Music: Conducting Business
Steve Uhrik spends most Friday mornings at church. He and his business associate, Lawrence Trupiano, make the short trip from their shop in Brooklyn to Manhattan’s St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue—where they go to work, not worship. Uhrik and Trupiano perform a couple of hours’ worth of adjustments on the church’s organs, the largest of which dates to 1913, has more than 9,000 pipes, and can produce sounds to put the fear of God into the congregation.
Despite his work at St. Thomas, Uhrik is by no means devoted solely to organs. His business, New York String Service (and its subsidiary, Retrofret), involves all sorts of instruments: classic electric guitars by Gibson and Fender, Moog analog keyboards, 19th-century banjos, Hawaiian steel guitars, antique pocket violins, balalaikas, sitars, and Civil War–era military drums. Uhrik and his staff of six full-time employees have recently appraised, restored, repaired, tuned, serviced, or sold all of these instruments. (Retrofret concentrates on 20th-century stringed instruments, while New York String Service works on or sells everything else.)
Uhrik, who is 53, graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School in the 1970s, and at age 17 he began apprenticing for a violin-making and restoration shop in Midtown Manhattan. After three years he left that business, because, he says, he was "still interested in things outside the violin world." In 1975, Uhrik and Trupiano, who remains a pipe-organ specialist, cofounded the business that evolved into the New York String Service, which they now operate out of a former ASPCA shelter in Brooklyn.
One afternoon earlier this year, Uhrik was showing off the company’s inventory of instruments when one of his colleagues, Peter Kohman, retrieved from the shop safe a 19th-century guitar made by Spanish luthier Antonio de Torres Jurado, who is considered the Stradivari of classical-guitar makers. The instrument, one of fewer than 200 Torres-made guitars that still exist, is worth at least $150,000. As Kohman played the guitar, Uhrik, clearly thrilled to be in possession of such a precious item, consulted a reference book on Torres and pointed out the pages on which the author discussed this particular instrument.
Uhrik is fascinated by valuable rarities such as the Torres guitar, and he enjoys handling instruments that most people never have seen, such as the ophicleide, a slim predecessor to the tuba, and the serpent, a curvy ancestor of both. But primarily he is concerned with running a shop that dazzles patrons without daunting them. "You can come, sit in a very relaxed atmosphere, and try guitars. You will not have someone standing over your shoulder trying to close the sale. Maybe you want to try a Gibson J-45 [acoustic guitar] from 1946, 1950, 1952, and 1957," he says, explaining that New York String Service has examples of all of these models for customers to play and compare. "You can see how different the sound is, the differences in feel, how it fits your hand."
For musicians, Uhrik’s shop may not be a place of worship, but it is certainly a sanctuary.