of the business while wearing many hats in her additional roles as a repair and sheet music specialist.
[00:00:21] Taylor: We’re lucky to have with us Genevieve Swift today. She’s one of the co-owners of Lashof Violins. Welcome Genevieve. Appreciate you hopping in here with us today.
[00:00:31] Genevieve: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
[00:00:33] Taylor: Yeah. We’re excited to chat with you. Tell us a little bit, if you would, a little bit about your background, kind of how you got into fine string instruments, you know, your history with it, and then how you became involved with Lashof Violins.
[00:00:45] Genevieve: Okay. I’ve played music since I was little. Music’s always been a big part of our life and I loved trying to learn new instruments all the time. That was, in fact, like since it’s around Christmas time right now, that was a tradition that I’d get, like, a new instrument each Christmas and I found it to be so fun and so challenging to experience the music through those different instruments and I always love learning. I knew that I wanted to work in some sort of tangible medium cuz you get to put your hands on things and the idea of being able to create something and repair something was very enticing.
[00:01:24] Genevieve: I met my business partner in college and we discovered that we both had this passion for music and wanted to make it part of our lives and she actually had already been working here at Lashof Violins and had set up an apprenticeship for after college, and I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. Yeah. So I tagged along one summer and I started doing re-hairs and I didn’t know at that point, how hard I would fall for this, but I just couldn’t get enough. Every question that I had answered took me to 10 other questions and I just wanted to “eat, breathe, sleep” violin making. And that was so encouraging to think that I could have this inspiration and hopefully that would last. You know, talking to the other luthiers and seeing them and seeing this excitement and this playfulness and this love of learning that they were experiencing was very motivating as an outsider to wanna get involved in the craft.
[00:02:32] Genevieve: So, I did the apprenticeship then with David Lashof, along with Alicia after college, and after several years, then in 2007, Alicia and I purchased the shop. And that, that felt pretty huge.
[00:02:48] Taylor: And so you’ve been with the shop, for having worked there, for a number of years first, and then obviously purchasing the store. So how, total timeframe that you’ve been with the store, how long have you been there?
[00:03:00] Genevieve: I think 20 years now, which also feels really weird to say because I’m… how can I even be 20 years old, you know? Things just kind of plateau once you get to be an adult and it’s just wild how much time passes.
[00:03:14] Taylor: Well, the really cool part is being able to do that with your call roommate as well, you know, being able to kind of take that journey together and have, you know, that kind of partnership as you’re both an employee, but then move into store ownership. Tell us a little bit about the history of the store itself and the previous owner, David Lashof. What kind of background did he have and yeah, a little bit of the history of the store itself.
[00:03:36] Genevieve: I think that we can trace our history back about a hundred years if we, like we think about, like the lineage of the makers as far as they were connected. So, Willis Gault was a maker in the DC area. He actually had a violin making school in DC and he, from what I’ve heard, never had a chance to meet him, was incredibly inspiring. I think he had over 700 apprentices.
[00:04:00] Taylor: Wow.
[00:04:00] Genevieve: Among them former curators of the Smithsonian and, you know, record holding violin makers, and of course David Lashof. So he trained with Willis Gault first, made his first violin when he was 14.
[00:04:17] Taylor: Wow.
[00:04:17] Genevieve: Who does that? Like?
[00:04:19] Taylor: Yeah. No kidding.
[00:04:20] Genevieve: I was not that dedicated to anything at 14. But he was, and then went to the Chicago School of Violin making, and graduated from there, came back to the area and worked with several different shops before going out on his own in 1980. So when Lashof Violins started, and we’ve been in a couple of different locations, we love, absolutely love our current location, which is an old cannery that’s been converted into several businesses. So we have this lovely wall of windows in the front where it’s really great to hang up instruments after being varnished so they can dry and it’s fun to be part of the community where we’re at.
