HARTVILLE For area musicians, the village of Hartville will become a bit of a winter wonderland this holiday season.
Two of the area’s more unique outlets for music instruments, performances and training – Hartville Music at 142 Sunnyside Street SW and Stearns Violins at 465 West Maple Street - have opened or expanded in the village in 2018.
Hartville Music opened its doors in June and Stearns Violins began its relocation about two months ago.
Throughout the month of December, Hartville Music is offering holiday specials including $10 off instrument lessons and a 15 percent discount on its guitar "string of the month club.
Stearns Violins, meanwhile, will host a grand opening celebration from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Nov. 30 and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Dec. 1, featuring student performances, door prizes and store specials at the world-renowned makers, restorers and dealers of fine violins, violas, cellos and basses’ new store.
The Stearns relocation, according to company president Robert Stearns, son of founder Rodger Stearns, was a matter of practicality, as space for both performances and inventory started to come at more of a premium at the former shop.
"We got to where, if we had a performance with four or five families, we had nowhere to put them," Robert Stearns said. "And our rental business has grown 15 or 20 percent a year."
At last count, Rodger Stearns said, the store houses more than 1,300 instruments in rentals alone.
The elder Stearns, a Western Pennsylvania native, fell in love not only with the violin, but its construction at an early age.
"My grandmother gave me a violin and we took it to a violin maker to have it fixed," Rodger Stearns said. "I saw what he was doing and was amazed. That was 53 years ago."
Founding his violin repair and restoration business in his native state, Stearns and his family moved to Canton in the mid-1980s. Attending a restoration workshop at the world renowned Oberlin Conservancy of Music in 1988 not only gave Stearns his first experience handling 300-year-old Stradivarius violins worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but turned his avocation into a vocation.
Opening the original Stearns Violins location in Hartville, then expanding in 2000, Stearns’ reputation as a luthier, restorer and appraiser of violins grew exponentially with student and professional players alike.
A large part of the shop’s rental and repair business continues to come from both professional musicians from across the country and local college students and school districts, Rodger Stearns said.
"We service 20 or 22 school districts with all their repairs and rentals – even two or three schools in Florida," he said.
Robert said he hopes the store expansion and refocused business plan will both attract new customers and further enhance service to Stearns’ current customer base. Stearns Violins now employees seven shop and administrative staff, including newly hired business manager Debbie Cardy, and a number of instructors, including Robert Stearns’ wife, Jessica Stearns.
The new location will also allow the younger Stearns to focus more time in the shop, his first love.
"I grew up in the shop, of course, it was a family thing," Robert Stearns said. "And I love restoration; it’s what gets me going. That is also what sets us apart. We don’t just ‘fix violins.’ A college student, for example, might say ‘I have a shop back home, I’ll just take it in when I go back home,’ while we are a quality shop right here."
Stearns’ specialization, as a high-end violin shop and not a more broadly defined "stringed instrument" store, already sets the company apart from similar businesses, Rodger said.
"That is why the school districts we serve love us," he said. "Teachers know we rent good instruments and that greatly lowers the student attrition rate. If the instrument sounds good, you want to play it more."
The sound of ‘70s rock
Meanwhile, rock-n-roll history virtually seeps from the walls of Hartville Music, where owner Bart Postlewait mentored at the feet of the legendary Mike Battle, inventor of the Echoplex tape delay machine – one of the earliest sound modulation devices used in popular music.
"I married into it," Postlewait said of his association with music legend Battle, who was the grandfather of Postlewait’s wife, Shawna. "I had played guitar and bass in several local bands since 1986 and had also been building (effects) pedals for myself and my friends."
With no one else in his family sharing his passion for music and engineering, Battle began sharing his secrets with his grandson-in-law. Postlewait chuckled as he likened the relationship to that of "Luke Skywalker and Yoda."
"We started visiting NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) shows," Postlewait said. "He had health issues and the family sent me to keep an eye on him; make sure he took his medication, didn’t fall down. But that isn’t why he thought I was there."
By the mid-2000s, the Postlewait family had grown to include six foster children and Bart had, accidentally or on purpose, became Battle’s creative partner. Postlewait said his grandfather-in-law’s never-ending musical inventions continued nearly until the day he died in April 2008.
"He was always onto his next machine, even if it was just in his head," Postlewait said. "He would write things down on paper and tell me ‘now go make it.’"
Battle’s brilliance, Postlewait said, was present until the end. Postlewait is continuing to develop Battle’s final invention, dubbed the Tubeplex.
Meanwhile, repairing Echoplexes had grown to the point that a friend suggested Postelwait open a brick and mortar shop.
"There are still quite a few of them in the area, since they were invented here," he said of the eerie effect machine that creates a delay of a delay and is perhaps most notably exemplified during the extended middle section of Led Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love," where an Echoplex is employed on both Jimmy Page’s guitar and Robert Plant’s vocal.
From the photos of Battle and musical legends like Les Paul and Joe Walsh, to the stories of Echoplex aficionados like Plant and Page visiting Battle in his Hartville home and sampling the inventor’s almost equally famous spaghetti sauce, Hartville Music is as much an extension of Battle’s musical legacy as it is an instrument and record store.
The front window of the store is taken up by a stage dedicated to Battle, where open mics and small concerts are held most weekends; racks of vintage vinyl share space with walls of guitars and amplifiers; and Postlewait has tapped long-timed guitar repair technician and former Hartville police officer, Don Gopp’s services.
Long term, Postlewait hopes to make Hartville Music not only the unofficial "Echoplex headquarters," but a mix of the record stores, music shops and clubs he himself grew up in.
"I really want to make this a meeting place," he said. "I might even make some of grandpa’s spaghetti sauce. I miss that smell – the combination of marinara, solder and melted plastic. That is a great smell."