String Theory

With the care of a surgeon, the efficiency of a businesswoman, and a virtuosity only possessed by a violin maker of 30 years, Sharon Bowen straightens the bridge of a violin. “There’s 50 pounds of pressure on this spot,” she coos. “It’s a beautiful thing, this instrument.”

Bowen Violin Shop occupies 649 square feet on the eighth floor of the Hyde Park Bank building, 500 of which are covered in stringed instruments, their cases, a workbench, and a very old Macintosh desktop. In the open space, founder, owner, and sole employee Sharon Bowen sports a blue flannel shirt with appliquéd fall leaves and rhinestone-encrusted black plastic glasses while stretching her legs out on her father’s old green striped couch.  She proclaims her surroundings are the results of “weird, out-there accidents.”

“I was a music major in college, for lack of anything else,” she says, laughing. “Afterwards, I worked in a record store, and I was certainly doing fine, but one day I was reading the Grinnell alumni rag and saw something about a violin school in Chicago.”

She leans in and says softly, “I was born in 1952, but Monday, March 8th, 1976 was the day my life began. I got down to the school, took a look around, and it was like a neon sign was pointing me to do it.”

Bowen enrolled as one of nine students in the first class at the Chicago School of Violin Making. She left with the training of master violin maker Tschu-Ho Lee, the title of first female graduate, and a husband. “That’s why I say that was the day my life began,” she says, smiling.

After a brief post-graduate stint at a large stringed instrument dealer in the Loop, Bowen wanted to work in her own style and at her own pace. “Hyde Park was and is a terrific music neighborhood, as is the entire South Side. There are so many musicians here…I once had a gentleman come in and complain about not finding a group to play with. My jaw dropped. I mean, you just whisper ‘chamber music’ out on the University [of Chicago] quads and you’ll get attacked!”

With local musicians in mind, she began her business of restoring, selling, and renting stringed instruments and accessories in her Hyde Park home in 1981. Bowen Violin Shop moved to its current location on 53rd Street in 1985. In 1995, her husband John Bowen opened their second store in the Loop. Since opening her doors, Bowen’s only goal has been to serve her customers to the best of her ability. She comes early and stays late, works through the day and night, photographs violins to send to Japan, and corresponds with Indian musicians. She proudly recounts the morning a violinist showed up at the shop begging her to make him a new violin bridge for his concert that evening, a job other shops had immediately refused. “I cleared my schedule and worked all day and had it done ten minutes before he came to pick it up. It was hard, but he was able to play that night,” Bowen says, glowing.

In addition to tuxedo-clad performers, Bowen’s customer base also includes the lunchbox-toting set. “You know, I’m not typically a huge kid person–I don’t have kids–but when those little ones come into the shop, their eyes are huge…It’s like they just cannot leave here without a violin. And when they walk out the door with one in their hands, they are three feet off the ground. If I could put a videocam up in here, you’d love to see it.”

Dropping everything for concertmasters in distress and renting violins to children prone to dropping everything are not always best for business. Bowen doesn’t care. Currently, she isn’t making any salary, yet she tries to absorb the costs when a repair exceeds her initial estimate. Though it can be partly attributed to her recent sales of good quality, inexpensive violins from Asian manufacturers, she’s only rented 35 violins so far this year, as opposed to her high of 108 some years ago. But in the same year, Bowen has donated 12 violins and 6 cellos to Haiti through a service group. Her husband set up the Bowen Violin Shop website, but rather than spend time and resources on additional advertising Bowen hopes customer satisfaction and referrals will be enough to spread the word and keep her shop a favorite of customers in the area and around the world. “What you put out comes back to you,” she says simply. “If you put out good, you’ll get good…that’s all I’m trying to do here.” Bowen Violin Shop. 1525 E. 53rd St., Ste 828. bowenviolinshop.com