The smell of smoke lingers on some of the instruments and tools in Will Scherer’s new violin shop in downtown Louisville.
It seeped into them when the Marshall Fire tore through Boulder County last December. The fire — the most destructive in Colorado history — burned more than 1,000 homes and businesses, including the house Scherer lived in on Sunflower Street. That’s also where he ran his small business building and fixing violins.
Scherer was out of town for the holidays when the fire broke out. He remembers watching the tragedy unfold from a television screen in Arizona as his neighborhood, along with most of his life’s work, was destroyed.
“Our house was right in the middle of it all,” Scherer said, recounting the night of Dec. 30. “I couldn’t do anything.”
When he, along with his wife and two kids, returned to town two days later, they found that their home was still standing. Miraculously, firefighters had saved it.
But inside, black ash covered everything. In his basement shop, the heat had gotten so intense that it melted piles of plastic violin cases. The entire place smelled like a campfire.
The damage was too severe for his family to move back in, much less keep the business open.
“We had to shut everything down,” Scherer said. “I thought everything was unsalvageable.”
Scherer moved his family into a long-term rental home in Boulder and focused on processing the tragedy.
When word got out in the community that his house and shop were ruined, friends and music fans stepped up to help.
Two friends joined Scherer for a recovery expedition into the charred workshop, which turned up a cache of undamaged tools in a cabinet. And as the group moved through the filth, Scherer came across a locked closet
He cried tears of joy as he opened it. Inside was a group of violins, including the first one he’d ever made in 2013. The light brown, mid-sized instrument was fully intact. Luckily, Scherer had locked it away a few days before his holiday trip.
“We found out we could save about half of what was in there,” he said. “That’s when I knew I had to reopen as soon as I could.”
That process would end up taking him eight months.
One of the first hurdles he hit was dealing with his insurance company. Many of the destroyed items in his shop, including client instruments, were not covered. The suggested payout from his homeowners insurance didn’t cover the damage.
“I was underinsured for what I had going, because you run a business and you grow a business and you don't always revisit that insurance policy the way you should,” he said. “And that story probably echoes for a lot of other families in the Louisville and Superior area.”
Another roadblock was finding a retail space in which to reopen
Rents, like housing prices, soared in the aftermath of the Marshall Fire due to low supply and high demand. Scherer toured at least half a dozen places, but felt priced out.
When he heard about the damage, Andy Clark, Scherer’s friend and the owner of Moxie Bakery in Louisville, started a GoFundMe to round up money for him.
“Scherer Violin Shop has put instruments in the hands of many of our children,” Clark wrote on the fundraiser page. “Their impact on the community is hard to overstate. I wanted to see these guys get back in the saddle and continue to spread their musical joy to the community as soon as possible.”
The effort raised more than $50,000 from local venues like Planet Bluegrass. Local music radio station hosts mentioned it on-air. Longtime customers, and even some strangers, chipped in.
“My 100+ year old violin has never sounded better since you worked on it,” one contributor wrote.
“Master artisans should be supported,” wrote another.
One local family, whose father was also a luthier and had recently passed away, called Scherer to donate leftover tools and instruments to keep his business going.
“I feel really lucky that the music community really wants to see a violin shop survive and thrive,” Scherer said. “It’s made us all realize that we have a shared future.”
After a few months of looking for a space, a friend of a friend told him that a business in downtown Louisville was about to give up its lease. The landlord, upon hearing Scherer’s story, gave him first dibs to take over the lease this summer.
With the help of a friend, he redecorated the inside of the store just off of Main Street.
It has a large workshop in the back big enough to hold dozens of violins. The front room features instruments on display that Scherer made himself. On the wall, he framed three violins that were salvaged from the fire damage, including one that his wife’s grandmother gave him before she passed away.
He’s scheduled a grand opening on Aug. 20.
“I hope there's a lot of music playing happening here,” Scherer said. “And I hope to see a lot of the families and kids that rented instruments from me in the last couple of years come back.”
The city of Louisville estimates at least 80 storefronts had to shut their doors due to fire damage or the extended boil water order put in place following the blaze.
“Only a handful haven’t reopened at this point,” said Austin Brown, economic vitality specialist for the city.
The business community’s recovery has mostly flown under the radar, Brown said, because most of the recovery efforts have been focused on individual residents who are rebuilding homes — a process expected to take years.
“I think it’s been kind of a sensitive time for businesses to ask for any sort of assistance with the knowledge that residents lost their homes,” Brown said.
Local chambers of commerce also lost some of their staff due to the fire, which has put a strain on recovery efforts. Directors of both the Louisville and the Superior chambers stepped down from their posts this summer.
“It’s been nonstop,” said Deana Miller, the Superior chamber’s former president, who helped coordinate recovery efforts for local restaurants and big-box stores, such as the local Target, that were damaged by the fire. “But we are seeing progress.”
In the weeks leading up to his grand reopening, Scherer has focused on taking care of his mental health. After the fire, he started having anxiety and panic attacks about the future of his family and the long rebuilding process for their home, which is expected to take at least a year or two.
To help, he took a three-week trip along the East Coast where he participated in violin-making courses and purchased wood for new projects to start back home.
One of them is a new violin he’s building out of soot-covered wood planks from the fire. One of the maple pieces looks like it’s been dipped in coffee, Scherer points out.
He uses a tool called a block plane to shave off microns of wood at a time, which helps clean the surface.
Scherer knows that the community’s recovery from the fire, eight months later, is still ongoing, but there are signs of progress. Debris removal has mostly wrapped up. A few new homes are already under construction.
“It’s not for me to determine if this reopening is healing for other people, but personally it is for me,” he said. “There's a little bubble of excitement about that. We're gonna look over our shoulder at this at some point, but we're not really through it yet.”
Outside of his shop, he’s also started taking more jobs to get reacquainted with the music community.
He recently set up a table at the RockyGrass bluegrass festival in Lyons. The event drew musicians from across the state, who often needed an extra hand repairing things.
One was Iris Hines, who dropped her upright bass while unloading it from her car on her way to the festival. The impact snapped the instrument’s neck.
“I just started crying instantly,” Hines said. “I was like, ‘What am I gonna do?’”
She took it to Scherer, who examined it. After giving it a once-over, he explained that he could save the instrument by gluing it back together.
“The good news is it's a clean break,” Scherer said. “I'll have to stay in the bass hospital for a day, though.”
“Thank you. Thank you,” Hines said. “You saved my baby.”
Another resident, Candace Major, wandered over to Scherer’s table after she noticed her instrument sounded off.
Scherer diagnosed the problem in a few seconds. She needed new strings.
“It already sounds better,” Major said. “I’m so glad you’re still here.”
When she offered to pay, Scherer declined. He partnered with the venue to offer his services at no cost to attendees.
"I’m doing this for free,” he told her. “This makes me happy just to be here and to play music and give back.”
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