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.