[00:05:02] Taylor: Yeah, that’s excellent. I mean, that’s great. And then again, I, you know, the part that really resonated with me is not only, obviously, the history of the store, but you and, Alicia your partner there at the business again, kind of going from this apprenticeship or, you know, maybe not necessarily knowing that this is what you wanted to do with the rest of your life and then having it really transform into that type of opportunity is quite a remarkable story. That’s pretty remarkable. Now, one of the really cool things about your store is that both you and your partner, obviously doing it together and you’re both female. There’s been historically a big lack of representation, you know, in the industry and, you know, since 2018, NAMM has really made a concerted effort, a big kind of formal push to not only recognize female leadership in the industry, but to help develop that and to bring a lot more awareness and representation to females in the industry. And that was one of the things again, that as um, You know, I was doing some research on your store and, who you guys are and that sort of thing, that was really neat for me to see. Tell me how maybe that’s kind of played out for you guys or, you know, has that been an important thing to you? How do you feel about that and some of NAMM’s kind of push to bring more awareness to that?
[00:06:21] Genevieve: Yeah, initially when I got started, it, I mean, it’s an incredible opportunity. I was so happy to be here and I didn’t know that this was an odd thing for a woman to go into violin making and restoration. It was the customers that told me. So I did get some pushback at times cuz they wanted to speak with the man in charge and, you know, as we were transitioning things, I was head of the workshop. So I’d have to say, that’s me. How can I help you? And, you know, some of having a showroom with violins that are filled with things that we’ve either made or restored, it’s nice to be like, well, come see some of the stuff that we did. I’m happy to show you.
[00:06:58] Genevieve: Or even I’ve shown them some of the projects that I have. Like, “well, I’ve got this guy open, this is what I’m doing.” And they’re like, “oh wow. Okay, well I guess this could work.” So I appreciate that people have… there’s some education involved. But showing up every day, and like I said, I’ve been here for 20 years, and that people get used to you and they start to realize that they can rely on you.
[00:07:19] Genevieve: I did have a fun experience once, you know, if you show up enough, you start to change people’s minds, and I didn’t realize that I had, that us just being here doing what we do had completely created the idea of what a violin makers was in the mind of this one player. So this mother and daughter came in to tell me that the daughter had gone off to college and while she was there and needed her violin fixed, had gone to a shop and there were only men working there and this was so weird, because the shop back home has two women working there. And so they just thought it was hilarious and they came back to tell me about it, and I thought you don’t know what that meant to me, that I got to provide that representation for women in the craft.
[00:08:01] Taylor: Yeah, that’s an awesome story. And you know, it’s, I think it all goes back to being able to provide a really great experience for people and that sort of thing doesn’t matter, right? It doesn’t matter whether it’s a male or a female. What matters is the quality of work and the experience that you’re able to provide for your customers. And so I thought that was really neat. You shared before we kind of got started chatting here, you shared a story about a little bit of the history of if you know females in this environment. Could you tell that story for the audience a little bit as well?
[00:08:31] Genevieve: Uh, Yeah, absolutely. The formal education of violin making in the United States is very young and it just really started to get formalized in the seventies. And initially only men were allowed into the programs. But after a couple of years, they started to let women in. But they wouldn’t teach them how to make cellos because it was seen as being unladylike, I guess. I don’t know if they thought we were gonna get muscles or something, but the upperclassmen who were involved in the school didn’t think that was right. So they began teaching them in the evenings how to do it, which is really only right cuz after you all graduate with the same degree, you should all be able to do the same stuff. So shortly after that, the professors realized that they had to teach everybody everything.
[00:09:16] Taylor: That’s pretty unbelievable.
[00:09:17] Genevieve: Yeah.
[00:09:18] Taylor: That’s pretty crazy, yeah. Well that was really neat. So, thank you for kind exploring that with us a little bit. As I shared with you, I’ll share with our audience as well. Here at the most recent NAMM that we went to, of course interacting with a lot of different people as we do, and it dawned on me what a real opportunity we have to kind of make a difference in, this space with new shop owners and we had a couple women sit down and say, Hey, we have listened to the podcast and have been watching the podcast, and we’ve decided to go into business because of the experiences that have been shared on the podcast. And so I wanted to especially thank you for sharing that background with us.
[00:09:55] Genevieve: That’s awesome.
