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Four Fixers

Guitar Hero: Geoff Benge’s Guitar Shop

Geoff Benge started taking things apart when he was three; he started putting them back together when he was six, around the same time he picked up the guitar. In eighth grade, Benge built an electric guitar. Now 44, he has been fixing fretted instruments for 30 years and counts among his satisfied customers Liz Phair, Urge Overkill, Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins, the local singer-songwriter and WXRT host Nicholas Tremulis, and Steve Albini, a local music producer. “I can fix pretty much anything,” says Benge, the owner of Geoff Benge’s Guitar Shop (3551 N. Damen Ave.; 773-919-3697, geoffbengesguitarshop.com) in North Center. The list of Things Benge Can Fix includes acoustic and electric guitars, mandolins, banjos, basses, amplifiers, a host of little-known ethnic instruments, and many vintage instruments, for which he can design and fabricate replacement parts. Known for his fretwork, Benge says his secret sauce is making sure the neck of an instrument is straight. “That’s a big part of the job,” he says. “I also make the fingerboard perfect before putting the frets in.” In addition to his repair business, Benge sells a line of clear Lucite instruments that he started creating about four years ago in his studio. “I make them largely to order but have prototypes around,” he says. “It’s hard to illustrate to people that I fix things better than anybody else, so the Lucite guitars in the window impress people and get them in the door.” 

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The Multitasker: Recherché

Paul Shanks came to his craft through a nontraditional route: He was born to missionary parents and lived with them in the Amazon Valley of Peru until he was 17. “In that environment, you couldn’t run to the local hardware store,” says Shanks, who was born in 1953. “And I lived among missionary men and women who knew how to survive and do things themselves.” As a teenager, he turned to woodworking as a way to make a model airplane. After stints as a missionary pilot and a student at Moody Bible Institute and Trinity College in Chicago, he embarked on a career as a woodworker and restorer. Shanks opened RECHERCHÉ (3346 Main St., Skokie; 847-673-7172) in 1985. He says about 80 to 85 percent of his restoration work is wood or wood-related (such as a mahogany dresser with a marble top), and the rest is made up of porcelain and ceramics, silver, ivory, gold leaf, metals, patina finishes, plaster casting, and stone, to name a few. “The man is a wizard,” says Carl Hammer, the owner of River North’s Carl Hammer Gallery. “He works with so many different materials, and everything turns out expertly. I’ve never been disappointed.” (Once Hammer sent Shanks a stoneware piece that had fallen off a table and shattered. “I said, ‘Do the best you can,’ and it came back in mint condition.”)

Shanks recently refinished three dining-room chairs, crafted replacement spindles for another set of chairs, rebuilt a ventriloquist’s dummy that needed wood and mechanical restoration, re-soldered a tin toy from the 1930s, and repaired a bronze bust of Goethe that had been stored under a leaky heating system that left mineral marks on the patina. Shanks says he usually knows within 15 minutes whether the job is right for him. “If, for whatever reason, I believe it should go to another person either locally or nationally, I will send them there,” he says. “Sometimes there’s a quick fix.” Other jobs require “hours and hours of work and restoration—finding out what happened, undoing damage, and ultimately fixing. I make sure there are no surprises.” 

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Crack Team: Broken Art Restoration

In 1979 Bill Marhoefer saw an ad at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for porcelain art restoration and began an apprenticeship. A year later, Michelle Frazee, a recent graduate of the school’s painting program, answered the same ad. “We were working together and started dating, and probably within the first few months I suggested to Michelle that I thought there was plenty of business out there for us to start our own business,” says Bill, who has a master’s degree in fine arts and a talent for sculpting. The couple, who married in 1984, opened their first studio in Chicago in 1980, renting a small space, printing up business cards, and driving around with the Yellow Pages to find antique shops in the city. “I think every shop we went into said, ‘Here, let me give you some things to fix.’ Within the first couple of weeks, we already had a backlog,” he says.

Today, Broken Art Restoration (1841 W. Chicago Ave.; 312-226-8200, brokenartrestoration.com) in West Town has become a trusted partner to the antiques dealers, auction houses, art dealers, and museums that rely on it to repair porcelain, ceramics, pottery, alabaster, marble, bronze, ivory, jade, and wood sculpture. Bill, 57, offers sculpting expertise and, Michelle, 50, understands paint and color-matching; both examine every piece before making an estimate. The minimum charge is $50, and costs can run into the thousands. “We’re perfectionists,” Bill says. “That’s what has kept us around so long. We train two assistants to speed the process up, but we’re overseeing and keep our hands in the restoration we like to do.” The couple takes in between 1,200 and 1,500 objects per year, and, although they have restored museum-quality pieces, such as a vase designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and terra cotta sculptures from the Han and Tang dynasties, Bill says the bulk of their work is personal keepsakes. “The reason I picked the name Broken Art was because I knew a lot of our work was going to be repairing sentimental objects,” he says. For such jobs, Broken Art offers a partial restoration—stabilizing an object and cosmetically touching it up for usually $50 to $100, far less than what a total repair might cost. Says Bill, “My clients are thankful for that option.”  

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Photograph: Lisa Predko  Photo Assistant: Sarah Crump

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