A passion passed on from father to son.
That’s how Robert Riccardi Jr. describes the business he inherited, Riccardi's Violin Shop.
Riccardi is a luthier, a craftsman who makes, repairs or restores stringed instruments.
Inside his garage on Hickstown Road in the Gloucester Township’s Sicklerville section, Riccardi focuses on repair and restoration, giving new life to ailing upright basses, violins, violas and cellos.
With the closing in recent years of bigger shops, such as Moenning & Son in Philadelphia, smaller ones like Riccardi’s are filling the gap for musicians who need a trusted technician to fix their instruments
Despite his love of the craft, lutherie isn’t Riccardi’s full-time occupation—education is. He’s principal at Winslow Township School No. 2, an elementary school.
He spends most of his time in the shop on nights and weekends.
“What I enjoy is putting on jazz or classical (on the stereo) and being able to engross myself in the repair,” he said in a recent interview at the shop.
And the repair work certainly isn’t a desk job.
“This is a nice way to do something with my hands that’s gratifying,” said Riccardi, 42.
It’s also a way for him to maintain the tradition his father, Robert Sr., started.
The elder Riccardi, who came from a musical family in South Philadelphia, played upright bass in the Pennsylvania Ballet orchestra. Beginning in the mid-1960s, Riccardi Sr. repaired bows at a small shop on Merchantville Avenue in Pennsauken. He also repaired instruments when time permitted. But by the early 1980s, budget cutbacks meant the ballet was touring less, and Riccardi Sr. struggled to support his family. He turned his attention to the repair shop.
"He needed to rely on it more," the younger Riccardi recalled.
A good chunk of the shop’s business came through repairing instruments for area schools and their students, and for fellow musicians.
'Each instrument has its own personality'
Robert Jr. started learning the craft while still in elementary school.
“In third grade, I was always in the shop with my dad,” Robert Riccardi Jr. recalled.
“I studied with my dad, playing double bass, but he pushed me more toward school, because of how hard he struggled financially,” he added.
The younger Riccardi went on to graduate from Rowan University with a teaching degree. He continued working in the family shop until 2006, when his father died.
Faced with closing the Pennsauken location for good, he decided to move the shop to his Gloucester Township garage instead.
Inside Riccardi’s shop on a recent summer evening, the smell of sawdust hung in the air. Rows of upright basses, a few resting between sawhorses, awaited his attention.
Some of the basses had warped necks. Others had bridges askew.
Riccardi wore a work apron over a Philadelphia Phillies T-shirt, khaki shorts and sandals. The tools of his trade—chisels, gouges, files, specialty cutting knives—spilled over onto an oblong work bench as he repaired the fingerboard of a 1940s Kay bass.
Although Robert Jr. only plays bass as a hobby, even then there’s a family connection. He practices on his father’s full-sized Hungarian bass, which dates back to the late 1700s or early 1800s.
One of the keys to being a good luthier, Riccardi said, is to understand what musicians want out of their instruments.
“I take the time to really listen to each player,” he said. “Each instrument has its own personality, and it takes time to connect the two.”
A family affair
Riccardi’s wife, Deborah, helps out around the shop, and daughter Emily, 12, constantly pops in to ask questions about instrument repair. Emily studies upright bass, which she took up two years ago.
“It reminds me of myself” at a younger age, Riccardi said with a smile. It’s too soon to tell whether his son, Robert III, who’s 6, will show a similar interest.
Asked if Emily might someday take over the shop from him, Riccardi beamed and said, "I could certainly see her doing that."
Although there’ s been a major shift from larger to smaller shops, there will always be a need for expert instrument repairers, said Tim Olsen, president of the Guild of American Luthiers in Tacoma, WA.
“These days, there are many thousands of decent new instruments flooding the world from China,” Olsen said in an email. “Those all need expert set-up and repair work, and will for decades to come. Plus, all the old American and European fiddles are still around, and the older they get, the more work they need.”
So, the tuneful tradition Riccardi inherited will keep on playing.
“My dad left a beautiful gift,” Riccardi said, “as far as the reputation he built.”