[00:09:56] Taylor: I can certainly see that you know, kind of, helping other people feel encouraged and comfortable. You know, if you have an interest in working in the space, don’t let, you know, the glass ceiling or anything else like that stop you. If you have a dedication to being successful and working hard, you know, there’s gonna be some opportunity there.
[00:10:15] Taylor: I wanted to ask, so again, you’d kind of work through this apprenticeship and working in the store. What made you decide to want to get into ownership? Because that’s two totally different things, right? There are two totally different headaches and challenges and pressure.
[00:10:27] Genevieve: Yeah.
[00:10:27] Taylor: So what made you want to make that kind of shift?
[00:10:29] Genevieve: I just wanted to jump all into it. It was something that was fully consuming all of my, you know, waking moments. So it, it just, it made sense at that point. And I also, actually around that time, I had actually lost a younger bling and it just made me realize how short life can be.
[00:10:51] Taylor: Yeah.
[00:10:51] Genevieve: And if I wanted to do something, I should get started doing it.
[00:10:56] Taylor: Grab it by the horns and go.
[00:10:57] Genevieve: Yeah.
[00:10:58] Taylor: So you’re in a partnership obviously. How has that really impacted the business? You had mentioned that you were kind of heading up the service side, service and repairs. So how has that dynamic changed?
[00:11:09] Genevieve: Well, we all wear a lot of hats, but we do have our own lanes in certain ways. So, I generally head up the workshop and Alicia is mostly working running the business. So, she does so, so much to keep all of our products in stock, all of our rentals up to date, and inventory managed.
[00:11:29] Taylor: Yeah. So she’s doing a little bit more of the business side and you’re more on the service side, which is great. And it’s important to really kind of, and you mentioned it, you know, we kind of have our own lanes and we’ve defined kind of what our responsibilities are.
[00:11:42] Taylor: How important has that been to. the business. So somebody who’s thinking about getting started in the space or you know, maybe they want to improve how things work at their store, how has that kind of impacted the way you do things, that real kind of clear definition of roles?
[00:11:56] Genevieve: Sure. We definitely have those areas that we specialize in. Yeah. But because we are so small, we currently have a team of about a handful of people that we all do wear a lot of hats and we want everyone to be a player of one of the instruments that we carry. We want everybody to be able to speak confidently about all of the products that we have and also to be up to date on all the goings on. This is actually one of the things that I really like about the Music Shop 360 is the ability to put notes on customers profiles, cuz that allows us to have a continuity of care for them and also being able to just, Search all of their transaction histories and readily access, you know, the rental module, if that’s necessary. So that in case one of us is out that we have all of that information up and we can all access it at the same time.
[00:14:05] Taylor: Yeah. That’s awesome. Yeah. And that’s great that’s been beneficial. And it really kinda leads me to my next question. So you very clearly on your website, you guys say, Hey, we’re not really interested in doing online sales. We want you to come in and you know, these instruments are alive and we need you to play ’em and be familiar with you know, the instruments before you buy ’em, which is great. I think that’s a phenomenal approach. So as you’ve had that approach, tell me how you guys survived COVID and shutdowns and really everything that’s gone on with the economy over the last couple of years.
[00:14:37] Genevieve: Yeah, that really brought everything to a halt. We had a 10 week forced closure here in Maryland, which was so, so tough because as a business owner, we felt this pressure to be creative and to still use our time constructively for the business. So it was an opportunity for us to bulk up our online catalog so at least we could put all of our sheet music inventory up there, take all the pictures that we needed for our products and put descriptions up. And I still feel like there’s so much work to do on that. But when we were stuck at home, we were building up our website.
[00:15:16] Taylor: Yeah, yeah. So really just trying to stay as active with it as you possibly could and getting things ready to go as best you could, given the circumstances. So, that’s great. Tell me a little bit about what a customer can expect when they walk into Lashof Violins, like what’s a customer experience like?
[00:15:35] Genevieve: We generally provide a lot of personal attention. You know, we have showrooms where people can try out instruments on their own or they can ask a staff member to play for them. And we also provide listening. It’s one of my favorite aspects, you know, when somebody comes in for the purchase of a new instrument or bow or if they need tonal adjustments on things. Sometimes we pull in multiple people just to make sure everybody’s ears are on it to hear how it sounds close up, how it sounds far away. Yeah. And get different impressions just to make sure we have all the information.
