A visit to Allegro Strings feels a bit like discovering a secret. Through the lobby of Fairhaven’s Sycamore Square building, up a flight of stairs and across a small landing, you’ll find a set of glass doors. On the other side is a cozy two-story studio with a row of grand-looking basses, a half-dozen intriguing cellos, and a couple dozen violins and violas hung up in neat rows. Some are in various stages of repair, and some are quite literally centuries old. And all of these instruments — from the most imposing to the most inviting — are for sale.
On a Musical Path
Dorothy Smith owns and operates the shop and is just as full of history and surprises as the instruments that surround her. By the end of her teen years, she had learned to play piano, guitar, and violin. She then earned a music degree with a focus on composition, so she could learn to write music for all the instruments in which she had an interest.
“To me, it was like translating,” she says. “It was like learning different languages: one instrument is like the soprano; listen to the way it sounds. And this is what a bass does, listen to the way it sounds.”
When her father passed, Dorothy’s life took what she describes as a huge segue. “I hung out with my mom for three or four months. Then I realized that she needed to stabilize, and I needed to get out, or it was going to become a whole thing. So, I took a job in the Forest Service.” This gave her a chance to clear her head and make up her mind between two distinct and interesting paths: the violin or becoming a tattoo artist.
A Life-Changing Opportunity
Shortly after that, the direction of her life was affected by the loss of another family member. “My grandmother passed away and left me just enough money that I could put down a deposit on a home; I took it and bought a ticket to Europe.”
She had a friend who was attending school in Cremona, a smaller city in the northern end of Italy. Cremona has been home to the making of fine stringed instruments since the 16th century, and the months that Dorothy spent there changed her life, as she made friends and learned lessons that remain with her today.
Back in Seattle, she worked at Hammond Ashley in Seattle, a business renowned for its stringed instruments and its education programs. Dorothy says she got her “bass bug on,” and was able to fly to the Bay Area every six weeks or so and spend three or four days working with a friend and fellow bass maker who she had met as he received his training in Cremona.
Making a Home
All this time, Dorothy knew Seattle wasn’t really home to her, but she had a good idea where to look next. “The first time I came to Bellingham was in the ’70s, and I thought it was just phenomenal. I was born and raised over on the other side of the state — and I was more into the trees and mountains there — it felt like the best parts of home, and I loved the people and the modern, progressive atmosphere.”
In the late 1980s, she found her entrance into the Bellingham music community as the repair person at the shop that would later become Quist Violins. After about a year and a half, it was time to strike out on her own.
“I bought a house and decided the living room would make a great violin shop,” says Dorothy. “There was a little bedroom off to the side and I took the wall out and made it one big space, so I could have a nice size shop, and then I went into every music store north of Seattle to put up my little flyer that said ‘Did you pop a G string?'”
Her first client was a music teacher who had broken the cap off the end of her bow. “It’s kind of a weird little tricky repair,” she says. This was in March of 1990, and that was the first job where Dorothy got paid as Allegro Strings.
Dorothy continued to work out of her home for the next 15 years, and relied on word of mouth, coupled with a little advertising in phone books and concert brochures. Her business doubled in size every year for the first four years, and continued to grow and fill her home until she only had what she describes as little paths through her shop.
The Business Expands
Her first commercial space was located on the second floor of the now-defunct Piper Music, on the south end of Meridian, where Bellinghome Music now operates. For nine years, she shared the building with Bellingham’s only source for “actual, written” sheet music, and then moved downtown. Her location on the 1200 block of Cornwall was a beauty, featuring an iron gate across a set of stairs that lead the visitor down into a curving white stone hallway past a block of windows, into a small but cozy array of rooms.
As charming as it was, eventually tragedy struck. “Thankfully, I saw it happen,” Dorothy recalls. “I was working late and went to turn off the lights, and there was this weird little puddle of water under a table. I explored further, opened a door, and there were two inches of water on the floor — I could hear it running. As soon as I realized it was a flood, I went into total Rambo mode: I had a flashlight in my mouth and I was lifting instruments above my head and heading to high ground.”
A few years passed and her downtown spot lost its allure, so Dorothy moved Allegro Strings to its current home in Fairhaven. At the far east end of the historic Sycamore Square building, she enjoys several hundred square feet of space filled with everything she needs to build instruments from scratch, as well as improve any others that pass through her doors. This blend of selling, making, and repairing instruments is right where she wants to be.
“This is the business that I envisioned, and even more. I’ve got Jeff, who works with me part time [and] I’ve got a 17-year-old apprentice that works with me on Saturdays. It was really sweet: she came up to me and she said that for two years she’d been trying to be brave enough to ask me if she could be my apprentice,” Dorothy says.
Three other women do office tasks, including on that does paperwork and the company books. “She’s brilliant at it,” says Dorothy. “I’ve known her since she was five, and now she’s bringing her daughter in who’s about five months, so we’re onto the second generation.”
After 45 years in business, Dorothy has “all sorts of little ideas teasing around” in the back of her head, so it’s always a good idea to see what she has in the shop. She is available Thursday through Saturday by appointment, either through her website or by calling 360.671.8059.