Revitalization efforts have been steady and constant since the establishment of the Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance in 2003. Restaurants, cafés, retail shops, and breweries have all become commonplace while dilapidated and abandoned spaces have been repurposed instead of torn down, celebrating the past while signaling a positive step toward the future. An atmosphere of innovation and creativity has grown in what was once an area devoid of development, allowing prospective business owners to feel more comfortable about taking the plunge on a new venture. Megan Tiller is one of those entrepreneurs, although her place in the community’s burgeoning business ownership culture is slightly untraditional: Tiller Strings, which she has owned and operated for the past six years, has never left the confines of her house.
“Tiller Strings functions as a specialty stringed instrument shop without having a storefront,” Tiller told me at our meeting. We were sipping lattes outside of Black Sheep, a small café surrounded by numerous other locally-owned shops in the Ice House complex that opened last year, and there couldn’t be a more appropriate spot to chat about business development. “We’re mainly delivery-based,” she continued, “working with teachers and orchestra directors that I’ve formed professional relationships with through my teaching.”
Tiller has been teaching private string lessons at her alma mater, Eastern Mennonite University, for eleven years. It’s a bit of a contract position in that she operates out of a private studio that is managed by the school. In addition to that role, Tiller has worked closely with EMU administrators to advocate for stringed instrument classes to be taught alongside traditional band programs. Through that work, the idea for the business occurred to her naturally. “I’d been teaching for several years and I noticed there wasn’t anything local for my students.” She would spend hours online searching for products to pass along to her students and then it hit her: why not do it professionally? “I figured if I was doing that anyway, I might as well try it out and see if there’s actually a need here like I thought there was.”
Tiller was born in Salem and began playing violin when she was four. Like many new entrepreneurs in Harrisonburg, she doesn’t have a background in business or finance. Instead, she took advantage of local community resources to help her get started. “I was so young, I was 23 or 24,” she said, “I felt like it wasn’t even an option for me. When I threw the idea out, it seemed like nothing that would ever come to be. I didn’t know anything about business or writing a business plan, but I heard about the Staunton Creative Community Fund that specializes in small businesses and provides microloans. They coached me through the process of putting together a plan.”
There are numerous music shops in the Shenandoah Valley, but Tiller Strings is the only one that specializes in classical stringed instruments like violin, viola, cello, and upright bass. Tiller has had little need to advertise, relying on word-of-mouth from students to attract new customers. Additionally, Tiller Strings has collaborated with more than a dozen school systems in Virginia, West Virginia, and D.C., supplying them with stringed instruments and repair services. All of this work is managed out of her home office, although the idea of opening a storefront is never far from her mind. “It’s a funny thing because I don’t need to, but I really want to.” She continued, “I love connecting with the community and I do that now without having a storefront, but it is something I want to do. It’s a cool place to be, though. I can wait for the right place at the right time.”
Running a business in the same place where she eats, sleeps, and unwinds has presented the occasional challenge for Tiller. She struggles to separate her personal life from her professional one, which isn’t surprising given that her inventory occupies a large portion of her living space. “I just moved to a new house a couple of years ago that has a room where I keep everything,” she explained. “It kind of looks like a music store, it just happens to be in my home.” For three years prior to that move, things were less organized. As she remembered, there was “stuff in my bedroom, stuff in closets. I’ve been successful at making sure that during the school year, my inventory is all rented out. I keep just the barebones inventory at my house (barebones meaning around 50 instruments).”
With Tiller Strings operating hand-in-hand with her lessons at EMU, Tiller has found a way to successfully connect her business interests with her love of music. By taking advantage of the business development opportunities around her, she has cemented her place as a community educator for years to come. She reflected on this dynamic as it applies to her work; “It’s such a unique and beautiful thing about teaching an instrument. You’re not teaching a grade, you don’t pass them on. I’ve been teaching privately for eleven years and I have students who I’ve been teaching for up to eight or nine years. They started when they were seven and now they’re about to graduate from high school. It’s crazy to see that relationship evolve. They become like family.”
Learn more about Tiller Strings online at tillerstrings.com.
Photography by Brandy Somers