The survival of two of Seattle's most cherished musician-friendly businesses—Patchwerks and The Trading Musician—hangs precariously in the balance. The former shop sells synthesizers and other electronic-music equipment, hosts workshops, has served as a hub for area synth geeks, and has organized two editions of Velocity, an excellent electronic-music-oriented festival. The latter has been a crucial source of instruments and other gear for working musicians of all styles for over 32 years. The loss of one or both of these companies would be devastating to the region's music scene.

Founded in 2016 after a series of local grassroots meet-ups, Patchwerks moved into a much larger space at 4129 Stone Way North, saw its sales skyrocket, and increased staffing during the pandemic's harshest stretch. Over the last 18 months, however, various negative factors forced Patchwerks to lay off employees amid declining revenues and increased labor costs. A huge jump in shipping expenses—both outgoing and incoming—further eroded the bottom line. "We have always offered free shipping for orders $75 and over, but when those shipping charges balloon out of control, that eats what we earn directly," co-owner Cindy Reichel says in an email interview.

On top of these woes, Patchwerks' founders—Reichel and Tom Butcher—experienced setbacks beyond their control. Extensive layoffs in the tech industry—a big segment of Patchwerks' customer base—led to fewer sales. "Many of our most loyal customers are employed by the local tech industry, and the recent waves of layoffs, starting in the fall of 2022, have caused many customers to stop buying gear altogether, or to come to us wanting to consign gear purchased during the pandemic," Reichel says. "Of course, not all of our customers fall into that category, but those who have a little more discretionary income and like to shop at stores like us really keep us afloat. That, plus whenever people are feeling bad about the economy, they pull back on spending on things like musical toys and hobbies."

Will a GoFundMe campaign help Patchwerks keep their doors open? MS

To make matters worse, Patchwerks has suffered an increase in theft and property crime. In 2022, a motorist rammed a vehicle through the company's front doors, causing property damage and loss of goods. The break-in also required Patchwerks to hire a security guard as repairs were made. "Since then," Reichel says, "we have seen an increase in shoplifting and theft, and in December 2023 we experienced another break-in attempt that left our front door glass shattered and the lock damaged.

"Normally, a business operating in a city with higher expenses would simply raise prices. However, music retail sales are generally subject to restrictions that prevent us from modifying our prices. Therefore, when the profit margins are reduced due to increased expenses, we are unable to keep products in stock that our customers are looking for. We have also seen product pricing change from many of our suppliers, and much of the time they are reducing the amount of profit we can make from their products, not the other way around."

All of these detriments have pushed Patchwerks into the distressing position of launching a GoFundMe campaign and scouting around for a smaller space. On the GFM page, Butcher wrote that Patchwerks hopes to institute a "more sustainable operating model in line with current market conditions." That would entail a smaller staff, reduced showroom hours, and, ideally, a smaller retail footprint, "where we do not have to rely on subletting to cover our monthly fixed costs," Reichel says. "We also expect to continue to see an increase in interest in used and consignment gear sales, both in-store and online, as customers facing economic pressures switch to buying more used items and selling off gear they no longer use, so we will adjust our focus somewhat to ensure that those programs are serving the needs of our customers, both buyers and sellers."

As Patchwerks nears paying off company debt and with its loan payments soon completed, the owners will have more funds to stock products. They're also banking on consumer confidence increasing as the economy improves. Conversely, Patchwerks' financial precarity means that there won't be a Velocity Fest this year. However, it plans to offer more frequent, smaller-scale live-music performances, workshops, and synth meet-ups.

Patchwerks' GoFundMe currently has garnered slightly under $29,000 of its $257,250 goal. There is no set cut-off date yet, but they expect it to last several months. All fundraising will go toward paying Patchwerks' suppliers and consignment customers. If the goal isn't met, the owners will, Reichel says, "distribute the available donations among our outstanding accounts, many of whom are small Northwest-based vendors who rely on us to sell their products to ensure their own survival. This way, 100% of the funds raised are directed back into the community. Even if Patchwerks does not survive, we would like to do our best to help our vendors continue to do what they love, designing and building the products that have put the Northwest on the map as a hotspot for synth and modular manufacturing." 

Butcher says, "If we reach our goal, we’ll spend $150,000 reducing the debt to suppliers and consigners, and we’ll spend $100,000 on stocking the latest and greatest products. The last $7,250 would cover the costs of the GoFundMe campaign (each transaction per donation has an associated fee)." 

Reichel concludes, "We are hopeful for the future of Patchwerks and we are very grateful for the support we have received from the community at this point in our fundraising effort."

Layoffs at Trading Musician

The Trading Musician's situation differs from Patchwerks': business at the former retailer is rock-solid, although layoffs in early January have left some employees feeling uneasy. That uncertain feeling has been compounded by owner Robin Bartlett-Smith's October 2023 announcement that TM and its building at 5908 Roosevelt Way Northeast are for sale—the latter for $1.7 million.

When asked for a comment about this situation, Bartlett-Smith tersely responded, "The Trading Musician is for sale, as the owner is planning to retire. Interested buyers may contact the owner at That is the status as of now, and there is nothing more to report."

A couple of TM employees reached by The Stranger would beg to differ about that last sentence. They wish that movement to find a new owner had begun sooner, as they've been told that TM could close as soon as March or as late as September 2024. Also, they complain that they've received mixed messages from Bartlett-Smith about what's allowed and what isn't regarding getting the word out about finding a new owner. 

"We tried to take out a loan ourselves," says an employee who requested anonymity due to fears of losing their job. "The loan rate was shit. And [Bartlett-Smith] has overvalued her inventory and the business itself. So it's not really something that a smart businessperson would invest in.

