Volume 18 • Issue 4 | JUNE 17-23, 20

Downtown Express photos by Elisabeth Robert

David Gage says basses “age like wine. They keep getting better and better.”

Where basses get a chance for encores

By Ellen Keohane

David Gage’s String Instrument Repair shop is easy to miss on 36 Walker St. in Tribeca. Only a small oval wooden sign in the front window indicates its presence among the textile shops that line the sleepy street. After getting buzzed through the metal front door, visitors walk through a cluttered hallway toward the back of the shop’s first floor, which is the heart of Gage’s business — the workshop.

There, on a recent Thursday afternoon, Gage worked on an old German stringed bass owned by a woman who plays for the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center. Its neck had cracked and part of it had to be replaced, said Gage. He pointed to where he had grafted a new piece of Birdseye Maple into the existing neck. Now that Gage had completed the repair, he worked on “setting up” the instrument — adjusting its feel and sound. “Like tuning your car or bike,” Gage explained.

When possible, Gage and his employees try to save as much of the original instrument as they can. “We don’t throw anything out. We re-use everything,” he explained. “Basses can be fixed and still sound really good.”

Basses can range in price from $800 into the thousands, depending on their craftsmanship and age. In general, the older a bass is, the more valuable it is. “They age like wine,” said Gage. “They keep getting better and better.”

With black-rimmed glasses and floppy gray hair, Gage, 54, talks with boundless enthusiasm about his business, which he started in 1978 on Chambers St. The shop later moved to Reade St., before finally settling in its present location in 1990. The business has now grown to ten employees, including his wife, Judy Epstein, 53, who is a co-owner and has worked at the shop since 1987. His 21-year-old nephew, Simon Propert, started working at the bass shop a little over a year ago. Others, like Sprocket Royer and Mike Weatherly have worked there for almost 25 years.

Gage and his wife are also Tribeca residents, and their two children, who are now 21 and 17, both attended Tribeca schools.

Although the heart of Gage’s business is repair, he said, they also rent out and sell new and used instruments, many on consignment. The second and third floors house the shop’s instrument showroom, where rows of basses are lined up and violins hang from the walls. They also sell travel cases, amplifiers, cables, bows, strings and rosin (what musicians put on the hair of the bow to add friction), as well as other accessories. “There’s nothing quite like this shop in New York City,” said Gage. “We do it all. We have it all.” Although Kolstein Music, Inc. is close to what we are, they’re located on Long Island, said Gage.

Gage’s customers range from classical and jazz musicians to hip-hop, rock, country and world music artists, he said. “String bass is getting more and more popular.”

Signed and framed photographs of noted customers line the shop’s first floor space and the stairwell leading upstairs. Bassists Ron Carter, Scott Colley, Tim Cobb and jazz guitarist Jim Hall all come into the shop. Even Bill Cosby is a customer. “He’s a bass nut,” said Gage, who is currently repairing two of the comedian’s basses.

“We do a lot of work for people on Broadway, as well as the Metropolitan Opera,” Gage said. People also ship their basses, cellos and violins to Gage’s shop from across the U.S. and Europe, he said. Aside from the shop’s Web site, they rarely advertise. Most hear about the shop through word of mouth.

Conal Fowkes, 38, stopped by recently looking for an amp for his string bass. Fowkes, who moved to New York from England nine years ago, heard about Gage’s shop from other musicians, he said. “All my repair work is done here,” said Fowkes, who plays with Woody Allen and His New Orleans Jazz Band. “The guys here are wonderful with the work they do. Instruments are like children, you want to trust the person you put their care in.”

Gage also sells his own patented products including a travel case for basses and cellos, which he designed in the early 1980s. Gage, along with Ned Steinberger, also designed an acoustic transducer for bass, cello, violin and viola, which they named “The Realist.” The transducer fits under the instrument’s bridge, and is then plugged into an amplifier. Retailing for $180, it’s our “bread and butter” product, Gage said.

His newest product is a travel bass called the “Czech-Ease,” which is manufactured in the Czech Republic, then shipped in pieces to Gage’s shop where it is assembled. The Czech-Ease is smaller and lighter than a traditional bass, which makes it easier to transport. Airplanes are less likely to charge musicians extra money for checking it, Gage said. In addition, the Czech-Ease (the pun is intentional) easily fits into cabs and elevators.

Gage, himself, started playing the electric bass when he was 12. His band went on to open for Jefferson Airplane, James Taylor and the Grateful Dead, he said. At 18, he picked up the string bass. “It was a hard transition over,” he said. “[They’re] really different instruments.”

After attending the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Gage moved to New York City in 1976. He soon started working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week at a bass repair shop owned by Chuck Trager. “I couldn’t work and play bass at the same time,” Gage said. “I was embarrassing myself because I wasn’t practicing enough.” Two years later, Gage started his own bass repair business.

“Bass instruments are all very different. They’re like people, they really are,” said Gage as he pointed out the subtle differences in the shapes and sizes of the various basses in his showroom. “You fall in love with these guys.”

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