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Kolstein’s owner passes the baton to longtime employee

New leadership to carry on violin shop's legacy

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With a player piano clinking in the background, a crowd gathered at Samuel Kolstein Violin Shop in Baldwin to celebrate one man who is retiring as the shop’s owner, and another who is taking it over.

Barrie Kolstein, a luthier — a maker of stringed instruments — who has owned Samuel Kolstein & Son Violinmakers and Kolstein Music Inc. since his father died in 1999, recently turned the business’s operations over to Manny Alvarez, a longtime employee and mentee of Kolstein’s.

“With Manny, I couldn’t have the shop in better hands,” Kolstein said at a grand reopening ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by the Baldwin Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 4. “I think it’s a good transition for the shop.”

The change will allow the business to continue on in the future, and for Kolstein to pursue his love of making stringed instruments. “I’m still going to be here,” he said. “I’ll be in the back” shop.

Alvarez’s new title is president and owner. He and Kolstein have similar visions for the future, Kolstein said, adding that Alvarez is “well-groomed” on how to run the business. “I think we’re very much closely on the same page, and I just love what he’s doing,” Kolstein said. “I have total faith in Manny.”

At the ceremony, Alvarez took a moment to recognize and thank Kolstein, with whom he worked for 16 years. “I looked up to him. He’s my mentor,” Alvarez said. “This man — I owe everything to him. And I want to just say that this is not just Barrie stepping away. This really feels like a partnership. Barrie has stepped up our production, stepped up our quality in the back, and [is] back to what his father used to do: building instruments, repairs and overseeing the works of the shop. This really is a team effort.”

Kolstein said Alvarez taking over gives him peace of mind. “He’s definitely the person I go to for any advice — for big decisions, for things that really need consideration,” Alvarez said of Kolstein. “He’s also the voice of reason in my life, and that’s something that I’m really honored to still have.”

The deal was made official in August, the two said, but the formal transition was delayed while the shop underwent renovations. Changes were made to the showroom and the front staff office, and a new bass lounge and a new performance space were opened.

Kolstein took over for his father, Samuel, who began working as a bow restorer in the 1940s and eventually expanded his trade. In 1958, the luthier relocated the violin shop to Merrick, and Kolstein joined his father in 1971. Nine years later, the shop was moved to its current home in Baldwin.

Located at 795 Foxhurst Road, Kolstein’s remains a thriving business on a road dotted by shuttered businesses. “It’s astounding because it just keeps going on and on and on, and the craftsmanship speaks for itself,” Chamber President Erik Mahler said of Kolstein’s. “Look at the instruments, look at the skill level that’s involved when you look at the craftsmen.”

Mahler wished Alvarez and his family the best. Alvarez’s wife, Joyce, and their two daughters, Mila and Emma, attended the ceremony.

“We’re beyond excited to have you in the community — great people, great family and a great business that’s longstanding,” Mahler continued. “We’ve been cursed, unfortunately, on Grand Avenue . . . but it’s great to have a continued business that’s thriving and very successful.”

Working in the back rooms is a staff of expert international restoration artists who craft violins, violas, cellos, basses and accessories like bows and rosin. Throughout his time, Kolstein has made more than 100 instruments, many of which have been played by renowned musicians, including members of the New York Philharmonic and the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

In one room sat one of the oldest and rarest collections of Pernambuco wood from the Amazon rainforest, Alvarez explained, which is now illegal to cut down because the resource became scarce owing to overharvesting to make bows. Kolstein’s, though, acquired its supply in the 1960s, before the ban on the wood, and received certification from the federal government that the wood is legal.

In another room, employees made Kolstein’s internationally sold rosin, a solid form of the sticky substance that comes from trees, similar to sap, which is applied to bows and creates friction on the instruments’ strings to produce sound.

Upstairs, basses sat in an attic-like room that is not climate-controlled so the instruments’ wood can expand and contract in the extreme temperatures of winter and summer before being sold to customers.

At the ceremony, Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé, a former string player who said she felt like she was in a “candy shop,” presented Alvarez with a citation. “I know [the shop has] been here for a long time, and it certainly has always been very well-respected, and I just hope that this can bring new attention,” she said. “And of course, Manny, we wish every success.”

“Every staff [member] here at Kolstein’s contributes to our success,” Alvarez said, “and I really, truly believe in my heart that this is a way for us to be able to continue to serve the Baldwin community and the string instrument community for many generations to come.”