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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Adrian Varnam opens string-instrument retail space on Castle St.

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This stage is for you,” Adrian Varnam gestures to the raised stage, seen through the front window of Ronald Sachs Violins’ new location. Varnam, now a partner in the company, just moved the Wilmington location into a retail space on Castle Street, complete with a small stage. It was a selling point when he was searching for a new location.


COZY AND INVITING: Adrian Varnam runs Wilmington’s Ronald Sachs Violins on Castle St. Photo courtesy of Adrian Varnam

“The space offers the opportunity to do concerts,” Varnam says with a grin. He wants very much for teachers of string instruments to have recitals there, for composers and players to perform, and for the space to be alive with string music.

Ronald Sachs Violins began two decades ago in Atlanta and has built a reputation for trust and reliability among string-instrument players across the southeastern United States. For Varnam, a UNCW grad who has played violin since age 5, a reliable string store staffed by knowledgeable and experienced people was sorely lacking in Wilmington. “I knew we needed a string shop,” he notes. “The closest place was probably Raleigh.”

In the fall of 2015, Varnam and Sachs began talking about what this could look like in ILM. At the time, Varnam was looking to sell the bar he owned and managed on Second Street. The opportunity to focus on music spoke to his hungry soul.   “For the majority of my life as an adult, I have cared about being part of a community and the arts,” he says.

As meetings with Ron progressed, it seemed like a perfect fit for Varnam. Rather than beginning with an investment in a full-blown retail space, Varnam elected to begin focusing on relationships with stringed-instrument players and teachers. So he rented office space on Fourth Street. 

“We opened an office by appointment only,” he tells, “and I spent every day building relationships with teachers.”

One of Varnam’s frustrations centered around the attitude some people have about rental instruments to school programs. Varnam notes, for some companies, the attitude is dismissive or the instrument is just for a sixth grader, a kid, so the instrument doesn’t need to be perfect.

“No! That’s wrong!” he insists. “That’s the player who should have the best!”

Varnam correlates it to learning to drive: Do you want to learn with a beat-up 40-year-old stick shift, or a smooth automatic? 

Varnam is incredibly proud of the quality and service Ronald Sachs provides for all the string instruments in their rental program. They give the same attention to rental instruments they do for professional players. It is a topic Varnam is passionate about, and it clearly resonates with area teachers.   

“I was able to get the New Hanover County Schools’ contract,” he explains. “All Ronald Sachs shops are managed by professional string players. Teachers can confidently send kids to us.”

In addition to New Hanover County Schools, Varnam’s relationships with Phillip Singleton at Cape Fear Community College, Danijela Žeželj-Gualdi at UNCW and Clark Spencer at St. Mary’s have been invaluable as he continues to expand into South Carolina, starting with Horry County’s music program.

In many ways it is like a culmination of a lifetime of experiences and learning. Though, perhaps, it is not what Varnam’s mother expected when she signed him up for Suzuki violin lessons with Lorraine Westermark over 30 years ago. “She’s changed more lives than anybody I know. I’m very thankful to my parents and to her for my music education,” Varnam remarks. 

Mind you, it was an education that included a strong public-school arts curriculum: orchestra in middle school at Roland Grise and in high school at Hoggard with Linda Figart, then North Carolina Governor’s School and All-State Orchestra. “Sandy and Steve Errante lived across the street from us,” Varnam offers with a smile. Dr. Steven Errante is the conductor of the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra. Varnam started playing in the Wilmington Symphony Orchestra in high school, an experience he values greatly.

After the foundation he built with Westermark, she passed Varnam on to a more advanced teacher in high school. Of course, by then he also was interested in guitar and playing rock ‘n’ roll. But, through another Wilmington institution, Opera House Theatre Company, he discovered a love of musical theatre. 

“My first paying gig was playing in the pit for ‘The Secret Garden,’” Varnam recalls. “But the one that really got me excited was playing for ‘Big River.’”

His excitement grew and Wilmington audiences have since been treated to Varnam’s original compositions for theatre, most often through his partnership with Christopher Marino at UNCW’s theatre department and founder of Alchemical Theatre Company. 

“I was doing weird stuff through my guitar amp with my violin,” Varnam remembers of their first collaboration on the sound effects and score for Dram Tree Shakespeare’s production of “Macbeth.” Since, their collaborative work has deepened. It recently culminated in Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus,” which Varnam scored.

“Part of why I like working with Chris Marino is he wants to challenge what theatre can be,” Varnam says. As a music director, he finds his background with string instruments influences the way he approaches the work as well. “As a violinist, I always hear melody. Yeah, I’m melody-based.”

All pieces of Varnam’s life have come together in the new space for Ronald Sachs Violins in Wilmington. After more than two years in a small office, Varnam is thrilled to move to a retail space. He wanted to be somewhere downtown, since it is a cultural hub.

“I love walking outside and grabbing a cup of coffee,” he comments on the Arts and Antique District neighborhood feel. He and Matt Keen, owner of Gravity Records, used to play violin together as kids. Across the street are also Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse and Kids Making It, a nonprofit woodworking program for youth.

“It’s transformative—there’s so much growth happening,” Varnam marvels.

After time spent in a mere office building, the sense of being part of a creative community is a reward in and of itself. With floor-to-ceiling display windows in front to shine beautiful, natural light, exposed brick walls and hardwood floors, it is an inviting space. Along the back wall, a work bench has string instruments in various states of repair.  The whole place has a balance of calm and a sense of something wonderful afoot—like there is magic in the air. Though he feels it, Varnam doesn’t seem to realize it comes from him.

“The fact I spend all day doing this,” he gestures around him, “and all night playing music and performing: It’s everything I want—entrepreneurship, community, the arts.”

He pauses and quietly adds, “When I can give an instrument to a kid and see them play it, and then go to recitals—that is awesome.”

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