North Coast Journal



Zampler, violins

by Miv Schaaf

I am taking some art to be photocopied, no time to spare. I hurry through funny swinging doors and up two flights of dark wooden stairs with rubber mats that visually suggest their own sad odor -- an odor associated somehow with winter and cold and failure and yes -- Michigan.

That's it! I am back in Lansing, going up stairs exactly like these when I was what -- 14? Where was I going? To the violin maker, way up in the dusty gloom of his little shop, up at the top of the stairs.

You came in from the winter day with a sense of urgency, for the only reason you came was because of a disaster beyond your power to fix. No one in the whole world -- the whole world of Lansing, Mich. -- could fix it but the man at the top of those stairs.

It got darker as you went up so that it always seemed late evening when you opened the glass door -- Zampler, VIOLINS, it said in shaded gold letters. Nothing more. It had a striking austerity, that announcement on the door; it distanced itself from all the strident advertising slogans emblazoned on other glass doors at the street level. Those gold letters looked very old, as old as Mr. Zampler himself, who allowed you time once again to admire the pizzicato chord sounding from a violin he had installed above the door instead of a doorbell.

You waited for Mr. Zampler in a depressed mood, for the sense of poverty increased as you went up to his shop. Still, there were fascinating things to see under an incredibly dusty counter -- polished ebony mutes of all sizes, silver strings in glass tubes, sets of pegs, some with ivory dots on the side -- all for violins.

There were never any harmonicas or clarinets or brass mouthpieces or new things like those you saw in the music shop on Walnut Street. No, Mr. Zampler dealt only in violins. He still made them, one or two a year, in the back room you could never see no matter how you craned your neck and stood on your toes.

There was a different smell up there, too -- glue and wood and rosin and age. As you waited, you heard Mr. Zampler's grandson practicing the violin somewhere in the back room; a quiet boy with glasses who practiced five hours every day and wore a dark blue suit to school, where he was an outsider, an oddity.

Mr. Zampler emerged from the shadows, fine sawdust on his thumbs, and looked wonderingly at you through clouded glasses. He never recognized anyone (at least he never recognized me) and he never reached for your violin. He always stood there, behind his glassed counter, behind his glasses, in his own glass world, and waited, eternally patient, while you, embarrassed, intense, worried, pieced out your violin troubles.

"May I see?" he would say. Only then would you hand your violin to him. He held it as though it were a priceless instrument instead of the school rental one, and bent bushy eyebrows over it. "Yah, yah, I see! You leave. I fix by Tuesday."

You never dared ask Mr. Zampler if he could have it ready by Monday; you never questioned Mr. Zampler. If he said the bridge would be fixed Tuesday, you nodded dumbly, gratefully, and were back again on Tuesday.

Even at 14 I was always vaguely embarrassed for Mr. Zampler, his grandson still practicing in the back room, drudging away in his shiny navy suit (how odd for a child in Michigan!), the store so shabby, so poor. And the worst -- those stairs. Failure -- poor foreign, hard-working failure -- lay on every tread of those stair; Mr. Zampler's was three flights up and no successful merchant was three flights up.

But Mr. Zampler never had the least tinge of despair about him. He was nearsighted and perhaps could not see the shabbiness, or he was fogged in by music; he did what he was here to do, work on violins.

The stairs never looked so dingy going down, for there was something else I always found at the top of those stairs, making the sun seem brighter when I went outdoors again. I didn't know the name of it when I was a child, but it was integrity, and that was pretty rare in Lansing.

Mr. Zampler must be dead now. The poor little grandson? A Zampler conducts one of the biggest philharmonics in the East now. I think I knew his grandfather.


Miv Schaaf is a former columnist for the L.A. Times.

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