[00:16:09] Taylor: So, I mean, a real personalized experience it sounds like is what you guys are, you know, shooting for as somebody comes in.
[00:16:15] Taylor: What’s your typical clientele look like? I mean, do you service a lot of beginners, or is it mostly more experienced players, or what’s your kind of prototypical customer that you have?
[00:16:25] Genevieve: It really runs the gamut. We have Suzuki programs where we are fitting four year olds for 32nd sized violins in our rental fleet. We do of course have those beginners come in. We’re just coming off of our rental season, that busy time in the beginning of the school year where everybody’s coming in for an instrument. And then we have people who are, I don’t wanna say amateur players cuz that gives you the idea that they’re not good at what they do, and they are, they might just not do it for an occupation, so. We have a lot of orchestras around for the semi-professional player and of course the professionals that come in. So, I know when the pandemic was happening, we were still doing, we were trying to do some curbside service at times because we still did have professionals who were doing a lot of recording. So they still needed the rehairs and the strings and repairs and things like that occasionally.
[00:17:20] Taylor: So there are probably, per capita, there are a significant number of fine string instrument retailers kind of in your area. How have you guys differentiated yourself? What is it different that you bring to the table? Or why are people coming back to you rather than going elsewhere?
[00:17:37] Genevieve: I really love that we are experts available, so we try to stay up to date on things. We wanna be learning all the time, and we wanna be available here for people to ask questions and for them to get answered proficiently. And all of our staff are players and they’re all informed on our products.
[00:17:58] Genevieve: Another thing that we do is we do all repairs on site and I really love that the customers never have to worry about their instrument in transport. It’s gonna be here in the workshop, everything’s together. And it’s all gonna be safe and sound for when they come back to pick it up.
[00:18:13] Taylor: Yeah. Yeah, that’s awesome. And you know, a lot of stores, they may not be, I don’t wanna say forthright, cuz I don’t think they’re trying to be deceptive either, necessarily. But to know that, you know, when I take my instrument into Lashof, that’s where it’s gonna be serviced. It’s gonna be taken care of. Not only is that gonna be taken care of there, but it’s gonna be taken care of well. I know who it is I’m working with. They’re experienced players, you know, these are people who know their craft. That’s awesome.
[00:18:38] Taylor: I wanted to ask a little bit about if you guys are doing anything kind of unique with marketing. Now you’ve talked about, you know, providing a wonderful customer experience. Obviously that’s gonna generate a lot of word of mouth advertising and referrals and things of that nature. Above and beyond that, can you talk a little bit about maybe some marketing strategies that you’ve employed or utilized?
[00:18:59] Genevieve: I think we are trying to get as much of our expertise as we can up online because that’s the place that everybody’s going to look and to find out information. It validates you as a business now, I guess. Yeah. To have a lot of that experience and expertise up online. So we are writing articles. During the pandemic actually as well, I recorded some videos just for helpful student videos to teach them how to tune the instrument, what to do if your bridge falls down and how to put it back up. we’re trying to put content, as much content up as possible. Yeah, and as many forms as we can. So having the videos and the photos and the written word as well.
[00:19:38] Taylor: Yeah, that’s one of the big trends that we’ve seen is um, you know, stores that are placing a really heavy emphasis on providing content online, not just products and retail, I mean, that’s all great that you’re doing those things or that a store would be doing those things, but providing, you know, a real value add for people to navigate to your website, really kind of setting the table for them to have a really good experience with your brand, and then when they do that, they’re a lot more apt and likely to come in through the physical doors and actually partake in the services that you provide as well.
[00:20:11] Taylor: And I think that’s really kind of been understated by everybody and maybe not utilized as much as it should be industry wide, you know, that content idea of producing content and getting it out there. So that’s great.
[00:20:24] Taylor: I’m curious, so you’ve been there for a long time, you’ve owned the business for a number of years as well. You know, we definitely don’t want to give a competitive advantage to anybody who you would be competing with, but if you had to maybe share some best practices or advice, what kind of advice would you give to somebody who’s thinking about getting into the industry?
