Jonathan Clark wants to conduct business.
And there are strings attached.
“For right now, we want to reach kids and promote strings in the area,” Clark said. “We want to get kids into the violin, or viola, or cello.”
Antique Violins of Augusta opened June 1 in Augusta’s Olde Town – not so much to turn a big profit but more to help area children embrace music.
It’s not even Clark’s full-time job. He is a Navy petty officer, second class, stationed at Fort Gordon since 2014. He’s also a violinist who began playing at age 8 but stopped in his teens. He relearned the instrument as an adult.
Last October, eager to start a community service project, Clark hit upon what he called “the crazy idea” of refurbishing older, neglected violins, selling them and using the profits to help local music programs.
“One of the programs I reached out to was Heritage Academy,” he said. “I was trying to give away violins, give away free stuff, free lessons.”
While that effort didn’t immediately take off, Clark did meet Phin Hitchcock, one of the founders of the inner-city Christian school and a co-founder of the urban-based Fireside Ministries.
Clark donated four violins to Heritage, which plays host to a children’s strings program using the Suzuki method, a system that seeks to teach children music in a similar way that children acquire language skills.
Clark still sought to restore older violins but ran into another problem: He’s not a luthier, a person who repairs and builds string instruments.
Then he met Nathaniel Bruner, the youth pastor at The Hill Baptist Church, who also plays the violin. Clark plays violin in a local Celtic band, and when that band played a Christmas program at Bruner’s church, the two men struck up a conversation afterward.
“Over an ice cream social in the social hall, we got to talking and he shared his idea about the shop,” Bruner said.
Before he knew it, he struck a handshake deal that would have Bruner making several visits to Columbia, S.C., to train to be a luthier.
Clark paid Bruner modestly for his time while he trained under noted luthier Gregg Lange, and he brought to Lange the first violins that would comprise Clark’s inventory.
Clark “was still working out of a spare bedroom at his house, which was where all the violins were,” Bruner said. “I’d go there, pick up a few violins, drive to Columbia.”
The stock of violins, and Clark’s idea, grew.
“Then I wanted to expand the operation and turn it into a full-time violin shop, just because I thought it was something Augusta could use,” Clark said.
Hitchcock obliged by offering Clark low rent in a former grocery store on a portion of Fireside Ministries property at the corner of Second and Ellis streets.
In June, Clark opened Antique Violins. Since he isn’t wealthy, his community service plan needed a business component to be sustainable. I figured I wasn’t going to be successful doing what I was doing, so I figured I’d just open up a shop and do both the business aspect of it and keep doing the nonprofit side,” he said. “We can’t give away violins. But we can give our time.”
The shop has about 50 antique and modern violins and violas for sale and about twice that many available for rental.
While the definition of “antique” varies with violins, Clark said he considers instruments antique if they were produced before the 1960s. He estimates the oldest instrument in his shop dates to the 1860s.
Though many types of wood can be used, a violin typically is fashioned out of maple and the top of the sound box is made out of spruce.
Violinists — and scientists who have conducted tests on the instruments — have said the tone of an instrument improves depending on how well it is cared for, even how often it is played. Violins built in the 17th and 18th centuries, by such famous luthiers as Antonio Stradivari and Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri, still are played today, and at auction fetch millions of dollars.
A new violin can be bought for as little as $60. But the cheapest violins often are mass-produced overseas and veteran instrumentalists will tell you that you get what you pay for.
“It’s not a casual purchase,” Clark said. “It’s like buying a car. It’s a major investment.”
Clark and Bruner also offer free violin lessons; an instrument purchase or rental from the shop isn’t required.
“For kids in this area and for people on a lower budget, we just want to provide access for as many people as possible,” Bruner said.
A big reward is seeing a student flourish – starting with when someone grasps the basics.
“That’s the amazing thing,” Bruner said. “Several times we’ve had kids walk in here, and they’ve never touched a violin, never played it. So I sit down with them, show them how to hold it. The moment they make a note, their faces light up. That’s pretty cool.”
Clark said he wouldn’t mind later pursuing a career either in teaching or nonprofit work, working with young people, because “they’re the most important thing on this planet.
“I feel like I’ve been helped a lot in this process,” he said. “I do play the violin, but I don’t have luthier experience, I’m not wealthy, I didn’t really know anything about business. It’s never really been my forte to make money.
“My intention was and still is to support kids and help guide kids though music.”
Reach Joe Hotchkiss at (706) 823-3543 or firstname.lastname@example.org.