Shank's Strings in E-town repairs string instruments from across the globe
Mike Shank remembers how frustrating it was, as a 12-year-old budding musician, to be given a faulty instrument.
“I wanted to play upright bass in school,” he says, “but the only instruction I got was, 'Here's a bass, here's a book. When you figure it out, we'll let you play in the orchestra.' I didn't get any lessons, plus the bass was just about unplayable.”
So when he started repairing basses for a living about 10 years later, his experiences informed his business philosophy.
“I said, the next 12-year-old 'me' that comes along is not going to be in that position if I have anything to say about it,” he explains. “If he's going to quit, it's not going to be because he's frustrated, it's going to be because it's just not for him.”
He fixes them, she does everything else
Mike and his wife, Linda, started Shank's Strings in Elizabethtown 25 years ago. They'd met in college, and when Linda discovered that Mike had a talent for fixing instruments — but wasn't doing it because he didn't want to handle the business end — she volunteered. And she's been doing it ever since.
“I do everything he doesn't do,” Linda says with a laugh. “I do the books, the scheduling, I answer the emails and the phone, I do the ordering and the shipping. So essentially I'm the business and he's the worker.”
It's turned out to be the perfect arrangement.
At first, Mike repaired violins, violas and cellos as well, but for some reason his basses got all of the notice, primarily from high school and college students but also from professional players — jazz and classical alike. The Shanks went from having just a few instruments in the shop in the early days to now seeing upward of 400 every year, thanks almost entirely to word-of-mouth recommendations
Some basses come in for simple adjustments or string changes, but others are there for major restorations, including a few from the 1700s and 1800s, Mike says. Many are worth a few thousand dollars, and others — the ones owned by bassists from some of the best symphonies on the East Coast — are worth as much as $200,000.
Then there are the “kids,” as Mike and Linda call them — the students who drive hundreds of miles because they've heard about Mike's magic touch and how he can turn a $10,000 bass into one that sounds like the most expensive models on the market.
“A lot of our customers are high school kids who are auditioning for college, or college kids who are going for their first auditions with major symphonies,” he says. “We're their first stop to make sure their instruments are in working order.”
The 'go-to guy'
So where do their basses regularly show up? Symphonies in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Baltimore, Miami and even Chattanooga, Tenn., just to name a few. And that doesn't even cover some of the top music conservatories in the country, such as Eastman in Rochester, N.Y., Curtis in Philadelphia, Peabody in Baltimore — and the list goes on.
One of their regular customers is Rex Surany, a double bassist with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He started coming to Mike and Linda about eight years ago after a friend recommended them, and he comes back a few times a year, he says.
“Mike lives in the middle of Pennsylvania, but he can make his instruments sound as good as anything you can buy in New York for a lot more money,” Surany explains. “Plus he's a very honest, very hard-working guy, and he really cares about all of the students who come to him. He's a father-figure to all of us.”
Brent Edmondson, a double bassist now in his fourth year with the Lancaster Symphony, concurs.
“I've been going to Mike for 10 years, and he's always listened to me play and asked questions and wanted to know my opinion,” Edmondson says. “It doesn't matter where you are on the East Coast, if you're a bass player, you drive to E-town to see Mike. He's the guy to go to.”
Notes Linda, “Our whole reason for doing this is because when Mike was in school, he had a bass that he couldn't play. And it became our mission to provide good work and value and to keep kids interested in music.”
Mike adds, “I could sell $100,000 instruments, but I'm not interested.”
“I'm serving the underserved — the people who can't afford to get this level of work.”