There’s a chair at 2639 N. 48th St. It’s black and unassuming; vintage or perhaps shabby chic to some. But it’s Dale’s. And the customers of London Luthier Stringed Instrument Repair know that. Some customers come into the shop, according to Linda London, to sit in it — with hopes of channeling a message from Dale. Others stroll in with a revered respect. They don’t touch Dale’s chair, they don’t sit in it. It’s Dale’s. Not theirs.
Dale London passed away 13 years ago. Linda said it was sudden and unexpected. Her small-town husband, a master of tools and genius carpenter by many accounts, left her and this world without warning. But it was the first of many heartbreaking losses. That same year that Dale passed, Linda lost both her father and her disabled son. That same year, loss became ingrained in her being; a harmony of heartbreaking chords that weave together into the chaos of life.
Regarding loss, Linda explained the process in simple terms.
“The first thing you do is cry when you need to. You laugh when you can. Then get into a routine. You rely on your friends and family.”
Linda didn’t have to look far for her friends and family. They are all customers of London Luthier, the stringed instrument repair shop started by her and Dale in 1969.
When life brought loss to Linda, customers of the Luthier brought strength and purpose to her. A native of Ord, Linda grew up with a love of life fueled by the freedom of the outdoors.
“From the time I was in diapers, I bawled to be outside," she said. "By the time I was 13, I could do anything a man could do.”
With an admiration for the outdoors and a respect for the importance of hard work, Linda's farming background laid the groundwork for her and Dale’s business. But it was mere curiosity, and perhaps a pinch of stubbornness, that really birthed the Luthier.
After Dale and Linda were married, she became curious about playing the guitar. Dale, also with a farming background, set out to make her dream come true with an arched top steel string guitar. Unbeknown to them both, this particular guitar was not an entry-level instrument. In fact, it required a great level of advanced skill. But instead of admitting defeat with another guitar purchase, Dale decided to build one.
Surprisingly, neither Linda nor Dale grew up with a musical background. Linda’s grandmother played piano, but for Dale, music was off limits.
“If they were playing music, they weren’t out in the fields working,” she said.
The Luthier provided a place where Linda and Dale could combine working with music. They started small, making repairs and instruments in their home, but quickly outgrew it. By the 1970s, London Luthier had become a permanent landmark in University Place.
While the chair at London Luthier belongs to Dale, Linda’s spot is behind the counter.
“The joke was always Dale was sitting in the chair and I was the one working,” she said.
But she gives Dale more credit than that: “Dale was the brain; he liked challenges.” As for Linda? “I was the brawn,” she said with a hint of pride hiding behind a sly smile.
When Linda isn’t behind the counter giving new life to everything from guitars and banjos to mandolins and violins, she stands at it. It’s a comfortable lean on a worn countertop, her hands folded together as she peers out the giant picture window onto North 48th Street. From her spot at the counter, Linda has watched the world outside change drastically over the decades.
She explains that when London Luthier first began, there was parking on both sides of the street. The shops she shared the street with were longtime icons of the neighborhood, not boutiques that pop up and disappear the way they do now.
There was a Goodwill directly across the street. London has seen many Goodwill guitar finds come through her door — customers hoping they snagged a decent deal and that London can repair the guitar back to its glory days. Mostly, the finds were cheap novice-level instruments, but she encourages young musicians to start with them and let their instrument grow with their skill level.
But once the street parking was removed in the 1970s, the area and its staple shops began changing. Varsity Drug Store, Ben Franklin, Coffman’s Furniture and Meadow Gold Dairy — all neighbors of the Luthier — began disappearing. Though London credits her customers with her success more than her shop's location, Rob Kloefkorn, a longtime customer and friend, credits Linda herself.
“There’s nobody else; she’s one of a kind," he said.
Kloefkorn, owner of Lincoln’s Music Go Round, a hub for buying and selling used instruments, remembers the graduation banjo he received from the Luthier. To him, the shop itself is a homey space of simple nostalgia.
“It reminds me of going into a shop in a small town,” he said.
When Dale passed, Kloefkorn recalls the outpouring of support from the tightly knit family of local musicians.
“Everybody came out," he remembered. "That’s the nature of the music business. That’s what makes us different.”
Not all of the Luthier’s customers are local. Linda said when you offer a rare service, the customers always will find you. One Swedish customer found the Luthier, bringing with him a book of instructions, hoping to have a nyckelharpa built. The instructions, entirely in Swedish, were painstakingly translated by the customer while Dale spent months constructing the rare instrument. And the reason for such a long excursion? The quality of nyckelharpas for sale in Sweden simply didn’t stand up to Dale’s.
Over a year ago, Linda had bypass surgery. The Luthier remained dark for three weeks, with only a note on the door instructing patrons to pick up instruments that had repairs completed. When the doors reopened, those same customers who had flooded in after Dale’s death returned once again — this time to offer help as Linda recovered. They lifted anything over 10 pounds as Linda was instructed not to do. They offered company. They came to chat.
“Whenever you have a problem or crisis, you really find out who your friends are,” she said.
Today, while Linda can be found from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the shop hard at work, her evenings have slowed down since the days when impromptu jam sessions and live music filled the space of London Luthier.
“Today, I tell people the only thing I play is the radio,” she said.
When the last string has been mended for the day, and the tools have been carefully placed on the racks constructed years ago by Dale, London has just one thing on her agenda: “Go home and crack a beer.”
But until the day when she can no longer walk through the door and provide quality repairs, Linda will keep showing up. And the customers of London Luthier will show up right along with her.
For Ryan Larsen — friend, customer and owner of Roots Music in Lincoln — the reason why is simple.
“It has 1 percent to do with the four walls around the building, and 99 percent to do with who Linda is.”
Stringed Instrument Repair