Part of city goes with String Shop

Posted: Wednesday, December 21, 2005

When I was growing up in New Jersey in the '50s, I bought all my comic books at a dingy little coffee shop called Haps & Caps, where milkmen and mailmen and railroad men from the Jersey Central line would sit at the counter smoking stogies and drinking coffee, while the smoke lingered in the space between their hats and an ineffectual ceiling fan.

Rich, the owner, would let me sit for hours on the worn hardwood floor by the comics, deciding which one to spend my ten cents on and listening to the men banter about ball scores and bookies. You could buy comics at twenty other places in town, but none of them had the allure of Haps & Caps. When it closed its doors for the last time in the mid-1960s, even as a boy I realized that something more had been lost than just a place to buy comics.

I've spent my adult life seeking out other such places as Haps & Caps, places rich in idiosyncrasy and character and conversation: stores where there was something more to be had than mere merchandise.

In Juneau I found the String Shop. When you went in to buy something or to ask the owner, Jim Haines, if he could work some magic to reattach the headstock to your guitar, you never got a sales pitch; you got genuine conversation - intelligent, good-humored conversation. Some readers will recognize the scenario: You go in to buy strings or rent a violin for your kid or to have an instrument repaired, and Jim starts talking about wood and strings. Soon you find yourself in a conversation about music and musicians and composers, about physics and philosophy, literature, religion and politics - the whole kit and caboodle. Other patrons in the shop join in, introductions are made, friendships begun, and eventually the talk winds its way back around to the instrument at hand. The instrument at hand: always the prime consideration because Jim is a master luthier who loves the craft of wooden instruments as much as the art they create. And you left the shop with your convictions reaffirmed about the importance and sheer pleasure of music and all things musical.

And when Jim asked how your kids were doing, he did so in a way that told you that he had really talked to them and listened to them and noticed their character and some of their less obvious virtues and vices. I wish more of their teachers paid as much attention to my kids as Jim Haines has.

After some twenty years of business, however, the String Shop has closed its doors. One of the reasons, of course, is that we all did more talking than buying. There wasn't anything in the shop that could not be bought for less at a hundred online sites that all look the same and where sales aren't hindered by the kind of genial wide-ranging chat that enlivened Saturday afternoons at the String Shop. But I'm left wondering if those of us who regularly patronized the shop did as much as we could to support it, given all it has meant to us. As the 18th-century writer Samuel Johnson said, there are values greater than money.

In any event, the String Shop has closed, and Juneau will be a less diverse, less interesting place without the wonderfully idiosyncratic character it took from its owner and proprietor. In the words of one of Jim's idiosyncratic musical heroes, John Hartford, "another good thing has done gone on." But the shop had a good run, and we have Jim Haines to thank for years of Saturday afternoons spent in idle, friendly and immensely enjoyable conversation about music and life and everything in between.

• Juneau resident Jim Hale is a technical writer and editor for NOAA Fisheries.

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