It should come as no surprise that Simon McHugh loves selling and repairing stringed instruments.
For one thing, he’s enamored of the objects he works with – violins, violas, cellos, basses and their bows.
“The physics of a violin are just amazing,” he says, explaining how the instrument’s upper surface amplifies sound by vibrating even though it’s securely connected to the sides of the instrument.
Even more, it’s how he met his late wife and found out just how much McHugh Violins means to his customers. That it exists at all, he said, “is a real testament to their generosity.”
McHugh grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s hometown – and completed a two-year course in instrument repair in an English technical institute before being hired by the Wichita Band Instrument Co. 40 years ago. He remembers stepping off the plane here to encounter 96-degree heat he’d never experienced before.
Six years later, he struck out on his own, working first out of his home and then in the first of three locations his business has occupied. He moved into 2,500 square feet in Hillcrest Plaza at Harry and George Washington Boulevard in 2010.
Most customers are middle, high school and college students and the members of community orchestras from across south-central Kansas.
“Mine tend to be not the first instruments people own – once they get the bad instrument out of the way.”
The shop does final assembly of the new instruments it sells, fitting in tuning pegs, hand cutting bridges, installing quality strings and other parts to fit individual customers, or often to the specifications of those clients’ teachers.
“Violin is hard enough to play without having to struggle with a poor set-up,” McHugh said.
He said his philosophy is to “do it right now, and you don’t have to worry about it later.” He adds, however, that he tends to honor the instruments’ warranties long past the two-year period he quotes to customers. “If I recognize it, I work on it.”
Most of his inventory comes from Europe and China, and ranges from tiny new violins intended for beginning Suzuki Method students to those any professional would be happy to play. Some of the most valuable instruments the shop carries are older violins McHugh acquires with the help of investors, restores and then sells. Prices are based on “who made it and when, and is it right. It’s more than just the label inside.”
Sales carry the business, but it couldn’t exist without the work McHugh and his lone employee, Seth Girton, do in a workshop cluttered with instruments in various states of disrepair, tools, glue and everything else needed to put them back together.
McHugh lets Girton, a well-known cellist, do most of the work on the instruments while he focuses on the bows. He describes them as “just a wonderful combination” of wood, horsehair and often bits of precious metal and abalone shell. “The skill is in getting that nice ribbon” of horsehair used to bow the strings, he said. “There’s more folklore with bows than you could even imagine.”
McHugh may be one of the few small business owners to volunteer, unprompted, that he’s “a horrible businessman.”
A decade ago, he explains, state authorities seized his shop and inventory over unpaid taxes. He said he received bad legal counsel, but he accepts full responsibility for the incident and says the tax collectors were “just good people doing their jobs.”
Then customers and friends stepped in, giving him donations by checks and cash that allowed him to reopen. “I get kind of teary thinking about it.” McHugh says he pays more attention to the business end of things today, as mandated by his agreement with the state.
That generosity manifested itself again in 2016 when his wife of 22 years, Susan, died of small-cell carcinoma. She taught music to special needs students for 34 years in Wichita schools. McHugh met her while providing a violin to a girl with muscular dystrophy. Susan would finger the notes on the instrument while the child moved the bow, McHugh remembers. Although the couple had insurance, McHugh said it would have been difficult to cover funeral expenses and lost income without a GoFundMe account set up by friends.
McHugh says he plays violin “just enough to know what’s wrong with an instrument.” Rather than a musician, he considers himself a kind of “doctor” who other musicians come to for help.
The previous Saturday, he related, a young violinist had spent much of the day trying out some of his less expensive instruments.
“All of a sudden he said, ‘So what’s a $3,000 violin play like?’ By the time left, he had two $5,000 violins with him to try out.”
Address: 1626 George Washington Blvd.
Owners: Simon McHugh