I'm reluctant to hit "publish" on this post because it's one of those things where I know someone out there will think I am whining, and I'm not. I just feel like putting into words part of my experience that I think is misunderstood.
Let me start by saying I love my work. I am very lucky to get to do what I enjoy, and to run a business with my husband. That's all good. I don't take any of those good things for granted.
I am swamped lately. Swamped isn't fun. And when people ask anymore how business is going and I say it's really busy they nearly all look pleased for me and say the same thing: "That's good, right?"
Well, yes and no. Yes it's good to be running a successful small business. I'm proud of the fact that even though we opened at the beginning of the recession we have managed to stay in the black and provide for our family. That's wonderful. This is not me complaining about having a job while I know many struggle to find any job, let alone one they find meaningful.
But it can be overwhelming. Because when you work for yourself--particularly in a creative field--there is no
delegating, really. No one can write for me but me. No one can build
my violins for me but me. No one can practice for me but me. Those
activities suffer when I'm drowning in repairs and rehairs all of which
people want done yesterday. Nobody's violin ever breaks after a concert, it's always right before. And I sympathize! I'm a musician, too, and I want people to have their instruments back quickly. So I wind up putting in some very long days. Often after evening rehearsals that get out
at 9:00 or 9:30 I will go right back to the store and not get to bed
There are lots of demanding jobs, but the pressures are different when you are the face of your whole business and your personal reputation is caught up in all of your work. When I was employed in someone else's violin shop the work was the same but my role was not. My boss shouldered the responsibilities, and I only had to answer to him behind the scenes. He got to take credit for my successes, but also had to deal with the aftermath of any mistakes, and I remained anonymous either way. Projects left on the bench when I went home could wait until the next day and I didn't give them much thought when my left the shop. Someone else could always finish them if for some reason I couldn't come back. Now projects left on my bench haunt me until they are complete. If I don't do them they do not get done.
The answer is not as easy as "hiring help." From where? To do
what? We have help for running charges for the rental program and occasionally helping with customers, but the actual repair work is all on me. There isn't a big pool of people who have a lot of experience with violin varnish or who can cut a decent soundpost just waiting around out there. I don't need someone to help me at the store, I need someone to
occasionally replace me at the store, to represent me and still get done all the work I
would do there and at a level that I'm comfortable with since
my name is on the window. That sort of assistance is beyond rare.
The kind of help I need is a skilled luthier
who can handle customers (those are already two skill sets that don't
intersect much) who ideally also plays (narrowing down further) and who
doesn't want full time work (which, for someone with years of training, is not likely what they are hoping for). I was lucky enough to find all of that in
my friend Robyn, but she up and moved to Chicago a while back. She still
on occasion will take the store on a Saturday (despite the
commute) which is great, but that's not the same as regularly scheduled
The upsides to being self-employed are many. Being able to customize my hours around my kids' time in school is great. I like running things my way and finding ways to be creative in what I do. But most days relying on myself to keep the business running feels very sink or swim, and time off is hard to come by.
The only people who understand are others who have had to do it too. When I tell them business is busy they smile knowingly and look sympathetic. My mom knows. When I tell her business is busy she never says, "That's good, right?" she just says, "Oh." My sister-in-law makes beautiful jewelry and has even had her work featured on the show Reign, and when she tells me she has a ton of orders to fill, I just say, "Ah. That's rough." I think she appreciates not hearing another, "That's good, right?" while she tries to get more done than one person can really do and still make time for family and life. It can wipe you out.
I got a call the other day from someone connected with Yelp who was trying to pitch me something that I didn't need and she couldn't understand why I wasn't interested. She finally asked, "Don't you want more business?" and I said, "No! Please no, I'm fine." I don't think she's ever gotten that answer before, and I tried to explain that the rate at which people currently find me is all I can handle. The poor woman then tried to tell me about some app for my smartphone, and when I told her I didn't have a smartphone she was literally speechless. I don't know what kind of weird antediluvian Luddite corner of Milwaukee she thought she'd found, but she did finally agree that maybe I wasn't the best fit for whatever it was she was peddling.
I think part of it is nobody expects me to be busy. Most of the professional players seem to get it and are good about asking when it would be best for me to work on their instruments or bows, but there are a lot of other people who bring me work who assume it can be done while they wait, as if there isn't anything ahead of them. They are glad to hear business is going well because they can't imagine how a violin store can survive. There is this odd misperception that I am in a "dying art." There are actually more violin makers around than ever, because there are more people in general around than ever. There are more violin makers alive today than there have ever been in all of history.
And more people play violin than most people realize. People have been reporting on the death of Classical music forever, and it just keeps not going away. New tiny players walk in my door every week, just as excited to pick up an instrument as people have ever been. And then they drop them, and they cry, and I warm up the glue pot on my bench and get out the clamps so they can keep playing.
Business is busy. That is, in fact, "good." But it would be nice to be able to read a book or do stuff around the house without sacrificing sleep because I have to spend so much time at work. The other day when Quinn wanted me to do some silly quiz on Facebook and we got to the question "Which word best describes you?" instead of picking "curious" or "intelligent" or any of the more interesting options, my son immediately said I should select "busy." "Really?" I asked--"Busy?" Quinn was unequivocal. "You are busy." He didn't sound critical, just calling it like he sees it, but it made me a little sad.
When it gets exhausting I just have to remember it goes in waves. The stars have to align at some point to give me a bit of down time, don't they? I recently finished my last few concerts of the season, there are no rehearsals for a while, the kids have wrapped up nearly all of their recitals, volleyball is over, school will be out by this time next month.... And oddly with Ian away for a few weeks right now doing Army stuff overseas I have more time away from work. I have to be the one to juggle the kids and their schedules all alone, so I've been closing the store early enough to get dinner on the table and do the laundry and help with projects. A few customers have been unhappy when they tell me they need something now, and I explain that this week it's not possible, but most seem to understand. (Actually, if you want to meet nice people in general, a violin store is a good place to be. The number of bad customers I've had over all these years I can count on one hand.)
My dream is that one or more of my kids at some point wants to learn how to do what I do, since they are the only people I would be willing to take the time to train, and it would be fun to have their help. I don't see that happening anytime soon, so I will just have to keep on being busy. And it will just have to be good, right?