SEATTLE — For many young Seattle musicians, September means selecting their instrument for the new school year at Bischofberger Violins, where violins, violas and cellos for rent line the walls of rosin-scented rooms.

But soon, parents of aspiring virtuosos may pay more for instrument rental, due in part to a 15% tariff increase on $112 billion worth of Chinese imports — including instruments — set to take effect Sunday.

Bischofberger is mulling raising its current rental fees to offset the higher price of bows, tuners, cases and instruments it acquires via distributors from China, said manager Jacqueline Kamenzind.

“We’ll just have to see what the new price points are,” said Kamenzind. Seattle-area instrument dealerships have already seen price hikes from suppliers, including a 10% increase for bows and a 6% increase for violins, in response to the tariffs.

Families going to rent instruments this weekend likely won’t see prices up much from last year. But going forward, that’s likely to change, area dealers agree, and rental fees that now hover around $30-$60/month will rise as a result of the tariffs.

The instrument industry is just one tiny corner of the broad swath of consumer goods, including apparel, footwear and electronics, impacted by the tariffs. The increased levies are the latest in a series of hikes imposed by President Donald Trump to attempt to force China to change what he calls unfair trade practices.

The proposed tariffs have gone through several rapid revisions, leaving local businesses feeling whiplash.

In May, the president announced the 10% tariff increase on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports, but under pressure from American retailers, he postponed the levy on a portion of those products to Dec. 15.

Then on Aug. 23, Trump retaliated against a Chinese salvo in the two countries’ ongoing trade war by announcing he would kick up the new tariffs from 10% to 15%, while simultaneously raising existing tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports from 25% to 30%.

Uncertainty over tariffs as far back as January prompted Bryce Van Parys, the manager of Hammond Ashley Violins in Issaquah, to make sure his business was well-stocked in advance of Sept. 1.

“All of this has been — are we going to or are we not?” he said of the president’s back-and-forth on tariff levels. “It’s been tough to plan on. So we erred on the side of caution.”

As importers raced to get goods into the country before the tariffs hit, the Northwest Seaport Alliance saw record cargo volumes come through the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., this summer.

“People are, so to speak, beating the rush,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Fred Felleman. But as cargo volumes slow in September, Felleman expects port employees may start feeling a pinch.

“It will have all sorts of trickle-down effects on the ships, the tug assistants, the pilots,” he said.

Some of the second-order effects of the trade dispute with China are already apparent in Washington’s agricultural sector. In retaliation for the tariffs set to go into effect Sunday, China in May increased duties on $60 billion of American goods, including agricultural products.

Cherries and forage products like alfalfa hay have been particularly hard-hit by Chinese tariffs, said Brad Haberman, the owner of Number 9 Hay in Ellensburg, Wash. His 50-person company has seen its exports fall by almost two-thirds since the start of the year. Employees are working reduced hours, and Haberman is exploring new contracts in places like Japan, Korea and the United Arab Emirates — but for now, they’re not enough to replace the business he’s lost.

Still, he said, he supports the tariffs.

“We need to have free and fair trade with China,” he said. “I don’t think it’s very fair, the way the trade has been.”

But tariffs, once imposed, can alter the market forever, said John Stuhlmiller, who heads the Washington Farm Bureau. As Chinese agricultural buyers invest in setting up less-expensive supply chains to other countries, some farmers worry they may have to kiss Chinese markets goodbye for good.

“The tariffs aren’t really the issue so much as the lost market share,” he said.

Amid the turbulence, one thing is almost certain: Consumers can expect to pay more at the cash register, especially when the full tariffs laid out by President Trump go into effect in December. At that point, virtually everything imported from China will be taxed, according to calculations by Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Even before tariff levels were bumped up from 10% to 15%, J.P. Morgan estimated they would cost the average household $1,000 a year.

But more than price increases, it was the uncertainty that most worried Sue Mooers, chief financial officer of Dusty Strings, the harp and hammered dulcimer manufacturer with a retail store in Fremont. The company is paying more for instrument cases since its manufacturer hiked prices by 10% in an earlier round of tariffs.

“What’s going to be in effect the next time we order?” she said. “Who the heck knows?”

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©2019 The Seattle Times

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