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Member Spotlight: Carrabba Violin Shop

BECU Business spoke with business member Rafael Carrabba, a revered luthier known around the globe for his Queen Anne instrument shop.

BECU: Okay, first of all – what is a luthier?
RC: A maker of instruments – more instrument making, than repairing. It applies to string instruments.

BECU: That sounds incredibly difficult! How did you learn the trade?
RC: I started as a repairman/restorer at the age of 12 years old.

BECU: Twelve seems pretty young.
RC: Well, I was working with my mom: She took my dad's bass to get repaired where David Saunders had his shop. He couldn't take it. My mom thought, ‘if he's so busy, maybe I can get a job.'

He then hired her, and a couple months later, he was saying there are few people going into the trade. She said, ‘my son's good with his hands; he plays the violin, can he come in and work?' A couple years later, he took me under his wing and said, ‘one day, this will all be yours.'

I just took him at his word. And that's basically it.

BECU: You must have a natural knack for it.
RC: Making [instruments] is a wonderful outlet for creativity – it's very creative to do detailed restorations.

BECU: Is it just you? Or do you have a team?
RC: I have a whole team of very talented, very good people. There are few shops in the world today that pay a salary and keep long-term employees. But we do. We invest a lot of money in time and education. I treat them well – good holidays, great pay.

BECU: Happy employees do great work – no wonder your shop is successful! Why did you choose to work with BECU?
RC: Everybody – from the business manager to the tellers and people I can call – they're all fabulous, well trained, kind, engaging people. I'm always happy. It's a great relationship; it's important who takes care of you financially, legally, accounting – I feel like I have it pretty well taken care of.

BECU: Happy to hear it! That gives you more time to work on projects.
RC: And we get a lot of them.

BECU: What kind of projects?
RC: Restorations, mainly, some jobs that take years to restore. They're so involved you can't put the time in one go [to finish].

Right now we are restoring a Stradivari cello for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. It was left on the front porch of the principle player's house, and a kid running by on his bike picked it up and biked away. The kid left it in the garbage. Someone else found it and was going to make a CD case out of it.

BECU: Glad it's not going to be a CD case.
RC: You and me both.

BECU: Do the big projects take up most of your time?
RC: Oh, not at all. We're not all major renovations. We sell quite a bit in the lower price range to students – it's a large core of our day-to-day business; however, we do a lot of work for other people – we're getting a reputation for that. We did a four-month restoration on an early 18th century Roman cello for a client in Chicago.

And, we just got another Roman cello delivered yesterday – they can't sell it unless it sounds well.

BECU: Makes sense! Do you get much local business?
RC: Every day. We do sales, restorations, repairs, and we maintain what we sell. People come in for minor repairs; come in for bows, cases, $5 rosin, re-hair bows. We just stay busy.

What's really wonderful is that we develop personal relationships over time. People really identify with their instruments – they have an idea of a sound, a tone they want to create. If their instrument doesn't perform that, it can be emotionally very hard on people. And we take care of them. They're so delighted when we can get it sounding even better. I've sold violins to young girls with purple hair and now they're mothers having children, working professionally. I've lived and worked long enough to see people mature and grow up.

BECU: That's lovely to be in one place and witness that history.
RC: It sure is.