Brooklyn Lutherie

We’re essentially a physician for instruments.”

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May 7, 2016
interview by Madeleine Campbell
tintype photos provided by Chloe and Mamie

Founded, owned and operated by luthiers Chloe Swantner and Mamie Minch, Brooklyn Lutherie exists as a “one-stop shop for all your repairs and restorations for both fretted and violin-family instruments.” Much like this zine, the shop strives to be a place where musicians of all skill levels, particularly women, feel at home. It is currently New York City’s only woman-run lutherie.  

Are you two native New Yorkers?
Chloe: Not at all. I’m originally from Washington State. I lived in Maine and Vermont. I’ve been in New York City for seven years.

What took you there?
Chloe: Love! But it was a good decision.

And what about you, Mamie?
Mamie: I’ve been here for fifteen years but I grew up in Delaware. I came here as visual artist. I got a grant to study printmaking and decided on New York. At the same time I was playing music. I learned that for me creatively, collaborating musically was more fun than working by myself all the time so I joined a band. Working on instruments was a pretty seamless way to marry my interests.

How did you two meet?
Chloe: Mamie and I met at our previous job at a vintage guitar shop called Retrofret. We worked there together for almost four years. It was really clear we were a dynamic duo so once we decided to branch out on our own, it seemed like the obvious choice to do so together.

When did you open your store front?
Chloe: We opened our doors in 2014. We’re in the Gowanus neighborhood. There are a lot studios around here.

Which ones? I’m not really familiar with that part of town.
Chloe: Trout Recording, BC Studios. A lot more that I’m blanking on right now.

Can you explain for anyone reading this who isn’t familiar what it means to be a luthier? What exactly do you do?
Chloe: We work on all string instruments. We’re rare in that we work on both fretted and violin family instruments.

So luthiers often focus on one or the other?
Chloe: Correct. We’re essentially a physician for instruments. We do everything from general check ups and setups to way more complex month-long restoration jobs. That could mean pulling and resetting the neck or repairing cracks that happen due to humidity changes. We encounter a lot of different things.

Do you think there are benefits to working on both fretted and fretless stringed instruments?
Mamie: Absolutely. There’s a lot of cross pollination in the work we do. It gives us more possibility for work. It’s nice when all of the members of a band can come to you. And there’s a lot of variety in our work. We don’t get bored as easily

Chloe: We overlap more and more every day. We share a lot of information. Originally, I was more violin and Mamie was more fretted but the more and more we share, the overlap increases.

Mamie, what about you? What is your explanation of what you do?
Mamie: People have a lot of feelings about the word luthier. For some people it carries a lot of snobby overtones. Other people find it really fucking cool which is how I felt. We wanted to know about it. We repair and restore instruments. Period. Instruments are special objects. They allow people to access art so we facilitate that process for people. It’s very every day. That’s why we’ve kept our prices in a range that a student could handle. We cut students and young people deals a lot. We have a friend who does one free thing everyday for someone who thinks they could use it. We don’t necessarily do that but I do love that and keep it in mind.

I love that you mention keeping your work as accessible as possible. That is one of my biggest goals for this zine.
Mamie: It’s so important.

Are there any limitations to the work you do?
Chloe: By choice, we don’t do any finish work here. We’re not set up with ventilation and spray booth so we decided not to include that in the services we offer.

What are your educational backgrounds?
Chloe: I apprenticed with a violin maker for about a year. That’s where I learned about building violin family instruments from scratch. Mamie just kind of dove right in and learned under fire.

Who did you study with?
Chloe: His name is Thurmond Knight. He’s a hermit of the Vermont woods by choice. He doesn’t really care to have his name known. He’s incredibly talented. Usually, you kind of get taken under the wing of a shop or a person. There are guitar making schools that pump out cookie cutter luthiers in the more modern techniques.

Mamie: I didn’t have any real, formal study. I got a job at a vintage guitar store. My idea was that I wanted to get into the shop and ingratiate myself like you do with whatever career you are looking to get into. I worked hard and in time, I was the shop manager. Eventually, it stopped being a place where either of us wanted to be so it seemed natural to take on our own place.

Did you have any previous experience as business owners?
Chloe: Not at all. This was a total dive into the deep end for us. We were bolstered by the knowledge that we work well together. That’s a major foundation for everything we do. We had a lot of support from friends and family. We were encouraged in the very best of ways.

What do you know now that you wish you knew before as business owners?
Chloe: I’ve learned a lot about foreseeing issues with different personalities of clients and types of jobs. I think we’ve gotten a lot better at anticipating nightmare jobs and nipping them in the bud.

Mamie: We’ve experienced a lot of rich personal growth. You learn how to prioritize. I’ve gotten better about asking myself “What can I handle?” and learning how to ask for help. You learn how to collaborate. There are so many subtle and overt ways we’ve learned to support each other. If you want to start your own business, you should be open to going on an awesome trip.

Do you have a staff?
Chloe: Now it’s just the two of us but we recently hired someone one day a week in kind of a secretary position. She has some experience doing repair work so we’re hoping as we get busier she can learn more about the trade.

What is a typical day like for you, if there is such a thing?
Mamie: We come in and start by answering emails. A typical day involves talking to clients and helping them get an appropriate expectation of what we can do for them.

Do you ever say no?
Mamie: Oh yeah! We say no a fair amount. Or “Wow! How interesting you thought this would go in that direction!” We’ve learned a lot about the importance of massaging expectations. We split up the day. We’re working at the bench for about five hours of the seven hour day. Small jobs and great big jobs. It’s usually a mix of creative stuff and more bread and butter jobs.

What are some of the more common jobs you encounter?
Mamie: We do a lot of guitar and violin setup. I tell people do it whether or not you think you need it.

What exactly does set up entail?
Mamie: Basically, it involves getting the thing to play like you want it to play. It can do what you want it to do, sometimes it just takes a bit of adjusting. Instruments that come from a factory or even some smaller shops don’t generally get that one on one attention. Set ups are not one size fits all. We really tailor it to your needs.

Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to learn more about your field?
Mamie: When I was young, I definitely did not think I’d be doing this. Do your best to maintain your curiosity. As you talk to people, make associations. Bring cookies to the local shop. Say, “Hi! I think you’re great. I want to know about what you do.” When you’re young and really jazzed about something, you carry that beautiful energy with you. Treasure it.
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Brooklyn Lutherie is located at
232 3rd Street Suite #E003
Brooklyn, New York 11215
(347) 987-3835
www.brooklynlutherie.com
info@brooklynlutherie.com

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