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Philadelphia violin shop closing signals death of an era

PHILADELPHIA — Over the past century, some of the world's best violinists developed trust in William Moennig & Son, a storied shop they could go to for repairs, adjustments, new instruments and bows.

String players returned to Moennig through the Great Depression, two world wars and an evolution in classical music as tastes changed. From Isaac Stern to Itzhak Perlman to Philadelphia Orchestra greats, they consulted four generations of Moennigs.

Now, Moennig's run has ended abruptly, stunning many in the violin community and symbolizing the ever-evolving nature of the specialized industry. The shop quietly closed its doors in mid-December, its owners citing the end of a generational line and an era in which big operations like theirs have become dinosaurs.

"It's now the era of smaller shops," said Mike Purcell, who is starting on his own after working at Moennig for 22 years. "It's like a death in a way for people."

Since the 1950s, big shops like Moennig have been closing across the country as more people develop the skills to repair, appraise and sell violins and other stringed instruments. That has led to many more smaller shops and made relics of the bigger ones.

The renowned Wurlitzer shop closed in New York in the 1970s; Moennig bought much of their collection. The changing industry has led to the closure of many other well-known big shops, including, among many others, W.E. Hill & Sons in London and, in the 1990s, Jacques Francais Rare Violins Inc. in New York.

"Moennig represented a certain style of shop that is perhaps becoming obsolete," said Tom Wilder, president of the American Federation of Violin and Bowmakers. "That is the full-service shops, they are becoming rarer and rarer."

Moennig & Son was founded in 1909 by William Moennig Sr., after he immigrated to the United States from Markneukirchen, Germany. The family business was passed down through the generations, to his son, William Moennig Jr., and then to his grandson, William Moennig III.

William Moennig Jr. became a prominent maker and dealer and catapulted the shop into prominence in the 1920s and '30s and into the '40s, said Dick Donovan, who worked at Moennig for 38 years.

By the 1980s and 1990s, Donovan said, books dedicated to making and repairing violins proliferated, making it even harder for big shops to survive as more people learned to do the work.

"The perception was that the big shop was too cumbersome," Donovan said, adding that Moennig & Son once employed about 20 people. "The little guys, the diaspora model, was going to be the model."

As business got tougher in recent years, William Moennig IV and his sister, Pamela Moennig Taplinger, decided late last year they had no choice but to close.

Taplinger said that her brother doesn't have children and that her daughter wasn't looking to take over the family business.

"There was nobody else to pass it on to," she said.

They looked into trying to sell the business but didn't find any takers.

"This is sad to me, very sad," Taplinger said, as she watched workers clean out the building this week. "There's a whole history. There was a life that went on here."

The building has been sold and the new owner plans to turn it into a residence, Taplinger said. Next month, a New York auction house will sell off scores of violins, violas, cellos, memorabilia and other instruments.

"It's such an incredible thing to have a violin shop carry on for over a hundred years as they did," said Eric Grossman, curator of the string instrument collection at the renowned Juilliard School in New York.

At Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, which produces world-class musicians just blocks from the shop, students and faculty members had trusted Moennig for years.

Musicians' instruments are their livelihood, and they go to great lengths to develop trusted relationships with those who work on them — especially since good violins can cost $4,000 to more than $15 million.

"To me, it was a personal loss," said renowned soloist Victor Danchenko, who has performed with orchestras across the globe and taken his violins to Moennig since emigrating from the former Soviet Union in 1977. "We should really trust our physician, our car mechanic, and our violin maker and restorer and dealer."

The closure also comes at a turbulent time in the classical music world, with many big-city orchestras struggling.

Citing sagging attendance and beleaguered finances, Philadelphia Orchestra officials recently said they are concerned about the possibility of having to declare bankruptcy. The Cleveland Orchestra went on strike last month over a pay dispute with management.

But even in tough times, some in the Moennig family hoped the shop could be kept open.

Mary Zahn-Moennig, the second wife of the late William Moennig III, said that — even though she understood why her stepchildren chose to shutter — she had desperately hoped they would find a way to keep the shop's legacy going.

"It was like another death," Zahn-Moennig said of the closing. "It came through the Depression, but it didn't get through this."