Kolstein Music president Manny Alvarez went from part-time job at 15 to owning the place at 33
When Manny Alvarez bought Kolstein Music Inc., a 79-year-old string instrument company in Baldwin, he did what many new owners do — orchestrated small and large changes.
But unlike many new owners, Alvarez, 33, was no newcomer to Kolstein, which makes, repairs and restores violins, violas, cellos and basses. The business also manufactures accessories, including bow cases and rosin for bows.
Eighteen years ago, Alvarez, then 15 and an East Rockaway High School student, went to the shop with his mother to buy a violin to replace the rental instrument he received through the school, he said.
Barrie Kolstein, president and son of the firm’s late founder Samuel Kolstein, brought out a selection of violins for Alvarez to review. He then encouraged the teen, who played in his school’s orchestra, to take home the one he liked best, show it to his teacher and try it out for a week.
When Alvarez returned, Kolstein said he could easily see how much Alvarez “really loved” the violin he had selected. Kolstein also learned that the family couldn’t afford its $3,500 price.
“In the realm of violins, which can cost $10,000, I never asked people, ‘Why are you looking at this instrument?’ And I wasn’t going to do that in this situation,” Kolstein said, since “people can come up with creative ways to work out the finances.”
For Alvarez, Kolstein devised a way for his family to pay for the instrument.
Impressed with the youngster’s “politeness and respectfulness,” Kolstein offered him a part-time job on the spot to help pay for the violin. And because Alvarez became an employee, he received an employee discount that shaved $1,000 off the price, Kolstein said.
“There was something special about Manny and his family, and he had all the qualities you look for in a young person,” Kolstein, 72, said. “It was the start of a beautiful relationship.”
The instrument, which took two years to pay off, remains Alvarez’s one and only personal violin and hangs on a wall in his office.
At first Alvarez worked part-time at Kolstein, packing rosins and cleaning the warehouse on Saturdays during the school year and working six days a week in the summers. During college, he continued to work part-time and began helping Kolstein manage the firm’s booth at industry trade shows.
Even when Alvarez spent six months overseas in 2014 doing volunteer work in Thailand, Hong Kong and China, he worked on the company's website and designed posters and flyers.
“I have done every job” throughout the years, from sweeping floors to restoring a 1725 Domenico Montagnana double bass, valued at $475,000, said Alvarez, who purchased Kolstein in 2019.
But even with his steep experience at Kolstein, including executive positions, no playbook existed for dealing with COVID’s business challenges, he said. He rethought “the company’s position in the community at large,” deciding to focus on “letting people know who we are and what we contribute to the world” while helping musicians, reeling from cancelled gigs, “perform, record and make money,” Alvarez said.
A place to play
Between April and June 2020, Alvarez invested $70,000 to create an acoustically correct performance space at the company’s 1,500-square-foot Long Island headquarters. He also launched Kolstein’s Musicians Relief Fund with a GoFundMe campaign.
From the new space, outfitted with video cameras and sound equipment, the company hosted live-streamed concerts on YouTube that, along with Kolstein’s Facebook page, promoted the performers’ work and the GoFundMe campaign. Alvarez personally spent $1,500 to pay the first performers, with the GoFundMe fundraiser compensating them after that.
“In the moment, nothing mattered more than helping our industry and our clients,” said Alvarez.
The fund drive raised $20,000, and the musicians received $200 an hour – and up to $600 an hour for a group. More than 100 artists had played before the concerts ended in the fall; the space is now available for rental for online performances and audition videos.
On Dec. 1, the curtain lifted on Kolstein’s newest venture: a Manhattan store, designed to continue advancing Alvarez’s goals of raising the company’s profile and helping musicians.
The 2,300-square-foot shop, in the JW Marriott Essex House hotel on Central Park South, affords Kolstein not only street and lobby access but a storefront window — in the heart of the professional music world.
“It’s a 20-second walk to Carnegie Hall,” Alvarez said, “and an area that’s important for musicians, with all the jazz artists, freelancers in Central Park and Lincoln Center.”
Kolstein has partnered with Essex House to use its lobby to present free weekly Friday evening shows featuring orchestral and jazz performing artists. And thanks to Kolstein’s musicians fund, which paid for the onsite cameras and sound equipment, the shows are filmed and posted on YouTube, giving the performers a broader audience. But, with the GoFundMe campaign “dying down, with only $300 raised in the last eight months,” Kolstein and Marriott are sharing the fees paid to performers, Alvarez said.
Under Alvarez’s leadership, Kolstein also operated a shop in Roosevelt Field from October 2020 to last October. Created to remind people “about the importance of music” during the pandemic and the “additional time [that was available] to learn an instrument,” the shop sold 400 ukuleles, 200 violins and 50 electric violins before it closed due to rising rents, he said.
Logging in with annual sales increases, Kolstein generated about $5 million in revenues in 2021 – its best year ever, Alvarez said.
Because of the pandemic, “people were more invested in themselves and had a little more time to do what they wanted to do,” he said.
