“I play the cello, but I’m not a cellist,” clarifies Keller Strings’ Paula Keller Smith. Paula, her husband John, and their charming 10 year old Boston terrier Cooper became Riverbend’s newest New Orleanians June 1, 2013, transplanting their decades-old business in stringed instrument restoration and repair from Kansas. To meet them and hear their story is at once refreshing and uplifting: one part love story, two parts musical passion, and a liberal sprinkling of creativity and drive and voila! (or viola!), you have New Orleans’ latest — for lack of a better descriptor — “violin shop.”
My meeting the couple goes back a little bit, but then that’s New Orleans: two degrees of separation and all that. What I didn’t know is that they’d not only become residents but opened up shop just off Leake Avenue on Hampson at Dublin all in the last little while, until my 9-year-old daughter’s viola needs brought us to darken their door. At first my scatterbrained cranial parts didn’t connect the dots, until John did it for me. “We’ve met before – – – ” And so we had. Only there remained a gaping hole in the what, how, why, when, where. I now needed to know their story.
In 1975 Paula’s father took over an existing string business from another unrelated party and made it his own. “By 1990, my father had over 400 stringed instruments that were leased all over the state of Kansas, and he was still doing his billing by hand,” Paula says. And that’s when she got into the business proper. Shortly after her formal entry into the well-established “family” business, she hired John, and he worked — for free. “I mostly sold guitars,” he adds.
As the business gained more momentum, John began receiving a wage, and by 1995 Paula and John were married. Prior to the recession the couple had six employees, but as with all budget cuts when financial times get wary, art dollars are the first to go. So never abandoning their calling, the business became more streamlined until a relocation to the Crescent City became the goal. Now, seven months into their doors opening here, they average two new customers a day and foresee an intern in the near future and likely paid staff afterward.
Presently the shop is run by the three of them; you see, Cooper isn’t just a pretty face. And while he’s not on the payroll per se he is often an instant audience and fully engaged in the goings-on. He actively followed us around the shop as I received a tour of the space. Maybe most notably was in the practice room where Paula and John were showing me a 1/8 scale upright bass, and Cooper sat encircled with us as if he were also relaying the provenance of the instrument.
While Paula and John do play some stringed instruments, neither considers themselves players. And while John is self-taught on guitar, you won’t find one in the shop; it isn’t their focus. New Orleans has that. Brass too. At Keller it’s all about the strings. John offers “There are people that hear about us and walk in the door only to say ‘Oh, you really are a violin shop!'” Conversely some naysayers scoff that the Big Easy’s brass sound trumps what a string shop can do, but the proof is in their steady and growing business.
It’s clear Paula and John are providing a service the city has been lacking in, which frankly is funny when you consider the musical poise New Orleans possesses. Their clients drive in from all over the Gulf Coast. And as their first-year anniversary approaches this June, their hope is to provide an outdoor music series on Dublin Park and beyond that a bluegrass festival for the not-too-distant future can be seen twinkling in their eyes.
As much effort and change that has brought Keller Strings to New Orleans, I asked what might be the biggest surprise for them in their journey to here. “That we’re home,” John says after a long pause. Neither is a native, though one of their daughters does reside here, and of course they have plenty of family and friends back in Kansas too. But in a relatively short amount of time they have achieved a sense of place, like a skilled musician wielding an instrument, seemingly effortlessly.
Keller Strings is located at 8209 Hampson, and their hours are Tues-Fri 10-7, Sat 10-4 & Sun 12-4. Their phone number is 504-265-0530, or send them an email at email@example.com.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and Du Mois Gallery on Freret Street and a married father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also shares his family’s adventures sometimes via pedicab or bicycle on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.