[00:20:43] Genevieve: Oh gosh. I would say, I guess, be open to change. It’s really hard when you start becoming an expert in something and then you have to be a rookie again and feel like you don’t know what you’re doing, you know? Shortly after we got our point of sale system and we were not using paper anymore, we had made this transition, I had made some sort of silly mistake. I had already been there for like a decade. But I apologized to the customer and I was like, “I’m sorry, it’s my first day.” And she’s like, “oh, that’s okay. Tomorrow will be better.” And you know, at the time it wasn’t the reaction that I was looking for.
[00:21:21] Taylor: That’s great.
[00:21:22] Genevieve: But the advice has stuck with me that, you know, tomorrow will be better, like you can learn, you can grow and you’ve already done it. You know, you’ve proven that you can just by getting to the place that you’re at.
[00:21:34] Genevieve: I remember when social media first became a thing. Yeah. And we were like, should we go Facebook? Should we not get Facebook? And now it’s everywhere and it’s just, it’s such a commonplace thing. There’s gonna be a lot to learn as you go. You’re never done learning.
[00:21:50] Taylor: Yeah. And, And being able to be flexible and learn and you know, I think that takes some degree of humility, right, to be able to come in and say, Hey, You know, I may not know everything about this or about this one thing in particular, but I’m willing to learn. I think it also helps out to have a great you know, a great partner. And it sounds like you do and I think that can be helpful as well, you know, having a number of people kinda look at something and say, Hey, maybe this is the direction we ought to go, or let’s think about doing something else. I think that’s fantastic.
[00:22:18] Taylor: Now I’m gonna ask you to pull out your crystal ball here. Kind of projecting out for the next um, handful of years. What are some challenges that you, as a business owner, what do you foresee coming? What kind of keeps you up at night? What are you worried about? What are you excited about?
[00:22:33] Genevieve: You know, it’s a very traditional craft, so not too much changes on the workbench. But I am excited by the idea of AI, I guess, how that’s gonna get involved, in what we do and be able to reach more people than ever and be able to share what we do. You know, I love that we kind of left gatekeeping back in the last century and people seem to wanna share cuz they realize that when we share we all get better. You know, this craft traditionally has been very secretive. Yeah. People have died with their secrets, in some instances and then what does that help? You know, we all just wanna get better.
[00:23:14] Genevieve: I’m hoping that people get excited about live music again. Yeah. You know, we’ve gone through a time period where we haven’t had that and to be able to experience that again and realize that it is a special opportunity in some occasions and I hope the smaller venues come back, that intimate music experience has been so meaningful, some of the things that I’ve seen. It’s awesome for everyone to have the opportunity to do that.
[00:23:41] Taylor: Yeah. Yeah. I think you’re spot on about that. And you know, hopefully one of the silver linings of the pandemic, and we, you know, we see this in kind of the sales data that we can see you know, through the system, through our system, is that the pandemic really provided a spike in people who picked up a music instrument for the first time, whether that’s a, yeah. A violin or a guitar or a drum set. It doesn’t really matter. There was a real spike, a real interest in, you know, learning a new craft and I think the value there is really gonna parlay into the future, right? So today’s beginners are gonna be tomorrow’s experts. And so hopefully it does, hopefully it leads to a real kind of explosion and that sort of thing in creativity and, and new music and not only that, but also on, kind of your side, the craft side, the art side as well, you know, being able to make awesome instruments and pieces of art and so that’s that’s fantastic.
[00:24:35] Taylor: Well, I want to thank you again for spending a few minutes with us today. It’s been really awesome chatting with you. I’m excited about your store and your, you know, what you have going on there. Tell everybody kind of, before we say goodbye, tell us a little bit about the store, specifically where you’re located, your website, your hours, and how people can get ahold of you.
[00:24:53] Genevieve: We are located in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Our website is lashofviolins.com and we do rentals, restorations, repairs, and sales of violin, viola, and cello and their bows and oh yeah, we have a lot of accessories and sheet music, and you can find all of that up on our website.
[00:25:18] Taylor: Perfect.