The firm employs 15 people, growing to as many as 20 workers during the peak holiday season and the summer – when student rentals come back for refurbishing.
Each year Kolstein produces 100 handmade instruments and sells 650 instruments in total, including handmade, restored and assembled pieces; it rents between 475 and 550 instruments.
Prices range from $795 for a violin that the company buys as a raw instrument and finishes in-house, to $40,000 for a Kolstein-handmade violin, Alvarez said.
Above the Baldwin headquarters’ warren of rooms, which are dedicated to specific tasks, including restoring and varnishing instruments, is the second-floor attic. Referred to as “the morgue,” it houses hundreds of “tired” instruments that people have donated or Kolstein has purchased. The pieces, which are stacked on racks and shelves, hang on walls and dangle from cords connected to ceiling rafters, are all “waiting to be brought back to life,” Alvarez said. “They start making noise again once they’re restored.”
Sometime between ages 17 and 18, under the tutelage of Kolstein and others at the company, Alvarez began refurbishing instruments, he said, focusing on pieces the firm had rented to elementary school children.
These days, Alvarez personally restores instruments once a week to maintain his skills.
With customers as far away as Japan, Kolstein is part of a global musical instrument industry valued at nearly $10 billion in 2020 and projected to reach $11.6 billion by 2030. The string segment, including guitars, represented 43% of the market, according to Musical Instruments Market, a report from Allied Market Research in Portland, Oregon.
Within the industry, Kolstein is considered a unique “multi-faceted” one-stop shop because of its range of services, said Jeff Saltzman, who oversees wholesale sales of string instruments at the 55-year-old Connolly Music Company in Northport, which does business with Kolstein.
Kolstein’s personalized selling approach to consumers imbues it with a “boutique-y persona,” while its rosins and polishes make it an industry “Goliath,” Saltzman said.
Celebrating its 80th anniversary next year, Kolstein counts among its patrons Shlomo Mintz, the world-class conductor and violinist; Nilson Matta, the Brazilian jazz-fusion artist and bassist; Máiréad Nesbitt, an Emmy- and Grammy-nominated Celtic violinist and composer; and pit-orchestra musicians for Broadway shows including “The Lion King” and “Jagged Little Pill.”
Beyond the pandemic, Alvarez’s stewardship has not been without challenges.
He faced some push-back from employees when the company eliminated paper and pens in favor of Docu-Sign; replaced filing with scanning; and tweaked the work week, which now runs Monday to Saturday, instead of Tuesday to Saturday.
“For anybody, change is difficult, but [as I’ve said], ‘Hey, this is the direction I want to go, and let’s go on a ride together,’” said Alvarez, a self-described “techy guy” who plans to introduce, by the end of the year, a Kolstein app.
Kris Fleischmann, 51, an employee for 30 years who repairs and assists in producing double basses, appreciates Alvarez’s leadership in keeping Kolstein open, “able to weather the storm and grow during the pandemic — when others were closing,” he said. Alvarez is “bringing in a lot of new ideas and good organization.”
Meanwhile, Alvarez’s predecessor, Barrie Kolstein, said he continues to come to the shop, as a “volunteer independent consultant,” to help in developing new initiatives, as well as to satisfy his passion for making and restoring instruments.
“I’m working more than when I owned the business,” Kolstein said. “Manny holds the reins, and I’m a mentor to him when I can be.”
Kolstein sold the company to Alvarez in August 2019 so he could take care of his ailing wife; she died that November.
“I wanted to see this shop live on beyond my lifetime, and Manny gave me the opportunity,” he said, adding, “I wanted someone who is going to love it as much as I and my father did.”
Alvarez, a national collegiate debating champion who received an associate degree from Nassau Community College and a BA from Molloy College, was eager to take ownership.
“I was newly married and a new dad, and my thinking was to the future – what would happen after Mr. Kolstein and to the employees,” recalled the father of three. “I needed to have longevity in what I had invested myself in.”
Over a two-year period, he expressed his “passion for the business and desire to see the Kolstein legacy continue,” said Alvarez, who declined to disclose the firm’s purchase price.
Michelle Kemp, a Rockville Centre resident and retired sergeant with the New York Police Department, said she couldn’t help but notice Alvarez’s affection for the business when she came to the Baldwin location in December with nephew Nicholas Kemp to buy the 15-year-old a Christmas gift.
Along with giving them a tour of the firm’s headquarters, “Manny began playing for Nicholas, who was so in awe of him,” said Kemp, 53.
Kemp purchased a $1,200 violin, but history repeated itself when the Kolstein president offered the teen, who plays in Freeport High School’s orchestra, an internship at the company which, Kemp said, her nephew has accepted.
Having heard about how Alvarez scaled Kolstein’s ladder, Kemp said she later called him to express her gratitude for his kindness, as well as to say, “Manny, your story is Nicholas’ story, and he’s going to do the same thing for somebody.”
At a glance
Kolstein Music Inc.
Locations: Baldwin, Manhattan
Owner and president: Manny Alvarez
Employees: 15 to 20
Revenues: $5 million