By Constance Garcia-Barrio
The violins, violas and cellos at Mount Airy Violins & Bows, 6665 Germantown Ave., could seduce the incautious visitor. These handsome instruments, ranging from honey color to the orange-brown of aged sherry, invite touch, and shop owner/bowmaker Elizabeth Vander Veer Shaak has displayed them so cunningly that it takes restraint not to pluck a string to hear a violin sing.
Nor do the intriguing sights stop there. A 1958 “Jazz Portrait of the Harlem School” shows such luminaries as Thelonius Monk, Sonny Rollins and Count Basie. The revealing dedication on a 2003 picture of jazz violinist and composer John Blake Jr. reads, “To Elizabeth and to the shop and to a great bow.”
Germantown resident Vander Veer Shaak, 56, has a rare occupation. “There are few women bowmakers of my generation, though some young women have entered the field,” she said. “Three bowmakers work here. That’s more per square mile than in most places.”
Elizabeth’s colleagues include Samuel Payton, a Mt. Airy luthier (a person who makes stringed instruments) and bowmaker, who does painstaking restoration of instruments and makes fine violins and bows. Bowmaker Erin Shrader recently moved to the area from San Francisco.
Chance and convenience brought Elizabeth to this spot in Mt. Airy in 2003. Her daughter, Julianna, then age 11, and her son, Gabriel, then 9, were attending Project Learn cooperative school when the building became available. “It used to be Maude’s Curiosity Shop,” Elizabeth said. “A number of people inquired about buying it, but Maude, an older woman, decided that she wanted it to be a violin shop. This stretch of Germantown Avenue was deserted back then.”
That changed. Elizabeth found that people who were hungry to learn about string instruments began knocking on her door. She cultivates the community connection with free events open to the public. In April, for example, the shop had a workshop on French Canadian music. On July 20, Shane Barker, a graduate of Temple University School of Music, will give a workshop on how to practice for people who can’t afford lessons. “He has worksheets to keep you on track,” Elizabeth said. “A works-in-progress soiree where four or five musicians will present pieces they’re composing is slated for September. It’s a good way to network.”
Elizabeth praises Mt. Airy’s favorable business climate. “It’s a great place because there’s so much support,” she said. “People are very pro-business at the local level.”
If Elizabeth’s community consciousness and craft don’t pique one’s curiosity, her surnames surely must. Her father’s family, the Shaaks, have Pennsylvania Dutch roots. Her mother’s family, the Vander Veers, “have lived in America since 1620, when the Dutch settled Brooklyn,” she said. Indeed, Elizabeth and her two sisters, one a surgeon and the other an artist and English teacher, were born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey. Elizabeth herself double-majored in art and audiology at Ithaca College.
Elizabeth came to Philadelphia to go to graduate school at Bryn Mawr College, where she helped to design hearing tests for babies. “Babies can’t tell you if they hear, but the test is based on a reflex they make in response to certain sounds.”
In 1980, after a year of graduate school, Elizabeth knew that her life’s work lay in music. She had played the guitar and piano from age 12. In college she’d become an aficionado of Bulgarian, Brazilian and Bluegrass music. “Later, I moved to Swedish music. I took lessons from Alicia Bjornsdottir, a world-class Swedish violinist and fiddler who lives in Wyndmoor.”
At the outset Elizabeth did repairs. She got a job re-hairing bows in the Primavera House of Violins in Philadelphia. “Adolf Primavera, the owner, was a third-generation violin maker at the end of his career,” she said. After the store folded in 1983, Elizabeth began bowmaking with William Salchow, the “father of American bowmaking,” in New York. She even spent time in Bulgaria, where she grew more familiar with the music and gained a working knowledge of the language.
Later, she traveled to Belgium to continue studying bowmaking with Pierre Guillaume. In 1988, she went to Brazil to buy wood. “It was a good excuse to travel,” said Elizabeth, who also speaks Portuguese. The next year brought still another trip, this time to the altar. She married Buck Buchanan, now 53, who works at the U.S. Department of Labor as a civil rights attorney.
When Elizabeth describes bows, they seem as individual as people. “We start with logs, have them cut into sticks; then we plane the sticks to give them their form,” she said. She selects a bow and plays a scale on a violin. Then she selects another bow and plays a scale again. “Hear the difference? Same musician, same instrument, but a different sound. One sounds clean, crisp and a little bit tight. The other one pulls a more singing sound from the instrument,” said Elizabeth, who sang with the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir for several years.
The precise, sedate craft of bowmaking has its difficulties. “More than 50 percent of bowmakers develop an allergy to wood,” Elizabeth explained, “but the main challenge is juggling more than one thing at a time. You talk to customers, order supplies and do the work. There are more than 240 steps in making a bow. If there’s an interruption, you have to know where you are when you come back to the bow. And you have to get the kids places they need to go, though that’s less of an issue since they’re older, and my husband helps out with the cooking, cleaning and whatever else it takes to raise a family.”
Elizabeth seems to have struck a balance between work and family. “Do I have regrets about taking time away from my kids?” she asked. “No. They’re proud that I do something like bowmaking.”
For more information, visit www.ViolinesAndBows.us or call 215-428-9031.