"But she's had several people approach her—but also through us. All of the potential buyers were either people we were in contact with as employees or people we had talked to in the store. There hasn't been a whole lot of effort on her part to make this business a rewarding investment for anybody who wanted to purchase it."

A while ago, a TM employee was dining at the same restaurant as Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, and approached the guitarist about purchasing Trading Musician, but that overture failed. "We heard a lot of false promises from people or interests that didn't work out, hearsay, hail Mary attempts," anon says.

This staffer worries that whenever the next worker quits, TM won't have enough people to run the shop effectively. "She kinda shot herself in the foot on that one. She's at her wit's end already. I don't think she expected it to go this way, even though we told her, don't make the mistake of letting everyone go before the end end. What if someone gets sick? Are you just going to stay closed for the day? If you're liquidating, you want to be open as much as possible, selling the shit. It's already dwindling stock. It's kind of depressing in there.

"The timeline is much shorter than everyone thought. Someone is quitting in March and, honestly, I don't know what we're going to do without him. We're going to have three people on the sales floor and one person in the drum shop. It's not enough staff to run this place."

Store manager John Herman, a 14-year TM vet, says that Bartlett-Smith "didn't think she'd get an offer on the building as quickly as she did, and so she's moving forward, wanting to retire. As of now, there haven't been any real offers on the business. Unless somebody comes in and says they want to buy it, she's going to close the store. I think she's planning on August or September [as the closing date]." 

Rockstar Bailout?

When asked if there's been an aggressive search for a new owner, Herman says, "I can't speak on what she's done. She's not a day-to-day, in-the-shop kind of owner. But I've told all the Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Mudhoney people that I know... anybody with any money. Anybody who I think would be interested. J Mascis was in here the other day, but he's not from here and it doesn't seem like [he'd be into it]."

What about Dave Matthews, I venture. "I've met him in here a couple of times, but I don't have any back channels to him. He's not a regular here. Dan Peters of Mudhoney is a regular. [Soundgarden bassist] Ben Shepherd every once in a while. I told Craig Curran, who used to be in Fleet Foxes. He knew a guy in New York who was supposedly interested, but they're not talking to me. I just gotta put the word out. I don't know if they ever contacted Robin. It's not really my business."

Meanwhile, Trading Musician's stock is depleting. "She doesn't want to buy stuff that's going to sit here for a long time," Herman says. "We are still buying some new stuff, like strings and cables and acoustic guitars—stuff that we know is going to be a quick sale, because we don't want to get stuck with a bunch of things that are hard to sell. There's quite a bit of middle-of-the-road stuff, between $300 and $800, but there's also a lot of starter stuff and a fair amount of really high-end stuff. It's less than normal, but we still have everything that makes The Trading Musician The Trading Musician."

Losing the Trading Musician would create a void in Seattle's music-gear economy, Herman observes. He notes that Guitar Center and American Music do offer some used goods, but not nearly as many as TM. He adds, "Every other place like us is either tiny, like Georgetown Music, or they're like collector shops. There's Emerald City and Thunder Road. But there's not a direct competitor with us. There's no other place where you can find a $1,000 Strat and a $15,000 Strat, an erhu, a balalaika, finger cymbals, timpani drums. [Trading Musician] means a lot to the whole Seattle music scene: metal, punk, indie, electronic."

Herman figures that at some point, TM will begin a liquidation sale if they can't find a new owner soon. Rack gear and Raw Speakers have already been significantly marked down. "I haven't heard of a plan. I don't know if Robin's still trying to leave the door open for someone interested enough to buy the place before any kind of close-it-all-down kind of thing.

"There are rumors of a building in [the Ravenna] neighborhood that's owned by Duff McKagan. I've put messages out to anyone who has deep enough pockets. It's not a million-dollar investment for these people."

Partnering Potential

What if Patchwerks and TM could find a space where both could operate? "There's a tiny bit of crossover," Herman says. "We cross over a bit into what they do. I've talked a little with the folks over there about those ideas, but another employee and I pipe-dreamed about us both being in [Patchwerks' current location]. It's smaller than our space, so it would be crowded. It's not unreasonable to think that that could happen, but I don't know what the real chances of that are."

The anonymous employee recounts how TM's customers often ask, "Can't you hit up Dave Grohl?" "It's like, [sarcastically] 'Yeah, let me get his people on the phone. I'll call right now and have a quick, casual conversation about him dropping two million dollars or whatever.' That's why we should have been talking to the media before now. If we'd spread the word faster, maybe we'd be in a different situation.

"We want to make [the store] more like a collective or a nonprofit. I think a lot of wealthier musicians would love that idea. It does seem like a no-brainer to me, but I'm not a businessman. [Trading Musician is] such a valuable resource. It's like burning down a library. Half of my job is just answering questions. I really like that I don't have to pressure people into buying shit. I don't make commission and I wouldn't want to. This is kind of like the last proletarian guitar shop where we can talk to someone, get information, not feel like you're being pressured into a sale, and get that kind of help. 

"For the music community at large, this would be a huge loss for everyone who plays music, DIY bands, teachers, kids just getting started, anyone on a budget who needs to trade something in to get something better... it's such a waste, you know?"

This employee has been discussing the possibility of starting a new business with former TM staffers who quit within the last year, if Trading Musician folds. "I'd like to corner that market—not just on my own behalf, but because something needs to continue on. You can't ask for $2 million from a bunch of poor, DIY musicians. But you can maybe pitch a story about the employees of Trading Musician starting a new spot at a fraction of that money to get a decent loan and continuing on the lineage."