The Little Rock Violin Shop has been serving musicians in central Arkansas and beyond since 2007 from its headquarters located in the MacArthur Park neighborhood, little more than a block away from the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts.
Luthier and shop owner Joe Joyner says he has always been a collector, and when he started playing in his sixth grade public school orchestra, his love for stringed instruments and their accessories was born.
“In high school, I visited a high-end violin shop in Chicago where I saw a Stradivarius violin for the first time,” Joyner says. “The beauty of the instrument inspired me, and the experience of being in a shop filled with such fantastic things sparked a passion in me. From that day forward I knew I wanted to work with violins.”
Today, Joyner plays viola with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, Conway Symphony Orchestra and the Little Rock String Quartet. He serves on the boards of the Chamber Music Society of Little Rock and the Violin Society of America. In 2024, he will co-chair the 50th anniversary of the VSA’s International Violin Making Competition.
All of this experience and expertise fuels the fire he has for the craft. The shop repairs, rents, sells and appraises violins, violas, cellos and double basses along with being a full-service resource that caters to the needs of string players by providing professional repair services and instruments, bows, cases and a full selection of strings and accessories.
The rest of the staff is just as dedicated as Joyner. Micah Donar is the cello specialist and maintains the inventory and rental program. Joshua Wheeler, according to Joyner, is a “phenomenal violin restorer” and began apprenticing at the shop when he was just 15 years old. Bow specialist Matthew Nicholson has developed a great reputation for the quality of his work, with professional players driving in from Dallas, Memphis and all surrounding states for repairs.
“We are always developing new repair apprentices at the shop and are very happy to have Grace Whitton, a cello student at UCA, working with us now,” Joyner adds.
The shop’s hardest workers, however, are likely the long-haired miniature dachshunds who serve as greeters. Omobono and Francesco are named for the sons of the great violin maker Antonio Stradivarius, and last year Ms. Dolly Barkin’ joined the team.
With Little Rock Joyner’s hometown, he knew all too well there was a need for professional instrument and bow repairs. After a seven-year tenure at the Lisle Violin Shop in Houston, he came home and started his business with a workbench and some tools.
“Violin repair and restoration is the heart of our business, and it is a very specialized field,” Joyner says. “Rather than dividing our attention on a broad range of instruments, we narrow our scope to focus on providing the best service and care to those who share our passion for bowed string instruments.”
The shop also works with schools and private teachers throughout the state to get beginner string students connected with rental instruments that are of good quality and fairly priced, along with bows that sound great.
“One of the great joys of working at [the Little Rock Violin Shop] is seeing student, amateur and professional musicians’ faces light up when they discover exciting sound possibilities while shopping for a new instrument. Like Harry Potter’s wand selection, it can also be magical when a player finds a new bow,” Joyner says.
“The expression and nuance that gives a player their unique sound comes mainly from the bow. If the instrument is the musician’s voice, then the bow is the breath that makes it sing.”
The shop is always growing and is currently working on streamlining its processes and reorganizing its space to improve workflow and create a more welcoming environment for customers. In 2020, it started working on a new website to help connect with customers who were stuck at home. Since then, online sales have increased considerably. According to Joyner, the new e-commerce capabilities not only serve as a convenience for shoppers, but also “help us connect to string players around the globe.”
When Joyner isn’t playing music or working at the shop, you’ll likely find him outside. He and the pups like to hike or play golf, a hobby he started while social distancing in 2020 when all of his musical performances were canceled. They oftentimes bring Joyner’s wife Erica and their daughter EK along.
“I am very optimistic for the future of the arts in Arkansas,” Joyner says.
He goes on to express his enthusiasm about the neighboring AMFA, the Chamber Music Society’s world-class performers and its student outreach programs. He’s particularly excited for the ASO to break ground on its new headquarters nearby in East Village and about its new music director Geoffrey Robson, and how both will “help ensure the future success of the orchestra and nurture the next generation of classical music artists and concertgoers.”
And between it all, there on Eleventh Street, the Little Rock Violin Shop will keep humming away in perfect harmony.