You have to be looking for Juan Pablo Mijares’s violin shop to find it. The storefront is tucked deep behind an alleyway in downtown Colorado Springs. Small details make the place feel decidedly old world, from the carved wooden sign above the entrance to the plink of violin strings that serve as door chimes. On a recent visit to Mijares’s shop, he says some of his customers declare the place is even otherworldly.
“They compare this to the Harry Potter, the—what's it called?—the Diagon Alley or something like [that]. They walk in here and they go, ‘Wow, this is, you know, an amazing thing right here off the alley.’ And they don't expect it.”
And what he does inside is magical. He turns pieces of wood and animal guts, hairs, and hide into delicate but durable musical instruments.
“You're taking just two or three hundred dollars worth of wood and you make it into maybe a 10 or 20 thousand dollar instrument that you can sell,” Mijares says. “So there's a lot of value created there. And then it lasts for three or four hundred years.”
It’s a busy time of year for the luthier who makes and restores instruments in the violin family. Professional musicians are calling him as they get ready for holiday concerts and college students home for winter break come in for repairs and tune-ups.
He says there’s a strong musical tradition during winter holidays because it has the power to evoke memories.
“You have all these warm memories that are kind of associated with this particular music that brings back these these nice feelings from your past.”
The holidays also underscore for Mijares how he’s swimming upstream against the tide of disposable gadgets in today’s economy. He relishes working with centuries-old instruments, violins that, when played, “you can almost feel the music that's in that violin when they play it, it's still there somehow.”
Old and new instruments fill his entry room. Violins, violas, cellos, upright basses. The space has 14-foot-tall coffered ceilings for good acoustics. It’s homey with plush chairs, framed pictures, and a sofa in the corner. And through another doorway—the workshop.
“My favorite thing to do is the violin making,” Mijares says. “That's what I went to school for, was to be a maker and business has gotten busy. So there's dealing with customers and repairs and sales. But I try to get in here really early where I can actually work on building violins.”
Mijares points to two panels of wood on his workbench, each carved in the classic shape of a violin silhouette.
“So here's one that we're building, a viola, actually.” he says.
It’s for his 19-year-old son. All five of his children and his wife play stringed instruments.
One of the wood panels he holds up has a sort of tiger stripe pattern in its grain. He’s already added a fine inlay of ebony called a “purfling” to highlight the outer edges of the shapes.
“So this is the back which is made out of flamed maple material and it's heavier, a stronger wood for the back and the sides and the neck,” he says. “And then the top is made out of spruce, which is a lighter, more resonant wood for the top.”
Sometimes Mijares harvests his own spruce from high-elevation forests in Colorado.
He shows me a rack full of chisels, planes, knives, and gouges. He says 95% of the tools he uses are hand tools for carving and inlaying wood. And he doesn’t use any nails or screws to fasten the pieces, just glue.
“That's one thing in a factory where they're just cranking out the instruments, they don't take the time to tune them and adjust them the way we can when we're building them one at a time we can tune each instrument individually and hopefully then you get a master instrument, a really fine instrument,” he says.
He learned all of this from attending one of the country’s premier luthier schools in the country, the Violin Making School of America in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was founded and run by Mijares’s mentor, German luthier Peter Prier.
“I think he came to that area because of the mountains,” Mijares says. “And it reminded him of where he came from in Mittenwald with the mountains and the Black Forest and all that. He found it's similar there in Salt Lake and he liked that area.”
Like his mentor, Mijares was also drawn to living in the mountains—because he loves to ski.
“I have a bad reputation,” he says. “When there's a powder day, I close the door and I go ski. I just can't help it.”
In addition to skiing, Mijares also loves playing the violin, but he’s the first to admit that building, not playing, is his gift.
“I practice every day,” he says. “I never seem to get any better, but I practice every morning because I just love, it's part of my, you know, my routine.
He plays a bit of a Bach sonata on a violin he built himself.
“I may not be famous or well-known, but just the idea that someone, somewhere will be appreciating something that I did maybe 100 or 200 years from now, that's kind of a nice thing,” he says.
And as for the longevity of his business?
“My youngest little girl, who's only 10, she seems to be the one who's very good with her hands and always building and making things and gluing things,” he says. “And she talks about taking over for me and kicking me out of the business. So we’ll see. “
Until then, Juan Mijares will be here with his wood, chisels, and glue. Unless, of course, it’s a powder day.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.