Welcome to our brand new series of articles on those retailers who choose to concentrate only on one very specific product or expertise. In a world where so many are jacks of all trades – we meet the masters of one.
Name: Bridgewood & Neitzert
Location: Stoke Newington Church Street, Hackney.
Specialism: The making and repairing of stringed instruments
Walking into Bridgewood & Neitzert’s tall thin town house in Hackney is what it must have been like to go into a medieval craftsman’s workshop with its retail unit and practice room on the ground floor and several floors above full of heavy machinery, work tools and very delicate instruments in varying stages of creation and repair.
But as Gary Bridgewood, co-founder along with Tom Neitzert, explains the company has only been in this venue for around 25 years after a nomadic beginning in various places around Hackney. Having been nearly priced out of London by the rents, they managed to buy this run-down and derelict shop on Stoke Newington Church Street – long before it became the chi-chi street it is now.
Bridgewood describes the business as a specialised dealer, maker and repairer of violins, cellos and double basses with an international reputation for the even more niche area of baroque and classical period instruments. It is in effect a walking advertisement for the fact that if you are good enough at what you do then the customers will come to you wherever you are.
They currently work with the Museums and Galleries Commission and the National Trust and as well as multiple orchestras including the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and The English Concert. And they serve customers ranging from buskers with street-scratched violins to school children getting their first cello to top amateurs – and they treat each and every instrument that comes their way with the same love.
Helped by the fact that London is a major orchestra stop off and touring destination, the company has grown to include eight employees working in instrument building and restoration with four retail staff. Right now you can add a £20,000 baroque violin made in London in 1680 to your shopping cart or a violone of the 1560s for £12.500. No advertising is needed as word of mouth initially and just their long-standing reputation now gives them all the sales oxygen they need.
Gary Bridgewood knew he wanted to make instruments from time he was a very small boy – watching his father work with wood and loving music – it was the natural intersection of the two. After a four year course at the London College of Furniture which at that time had a department devoted to instrument making and a period of training with a restorer he and several friends rented their first workshop in 1982.
They made 12-15 violins a year and were doing well but then moved to rent a whole floor in a Hackney warehouse. This became the first Bridgewood & Neitzert shop with a tiny part of the workshop floor partitioned off to form a retail space and Bridgewood recalls how their already world-class clientele would climb up through the sweatshops on the floors below to reach them.
At first the craftsmen treated the requests for restoration as a mere interruption to their usual work but soon realised that it could form a new and lucrative string to their metaphorical retail bow.
Bridgewood admits that being such a specialist retailer can have its occasional drawbacks noting that there has been pressure from customers to expand in the past – for example into guitar repair and making – which the company has been unwilling to enter into on the grounds that their incredibly high end expertise is just far less necessary for most guitars. To that end Bridgewood & Neitzert has no expansion plans although innovation is always ongoing as they develop new ways to repair instruments.
With their competitors countable on the fingers of one hand and a growth in interest in period instruments, Bridgewood feels that the advantages of being specialised far outweigh the cons. “Our customers are in awe of what we do” he says, which is probably the best reason not to lose the niche focus.