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Lazar's Early Music

Martin Shelton

761 N. Cherokee Rd, Suite C

Social Circle, GA 30025

(770) 366-8596

(866) 511-2981







Lazar's shop serves early music players

Edward Guthmann

Published 4:39 p.m., Tuesday, September 11, 2012



Bill Lazar, the original owner now retired, plays a contrabass recorder at his Lazar's Early Music shop in Mountain View. Most of the instruments he sells are modern reproductions. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle / SF        


At Lazar's Early Music in Mountain View, you can buy Baroque cellos and violins, violas da gamba, Baroque flutes and bassoons, gemhorns, crumhorns and chalumeaux (Baroque woodwinds).

Owner Bill Lazar runs his business out of a nondescript office park near Highway 101. Most of his inventory is reproductions of Baroque or Renaissance instruments, but there's also the rare vintage piece - like a lyre mandolin, made in Italy in 1899, that sells for $5,000.

Lazar, 67, also plays the recorder, viola da gamba, dulcian (Renaissance woodwind) and shawms (Renaissance oboe). He lives in Sunnyvale with his wife of 42 years, Marilee.


I believe I'm the largest early-music shop in the Western Hemisphere. There's one or two other dealers, but the longest-running shop doesn't have as big a stock of recorders. And they don't carry violas da gamba and some of the other instruments I carry.


Ninety five percent of my business are e-mail orders. So it's really a time-saver for me not to be in a retail area. Otherwise I'd get all kind of lookie-loos coming in, "Oh, what's all this?" That takes a lot of time.

These are mostly new instruments modeled after old instruments. But I buy them from the makers. There's two big makers of recorders in Germany and one in Switzerland. I get the violas da gamba from a company in China that I'm the sole U.S. distributor for.

My customers are all around the world. I've got somebody in Malaysia who wants to buy a couple very big recorders. And I've got a guy in Chile who ordered a theorbo, which is a lute with a really long neck. I send a lot of instruments to Australia, 'cause the exchange rate is quite good for them.

I like to have happy customers, and I figure if I succeed at that, the business will succeed. I'll send out half a dozen instruments to somebody on approval, and they'll pick one and send back the rest. Yes, it's a leap of faith and I've gotten burned small-time a couple of times. But the early-music community overall is small and trustworthy.

For recorders, I usually oil the inside bore before shipping, just to make sure it's in top shape. If I'm sending it by air, I'll put it in a sealed plastic bag. It's going up to 10,000 feet in dry, cold air in low atmospheric pressure. Without protection the wood could shrink and might not recover.

In the store I keep the relative humidity around 40 percent, which is good for instruments. Last year a handyman installed a reverse-osmosis system next door on a Sunday afternoon. The hose popped off and just flooded everybody out.

I came in to an inch of water on the floor. With the combination of first the humidity, and then extreme dryness when they came in with big, commercial dehumidifiers, some instruments got ruined. So I had a huge amount of loss.

I started this in my home, as a side business, in 1994. I was a research molecular biologist and protein biochemist for many years. I ordered a bunch of instruments for some friends and myself from a guy in Germany. He asked me if I wanted to be a distributor for his instruments in the U.S. I said, "Sure."

I kept adding different lines. I got downsized at work one too many times and in 2004 decided to see if I could make a go of this full time. Financially, I'm doing a lot better than I was doing research. It's just amazing to me. And the stress level's a lot less: I don't have to worry where the next research grant is coming from.


Bill Lazar plays a viola da gamba. Lazar began selling instruments as a side business in 1994. Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle / SF


Edward Guthmann is a Bay Area freelance writer. Do you or someone you know have a work story to share? E-mail: datebookletters@sfchronicle.com