Indiana Daily Student

Husband, wife team sells harps

Bloomington business caters to musicians worldwide

Early in 1977, harpist Eleanor Caulfield sat in her Vanderbilt Hotel apartment in New York City, staring out the window, trying to think of a good name for her and her husband Lee's new business.\n"I saw this stone wall -- a flying buttress -- and written across the buttress was the word Vanderbilt," Eleanor Caulfield said. "There was a pigeon sitting on top of the wall, and I thought, 'Pigeon Music?' No."\nShe did settle on Vanderbilt, though, and with that the United States had its second harp-string supplier - Vanderbilt Music Co. \nEleanor and Lee Caulfield began their business simply. Eleanor Caulfield sat down with an Olivetti typewriter and went through the directory of the American Harp Society. She wrote a letter to each member and included a free string sample. \nTwo weeks later, the couple received their first order -- $77 in strings from an Indiana harpist. By the end of the month, there were eight orders totaling $407.\nVanderbilt has since moved from New York to Bloomington, where Eleanor Caulfield grew up, and has more than 30,000 customers worldwide. The business totals about $1.5 million in revenue each year.\nThe largest portion of that revenue comes from harp sales, even though that is the smallest aspect of their business, said Company President Lee Caulfield. On average, Vanderbilt sells two to three pedal harps and three to four lever harps each month. \nIn harp stores that focus on instrument sales only, like W&W Musical Instruments in Chicago, 12 to 16 harps are sold each month. In both cases, however, the majority of harps are made-to-order and cost anywhere from $10,000 to $48,000. \nVanderbilt does not construct its own harps -- the company is a retailer of Lyon & Healy models, which are built in Chicago and considered to be one of the top brands in the world. In fact, Eleanor Caulfield cited Vanderbilt's lack of construction or reconstruction specialists as one of the company's weaknesses. They can do "tune-ups," but not actually take the harps apart. Otherwise, the company has all the bases covered.\n"There may be a few little things (we don't carry) ... we don't have harp napkins," Eleanor Caulfield said.\nSo Vanderbilt's niche has been in specializing in all things harp. When it comes to professional and concert harpists, that is. They carry a complete repertoire of harp music, a wide range of strings, accessories, recordings and books. There are possibilities of expanding into folk and Celtic lap-harps, or providing customers with more types of strings and adding more music to the already expansive library.\n"Once you start a business, it's like the boom of the universe," Eleanor Caulfield said. \nVanderbilt's comprehensive approach to the harp business is quite unique -- in the United States there are only four other such stores. Part of the reason is the small customer-base.\n"There's no area -- except New York or Los Angeles -- where there're enough harpists to support a store," Lee Caulfield said. "There's not a critical mass of harpists in Montana."\nEven with the world's largest harp department (with 24 undergraduate students) at the IU School of Music, Vanderbilt could not support itself on area harpists alone. There is not enough walk-in business to "buy lunch" on, Lee Caulfield said. Most of the company's business is mail-order. Russia and Japan are both big customers.\nStill, the local business is important, too. The Caulfields and their staff know all of their regular customers. \nThe majority of the staff are students -- all musicians, and all but three are harpists. Eleanor Caulfield said they opt to hire students, rather than a full-time, more permanent staff because "they have the knowledge, they have the know-how."\nBut with a unique, self-run company, there is always the question of what happens when the owners are unable to maintain the business any longer.\n"In five years, I'll be pretty old," Lee Caulfield said. "At some point we have to smell the flowers."\nIt would be heart-breaking for both Lee and Eleanor Caulfield to sell the business. The store ledgers, the original is kept in a safe in the store itself, are a story of the Caulfield's life together. Eleanor Caulfield went through the entries, pointing out changes in handwriting at major life events: when she became pregnant with her son, when her mother-in-law came for an extended visit.\n"The business is like another child to us," she said. "Our son grew up with the company."\nBut even with that history, their son does not want to take over the store. \nWhatever the future brings for Vanderbilt Music Co., both Caulfields are happy with the path they have chosen.\n"We've been able to make a living," Eleanor Caulfield said. "We were lucky that we got into a niche."\n-- Contact staff writer Laura Williams at willialm@indiana.edu.

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