The scent of fresh cedar and mahogany fills a new shop in Lauraville. So does the spirit of enthusiasm of its owner, Gabe Sinclair, who shapes the wood into guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and banjos.
Located at 4305 Harford Road in this "happening" business district of Northeast Baltimore just north of Herring Run Park, the shop is not really a business in the strict sense of the term.
After all, how many places would call themselves Four Hour Day — a reference to the owner's belief that one should be "labor- and leisure-creative," as he puts it.
Yet it becomes clear how much energy Sinclair, and his son, Tyler St. Clare, expended on their reclamation of the early-1900s rowhouse that houses their enterprise. When I admired glistening hardwood floors and new staircase, I assumed that the premises had survived a century without troubles.
I was wrong.
"We put 16 months of blood, sweat and tears in this place," said Sinclair of the shop, which has a long past as a private home and business address. It was a barbershop in the 1930s.
Until Sinclair came along, the building sat abandoned. A previous owner had resorted to using a car jack and two-by-fours to prop up a sagging roof. Electrical wiring was a mystery. Buckets caught the rainwater.
"We see ourselves in musical education and handcraft education," said Sinclair, who until two years ago was a scientific instrument maker and machinist at University of Maryland Medical Center. "We are not trying to turn out new musical virtuosi. We are trying to make democratic music."
Four Hour Day is a place where you can contract to have a musical instrument custom-made — or learn to make one alongside the owners.
"Anything goes here," he said.
In his "leisure-creative" time, Sinclair uses the space as a spot for music making. Kindred souls are welcome to come by for nonamplified music.
"We have invited musicians from all over the city, and we are open to community chorus and jam sessions," he said. "We are really just getting the instrument production going after we completed the building less than a year ago."
The shop is filled with the forms that are used to bend the ordinary and exotic woods he uses to make string instruments.
He figures he has made the right decision. Asked about his production schedule, he confesses, "I don't even know how long it takes me to make a mandolin."
His son lives upstairs in an equally well-restored living space.
If you listen, you can detect the plaintive sound of a bassoon next door. That's Holden McAleer's Baltimore Woodwind Repair. The shop stands at 4307 Harford. McAleer's business serves a well-established clientele of international musicians who seek out his specialized services.
The surrounding Lauraville, Beverly Hills, Arcadia, Morgan Park and Hamilton neighborhoods, which use Harford Road as their main street, are home to many in the city's musical community.
There is also the good company of other businesses on this enterprising block. There are two restaurants, Koco's Pub and Maggie's Farm, and the Red Canoe Bookstore Cafe, known for its muffins and other treats.
The block is also home to Tanner's pickles and a couple of hair salons. Zeke's Coffee is nearby, on adjacent Montebello Terrace, as is Louthan Distilling, makers of Baltimore corn whiskey.
"It's a lovely little block in an artsy and musical neighborhood," said Regina Lansinger, who directs the Main Street Revitalization Program. Lansinger is pleased with the new energy at Four Hour Day.
"When a building that sat empty for many years is renovated, it actually encourages other businesses to come here," she said. "Watch out. There will be more interesting places join us soon."